Scientific Writing: The Benefits of Polished Prose

Feb 17, 2023 | Idea

What comes to mind when you think about great works of prose? Perhaps literary masters like Leo Tolstoy or Virginia Woolf, or Maya Angelou giving voice to a generation of black feminists. Maybe even Elizabeth I’s Speech to the Troops at Tilbury – ‘I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king’. Scientific prose tends not to come to mind, although scientists have created their own share of great prose. ‘Over increasingly large areas of the United States’, marine biologist Rachel Carson wrote, ‘spring now comes unheralded by the return of the birds. The early mornings are strangely silent where once they were filled with the beauty of birdsong’. You also can’t read the environmental biologist Robin Wall Kimmerer without letting her transform the way you look at the world around you. Physicists have even cited George Gamow’s writing as the reason they went into physics in the first place.

But scientific writing takes many forms, each addressing a different audience and performing a specific function. Perhaps scientific writing can’t always be as immediately riveting as some of the examples above, but writing has always been an integral part of what it means to do and to share science. It is well established that what it means to write great scientific prose depends on who you’re writing for, why you’re writing, and what you hope to achieve. Great scientific prose involves deploying specialist writing in the right places, as well as communicating outside our immediate communities. It involves persuasive writing to get that competitive grant, or to convince a sceptic. Writing good prose is central to being an effective scientist, and identifying and addressing specific audiences is central to writing good prose.

The Origins of Science Writing

Modern science more or less began to evolve around the sixteenth century as an alternative to trusting ancient and scriptural authority, replacing the learned person’s trust in ancestral knowledge with a faith in their own experience. In this new system, ‘men of science’ would conduct experiments to learn about the physical world, to experience phenomena for themselves rather than rely on Aristotle’s age-old feelings on the matter. But there was a fundamental problem with this idea. It was all very well for Galileo to peer through his telescope and witness the motion of the heavens, or for Robert Boyle to observe the effects of vacuums created inside his glass chambers, but how were they to share these findings? How do you share personal observations? One answer was to show experiments to fellow scientists, through public performances and displays of expertise. Another, reaching those further afield, was to set your observations and thoughts down on paper by writing tracts and letters – the origin of scientific journals. Writing meant that you could share your results and learn what your colleagues in far-flung places were up to.

If we crack open Philosophical Transactions, the world’s oldest scientific journal, and take an early article at random, we are faced with a familiar format. In 1672, we find a short piece written by Martin Lister. It’s called ‘an odd kind of mushroom, yielding a milky juice’. These mushrooms were ‘of a large size’, Lister explains in the body of the article, ‘something bigger than the ordinary mushroom’, and bleed a milky white ‘juice … that tast[e]s much hotter upon the tongue than pepper’. He went on to quote a Russian source having observed something similar. And below his article, the editor slotted a supplementary letter from fellow naturalist John Wray, who had never ‘met with this mushroom’ but had seen a similar description written by Swiss botanist Johann Bauhin.

Here are a handful of mycologists coming together in print, pooling their knowledge of a particular mushroom. It’s a basic model of how scientific writing is supposed to function: a community of scholars sharing knowledge and experience, and commenting on one another’s findings. It betrays the origins of scientific publication in letter writing, the beautiful ideal of sharing ideas about specific, specialist topics.

Specialist Audiences

Scientists still share their information in fundamentally the same way today. Certain conventions have emerged, however, to make reading more efficient. Well-defined structures mean that a reader can go straight to your methods, if they’re interested in those, or skip to your results, deciding whether your work is relevant to theirs by skimming a discussion or conclusion. The character of scientific writing, too, has become far more complex as our ideas have become more sophisticated. Our disciplines – as well as the world in general – have become more interconnected, and these days a scientist is more likely to address a variety of professional and lay audiences. If you’re a neurologist, what is clear, accurate and legible to a fellow neurologist might be difficult to grasp for an engineer, and utter nonsense to a science journalist. It works the other way around, too. A well-argued journalistic piece about the pros and cons of AI-generated art might come across as basic and unexciting to your code-writing colleagues.

You’ll be able to build up an idea of your audience only by engaging with them, most often by getting to know your discipline and field intimately. You’ll probably already know the priorities of your research community, and you may well know your primary audience down to the individuals reading your work. Beyond your immediate colleagues, however, it can be difficult to ascertain who might be reading, and what they require of you. The format you’re writing in might give you strong clues. A textbook, for instance, needs to accommodate beginners, while a cutting-edge research article might have an extremely specialist audience. A funding bid requires its own specific kind of writing, too (one whose form is ever-changing, especially as socio-political and institutional priorities evolve). What’s more, in an interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary profession, you might identify unique audiences; it isn’t unheard of for scientists to collaborate with musicians, for example, or even with restaurateurs. Each audience will require a different approach specifically pitched in language appropriate for them.

Writing for Non-Specialists

The Medical Research Council (MRC) hosts the annual MRC Max Perutz Science Writing Award, a prestigious writing competition now in its 26th year. To ensure that all entrants are on the same page, the MRC reveal ‘The Secrets of Science Writing’ – an excellent distillation of guidance you can find in any number of books about writing. To the lucky few, the limited use of jargon, avoidance of cliches, and use of short sentences comes naturally. Most scientific researchers, however, would benefit from using scientific copy-editing or substantive scientific editing to improve their text or funding application, whatever the precise audience. To extract the most value out of such services, it helps if you can already articulate exactly who you are writing for, knowledge that will not only be invaluable to your editor but will also help you to place your work with the appropriate journal or press.

The best scientific writing goes well beyond translating and sharing findings for the general reader. In fact, the public comprises such a variety of people from different backgrounds that the very concept of a ‘general reader’ is a myth. Our writing can make a difference to society only if we identify specific non-specialist audiences. Science leaders are beginning to recognise the importance of directly addressing the small (but expanding) portion of the population growing sceptical, mistrustful and even hostile towards science and scientists. According to the Wellcome Trust, this kind of highly targeted public engagement, at least when done well, empowers audiences, giving them a stake in scientific work and helping them to see value in scientific research.

A Writer’s Job

It goes without saying that good scientific writing should be clear, error-free and immaculately presented. But understanding the needs of our audiences, and choosing the right team to help you craft the right piece for them, is equally important. Audience is so important, in fact, that you might think of writing for them as an act of love. In her novel Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow, Gabrielle Zevin voices a unique perspective on what it means to write and create a computer game. ‘To build a world for someone’, one of the characters says, ‘seems a romantic thing from where I stand’.[1] You could argue that the same goes for any kind of writing. Maybe romantic is going a bit far, but you could certainly see writing as an act of love. It’s your job as a writer, after all, to craft something with your audience in mind.


[1] Gabrielle Zevin, Tomorrow, Tomorrow and Tomorrow (Chatto & Windus: London, 2022), p. 374.