What makes good scientific writing?
Good writing has become an essential skill for scientific researchers, but one that scientists rarely receive any training in. And that’s a shame, because writing doesn’t always come naturally, even to those working in their native language. It isn’t even obvious what makes good scientific writing. Even the experts disagree. But to be able to communicate your research, you need to be able to write about it effectively. In this blog, we’ll unpick what makes good science writing and offer some tips and tricks for bringing your own science writing up to scratch.
Finding your story
Stephen Herd, author of The Scientist’s Guide to Writing confidently tells his readers that scientific writing is a form of storytelling. Successful fiction, he writes, has a set of ‘compelling characters’ and a ‘well-defined plot’, and the same is true of science. Rocks, equations, chemicals and other entities become your characters. Your methods, discussion and results constitute the plot. ‘Start with the answer you want readers to understand; then choose the results needed to support that conclusion; then describe the methods it took to reach those results.’ That, Herd insists, is ‘how you tell an effective story’. Non-specialist audiences certainly appreciate a story, as will some commissioning editors. Reviewers of grant and funding bid applications also might pay more attention to a writer who keeps them awake while they’re flicking through the dull prose of your competitors.
But what about journal articles, reports, theses – the heart of scientific writing? Should we think of these as opportunities to tell a story, too? An abundance of blogs and books about science writing – including Stephen Herd’s, above – would say so. And you could argue that science has always been effectively communicated by weaving a yarn. The first scientific journal articles in the mid-seventeenth century were, after all, published as epistles, or letters with a chronological, narrative structure. But there are dissenting voices.
An alternative view
Thomas Basbøll, the resident writing consultant at Copenhagen Business School Library, feels that stories are dishonest: ‘Scientists and scholars are not writing to delight or even persuade’, he says. ‘Why would we encourage scientists to present their ideas in ways that key into 100,000 years of conditioned responses, hormonal stimulation, and emotional shortcuts?’ It’s more useful, he thinks, to see your paper as a series of claims that you support, elaborate and defend. And, just as we might point to the narrative structures of early journal articles, we might just as reasonably point out that Robert Boyle felt that that scientific writing should form an incredibly detailed ‘standing record’, written by a disinterested and modest author.
Cultivate your own style
The question of ‘what is scientific writing’, then, is more open than many guides to scientific writing will admit. Do you go for the kind of exhaustive description favoured by Boyle, accounting for every detail of your work sans flourish? Do you try to dazzle readers by crafting a compelling story? Or do you even get strategic and recognise the realities of positive publication bias and use a narrative structure to shine a positive light on your paper? You can find experts promoting one approach above all others. In reality, you get to decide what good science writing looks like because writing is deeply personal. And you should nurture a way of writing that best suits the science you do, and serves those with whom you communicate. How you improve your writing is another question.
How to improve your scientific writing
Although you can choose from multiple approaches to writing science – and might reasonably foster more than one – any writing practice must still be nurtured. Thankfully, there are excellent editing services, as well as plenty of advice, out there to help you write better scientific prose. One of the classic books (at least for American English) is Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style – long considered essential reading by everyone from Dorothy Parker to Stephen King. Parker, in fact, wrote that gifting it to an aspiring writer was ‘the second greatest favour you can do them’. (The greatest favour, if you’re curious, ‘is to shoot them now, while they’re happy’.)
Strunk and White’s elegant text is only 90 or so pages long and we would join the general chorus in marking it essential reading. But George Orwell gave an even more condensed set of ‘six rules’ for writing in his 1946 article Politics and the English Language:
- Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
- Never use the passive where you can use the active.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
- Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
Most professional writers will invent their own metaphors and similes, opt for short words where possible, and comb over their text for things to cut. They certainly go out of their way to avoid making passive statements. In other words, you wouldn’t write something like ‘it was found that’ when you can opt for the more concise and clearer ‘I found’ (although there might be something to be said for the passive voice if your subject is, say, the universe or dark matter). And most professional writers will try to keep jargon to a minimum. But Orwell’s final rule is arguably the most important.
You’ll clearly want to use more scientific words than perhaps Orwell had in mind, for instance. At least for some audiences. If you’re writing for a non-specialist audience, you should, of course, try your best to remove all jargon. Or, if it’s essential, you might build an engaging explanation of the jargon in question into your writing. And even if you’re writing for colleagues who expect the jargon, perhaps write a jargon-free summary of your work in your introduction so that those outside your field can still understand (and maybe cite) you.
Just as you might excise as much jargon as possible, you should think twice about using adjectives, which often count as words that are ‘possible to cut out’ (Orwell’s third rule). If you find one of your results ‘interesting’ or your findings ‘disappointing’, you can surely articulate how. A good writer will inspire their readers into concluding that their results were interesting, or understanding what makes their findings disappointing. The same applies for overstatements. Is your research really ground-breaking? Does it really challenge the paradigm? Maybe it is and does, but these are claims you should demonstrate, not state. It’s classier to let readers reach a conclusion by themselves.
Finesse your argumentative thread
We might add another suggestion: a writer shouldn’t attempt to do too much in one text. Every piece of writing should make a single point. You might have a hypothesis to explore, an argument to make, a position to defend, or even a political message to assert. These overarching points might comprise lots of smaller, interrelated points, but having a single message or thesis makes it easier to organise your thoughts. It also becomes easier to hack away at the superfluous parts of your text. Even the most intricate, complex texts (assuming they’re well written) will make a single point.
Hunched over your laptop, away from the lab, your job changes from scientist to writer – a craft you need to nurture if you’re going to communicate well. When he came to write his essay, ‘Magic Carpets’, Philip Pullman wrote about how it’s ‘tempting to feel that if a passage of writing is obscure, it must be very deep’. But long words and complex sentences often mask confused thought. ‘If the water is murky’, Pullman continues, ‘the bottom might be only an inch below the surface – you just can’t tell. It’s much better to write in such a way that readers can see all the way to the bottom’. Inexperienced writers cover up hazy thought by falling back on jargon, overusing adverbs, and peppering their text with loosely related points. If you can excise the jargon, police the adverbs, and structure your text around a single, clearly articulated point, your ideas will be much more transparent. You’ll help your readers, as Philip Pullman put it, see all the way to the bottom.
 Steven Shapin, The Scientific Revolution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press (1996), p. 108