4 tips that will make scientific writing fun to read


As a very early teenager, I used to think jargon is a type of wagon you use to pull around stuff. Never bothered to verify. When I did find out at an age I am ashamed to admit, I realized I wasn’t too far off the mark. Webster meaning aside, isn’t jargon every bit as unwieldy, every bit as burdening as the vehicle? Doesn’t it present tremendous detriment to the reader to assimilate information, that which could have been presented in an easily comprehendible manner? Don’t you see my point?

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Help! I reek of science words!

“But, scientific writing is not for everyone on the street,” you may say. And you will be right. A massive majority don’t care if you found out a cool way to do microdialysis on mice. So, how do you hang on to the pitiful few who do? Unleash all the verbal barrage accumulated over years of caffeine-fueled literature binging? Or actually make an effort to make the idiots sit up and read. I have been an apathetic follower of the former for about a decade now. So, while I was off writing a technical book chapter over the past few months, I decided to try option number two. Just to give life new perspective. 

(I’ve made all the mistakes I deftly ask you to avoid here.)

 1. Let’s not get all passive. 

Technical literature thrives on passive voice and understandably so. More often than not, the doer of the action has no role in the write-up. The fact that science was done and results were obtained is good enough. But, that doesn’t mean you need to kick active voice to the curb. In fact, a mix of voices not only makes for easier reading but also gives a certain vibrancy that science writing has fought hard to suppress. For example: “The cancer cells are attacked by the drug” could easily be “The drug attacks the cancer cells.” 

Yes. I just did it. I used present tense while describing science. So, shoot me! 

But, please read the next tip...

2. Don’t let the past weigh you down.

Scientific narrative relies heavily on the past tense—“the cells were taken”, “the drug was added”, “calculations were made”. Perfect so far. However, the usage of past tense gets tricky while discussing established processes or findings of past experiments; they stick out like oatmeal when written in the past tense. Changing the tense midway could make grammar textbooks turn in their bookshelves, but the beauty of tense lies in its element of surprise.  A shift of gears to the present tense once in a while is a welcome change. 

Somewhat like this: “It was found that A acted on B by inhibiting C” could simply be “A acts on B by inhibiting C” along with the relevant cross-reference.

 3. Life’s complex; do not complicate it. 

If your article is riddled with blotches of words breaking the sentence-paragraph barrier, you’ve virtually composed a lullaby. We’ve all done this, and for different reasons: To make a dull concept sound intriguing. To cram all the words we learnt yesterday in one sentence. To spin the readers’ brains enough to shut them up. But, nothing annoys readers more than a deliberate attempt to befuddle things. So, sentences need to say only as much as they have to. Also, all that you have to say need not be bunched together in one sentence. Here’s where semicolons and em dashes come in handy—they provide easy transitioning when hopping from one idea to another; kind of like a rollover stop at a stop sign. Varying sentence length also helps. Throwing in some three-word-sentences makes the reader stop. And take notice. 

 4. There’s nothing more to it than meets the eye.

Often, the title of a research article is a bland alphabet soup, more so if you are in the pure sciences. A review article tolerates more autonomy, but very few I’ve read have drawn me in from the get-go. The next obvious lure is of pictures; they’re the literary equivalent of gourmet food. So, pepper your writing with clever illustrations wherever you can. These don’t require Sistine Chapel skills; just some imagination and wit. In addition to making your article memorable, a well-made schematic may very well supplant a page-long narrative. 

Incidentally, any intact memory I have of my undergraduate learning is also illustration-related. Our pharmacology textbook—apart from being brilliantly written—had simply unforgettable pictures for the side-effects of otherwise pedestrian drugs: A distraught couple on a bed with their backs to each other meant that one of them was on a libido plummeting beta-blocker. A man on the crapper with question marks hovering over his head meant that his drug just wouldn’t let him go. 

To this day, I aspire to write a book like that. And no, my book chapter is not even close. 

There are plenty of ways scientific communication could be made less soporific, easy to comprehend—and more importantly—difficult to MIS-comprehend. The timbre of scientific writing is meant to be formal and rightly so. But, there’s no rule against making it interesting. After all, isn’t it our tendency to want to spend the least energy to gain the most we need to know?

 

For that, science need not be dumbed down; it needs to be tightened up.

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10 thoughts on “4 tips that will make scientific writing fun to read

  1. This was all excellent advice, Aparna, and equally applicable to almost any kind of writing. And though I’ve never attempted scientific poetry, I’m willing to bet these tips would still apply. I particularly liked your metaphor of “jargon being a wagon to pull things around in.” Excellent ;)

  2. You have just successfully put into words all the reasons why I could never study properly for my science classes. I knew I hated the textbook but didn’t think I actually hated the subjects… yet why did the texts always instill me with such animosity towards them?

    You are simply brilliant and I’ve missed reading your posts! Glad to be back and also see you back on this blogosphere. :)

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