Tuesday, 1 October 2019

Learning scientific writing from great writers

For scientists, writing well (or well enough) is a critical skill, as written texts are essential for communicating research. Of course, not every scientist should be able to write well, as some may rely on collaborators. In a lecture on "Writing physics", David Mermin emphasizes the importance of language and writing through a famous example:
It is also said that even Landau's profound technical papers were actually written by Lifshitz. Many physicists look down on Lifshitz: Landau did the physics, Lifshitz wrote it up. I don't believe that for a minute. If Evgenii Lifshitz really wrote the amazing papers of Landau, he was doing physics of the highest order. Landau was not so much a coauthor, as a natural phenomenon — an important component of the remarkable coherence of the physical world that Lifshitz wrote about so powerfully in the papers of Landau.

Not everyone writes like Lifshitz (or Mermin), and we often encounter impenetrable writing. We should resist the temptation of blaming the subject matter rather than the author. Impenetrable technical writing is not a necessity: rather, it is disease that spreads itself when scientists imitate their predecessors.

How to write well and how to learn writing well are recurring problems for scientists. The problem has a nearly tautological solution: learn writing from writers. This solution is far from being universally accepted, and the claim that scientific writing skills are mostly the same as general writing skills appears controversial. Fortunately, some scientists are wise enough to learn writing not just from writers but from great writers, and to share the experience through a recent Nature career column titled "Novelist Cormac McCarthy’s tips on how to write a great science paper". I certainly agree with the gist of the column and with most of the tips, but I would object to two specific tips: 
And don’t use the same word repeatedly — it’s boring.
In technical writing, we often cannot afford the luxury of using synonyms. Pronouns are dangerous too, as they can lead to ambiguity. Repetition of words should be tolerated more readily than in literary texts.
Minimize clauses, compound sentences and transition words — such as ‘however’ or ‘thus’ — so that the reader can focus on the main message.
Minimizing clauses and compound sentences is good, but minimizing transition words is dangerous, as the logic of a scientific argument should be as clear and explicit as possible.

My disagreements with McCarthy's advisees Van Savage and Pamela Yeh come down to putting a premium on clarity and lack of ambiguity in scientific texts. Yes, I am willing to risk boring or distracting the reader with my repetitions and transition words, but what is more boring and distracting than having to reread an unclear sentence or paragraph?

These minor objections aside, the column is full of good advice, including avoiding footnotes. The nicest tip is however implicit: in order to learn writing from great writers, just read their writings. The English language comes with a practically unlimited supply of great fiction, non-fiction and journalism: learning to write well can be very pleasant indeed.

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