Scientific Writing Doesn’t Have to Sound, Well, Scientific
So says George D. Gopen, who holds degrees in law and English and teaches scientific writing at Duke University, and Judith A. Swan, who holds a Ph.D. in biochemistry and teaches scientific writing at Princeton University. Their article, “The Science of Scientific Writing,” in American Scientist, warms the cockles of every English teacher’s heart who has ever tried to explain that just because the content of scientific writing may be complex, it doesn’t have to be presented that way on paper. Here is the article’s opening paragraph.
“Science is often hard to read. Most people assume that its difficulties are born out of necessity, out of the extreme complexity of scientific concepts, data, and analysis. We argue here that complexity of thought need not lead to impenetrability of expression; we demonstrate a number of rhetorical principles that can produce clarity in communication without oversimplifying scientific issues. The results are substantive, not merely cosmetic: Improving the quality of writing actually improves the quality of thought.” Bingo! Clear writing reflects clear thinking—which is another axiom English teachers have been extolling for centuries.
Plain English Applies to Scientific Writing Too
Gopen and Swan’s analysis reflects the essence, if not actual principles, of Plain Writing. The authors go on to say: “The fundamental purpose of scientific discourse is not the mere presentation of information and thought, but rather its actual communication…. In order to understand how best to improve writing, we would do well to understand better how readers go about reading…. Readers make many of their most important interpretive decisions about the substance of prose based on clues they receive from its structure…. Readers expect a grammatical subject to be followed immediately by the verb.” These are just a few of the many helpful tips in the article—which should sound familiar because you’ve heard them over and over again in your high school and college English classes. Here is an example of what good scientific writing looks like after applying Gopen and Swan’s words of wisdom.
Before: “The smallest of the URF’s is URFA6L, a 207-nucleotide (nt) reading frame overlapping out of phase the NH2-terminal portion of the adenosinetriphosphatase (ATPase) subunit 6 gene; it has been identified as the animal equivalent of the recently discovered yeast H+-ATPase subunit 8 gene.”
After: “The smallest of the URF’s (URFA6L) has been identified as the animal equivalent of the recently discovered yeast H+-ATPase subunit 8 gene.”
The revision is clear and concise writing that reflects clear and concise thinking.
- Butterflies taste with their feet.
- Cats have over 100 vocal sounds. Dogs only have about 10.
- February 1865 is the only month in recorded history not to have a full moon.
- All 50 states are listed across the top of the Lincoln Memorial on the back of the $5 bill.
- The average American eats how many pounds of bananas each year: 9, 15, 28, 41?
(Fun Facts Answer: Scroll to the bottom.)
Word of the Month
abnegate • \’abnə-gāt\ • verb
1: renounce or reject
“Keith was aghast that his boss appeared to abnegate responsibility for missing his quarterly sales quota.”
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SATisfy Your Curiosity
SAT Exam practice question: Choose the words that best fit the meaning of the sentence.
“Although the acreage involved in a national boundary dispute may seem insignificant, even the slightest ____ in a country’s alleged border appears ___ to that nation, and a threat to its security.
(SAT Answer: Scroll to the bottom.)
Nimrod, which today refers to an inept person, actually means “skillful hunter.” It’s from the Hebrew, Nimrōḏ, which is the name of the great-grandson of Noah, known for his skill as a hunter. What should be a compliment became an insult thanks to Bugs Bunny who once sarcastically called Elmer Fudd (a comically inept hunter) a nimrod in an episode of Looney Tunes. It’s like calling someone “Einstein” after they make a really dumb mistake. Bugs’ sarcasm just stuck.
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While “traumatic” makes some sense for the second blank, “ominous” comes closest to conveying a threat, and only “breach” fits logically in the first blank.
SAT level of difficulty: Medium
Fun Facts Answer
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