In case you hadn’t noticed, scientific literature can be rather difficult to understand. And it’s getting worse. Let’s be honest, how many times have you read through an abstract, from something in your own field, and pulled this face?
Yeah, I thought as much. So, what’s the reason for this mounting level of confusion? Well, it’s difficult to say. Steven Pinker wrote in “Why Academics Stink at Writing”,
Most academic writing, in contrast, is a blend of two styles. The first is practical style, in which the writer’s goal is to satisfy a reader’s need for a particular kind of information, and the form of the communication falls into a fixed template, such as the five-paragraph student essay or the standardized structure of a scientific article. The second is a style that Thomas and Turner call self-conscious, relativistic, ironic, or postmodern, in which “the writer’s chief, if unstated, concern is to escape being convicted of philosophical naïveté about his own enterprise.”
Academics, scientists in our case, fall into the self-conscious style so often because, quite simply, there seems to be a desire (need?) to always appear sufficiently clever. Using “science-ese” is a great way to secure membership to your own elite and somewhat exclusive group of scientists, all of whom are also fully versed in science-ese. When it comes to penning the latest research, a member of such an exclusive club might think, “I should probably write in this terribly convoluted manner because that’s how all my peers write and I have to emulate them. In fact, I’ll make it doubly convoluted so I appear twice a smart! HA! Yeah, that’ll show ‘em.” Okay, so that’s massively exaggerated, but you get my point.
And I get that – I think we all do; no one wants to look stupid. But substituting the clarity of your writing for needlessly complex prose isn’t helping. In fact, you’re making the whole situation worse. Writing something simply and clearly isn’t “dumbing it down”, it’s making it more accessible; more engaging. Of course, sometimes we need to use technical language – it’s the nature of science – but excessive use of jargon, and even just poorly constructed sentences, diminish its impact. Science that is written with the intention of being complicated detracts from the article’s main point: to actually communicate science.
No pressure, but…
So, it falls to you, the next generation of scientists and science writers, to do it better. Writing about science in an accessible manner can be hard. It’s actually easier to prattle on in the passive voice about stuff that’s happened and objects that have had stuff happen to them, but writing something that is concise and engaging can be challenging.
Don’t panic, though! With just a few changes to how you structure and phrase things, you can make your writing way easier to read! James Hartley back in 1994 nicely showed that just by tweaking abstracts it’s possible to make them easier to understand, even to professionals from that field! Speaking on prattling on, I think I’ve made my case, so let me just give a few closing points. Things you can actually use.
A tl;dr for science writers in a rush
- Simple (KISS): make your writing clear and simple; get to the point; avoid complicated or long sentences; and only use jargon when you have to.
- Accurate: avoid ambiguities, approximations, and assumptions; support what you say with evidence.
- Genuine: you care about your research so make sure that comes across; stick some personality in there.
- Objective, not subjective: subjective language is open to interpretation, whereas objective language is just the facts; be objective.
- Active, not passive: I know passive voice is the trend, but stop it! Active is clearer, more direct, and more engaging. Learn to love it.
- Passive: A great difficulty was experienced in achieving a high state reagent purity.
- Active: The reagent was difficult to purify.
So, there you have it. Now, get out there and communicate science like an articulate lab-coated wizard!