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The Scientific Literature

Woodward’s Prose Style

Organic chemists (and anyone who’s written or read a standard scientific paper) may be interested in this article about R. B. Woodward’s writing style (Wavefunction has a lot on it here). I respect Woodward’s achievements and abilities immensely – any chemist who doesn’t is probably a dolt. All scientific fields have figures like this, people whose work you can review and immediately say “Yeah, this person had it”, and for organic chemistry Woodward is way up on that list.

His outsized personality added to the mystique that would have surrounded him anyway, and (as that article shows) his writing style was a big part of that effect. But I’ve got to come down on the side of the people who don’t care for it. There’s a famous passage from his synthesis of colchicine that’s often quoted:

Our investigation now entered a phase which was tinged with melancholy. Our isothiazole ring had served admirably in every anticipated capacity, and some others as well. … It had enabled us to construct the entire colchicine skeleton, with almost all of the needed features properly in place, and throughout the process, it and its concealed nitrogen atom had withstood chemical operations, variegated in nature, and in some instances of no little severity. It had mobilized its special directive and reactive capacities dutifully, and had not once obtruded a willful and diverting reactivity of its own. Now, it must discharge but one more responsibility—to permit itself gracefully to be dismantled, not to be used again until someone might see another opportunity to adopt so useful a companion on another synthetic adventure. And perform this final act with grace it did.

I actually don’t mind the personification of the isothiazole at all; I picture compounds that way myself sometimes. I find the idea of tribute to it a very nice touch, and I think it provides an insight into Woodward’s way of thinking about organic synthesis. But the idea and the execution are two different things. I find the writing itself too flowery – just to pick one example, I would much prefer saying “withstood variegated and sometimes severe chemical operations” to “withstood chemical operations, variegated in nature, and in some instances of no little severity.” When I read phrases like that, I can’t help but be reminded of Mark Twain going after James Fenimore Cooper for his wordy prose style, with Woodward in this case bearing the more preferable fragments of his molecule to the stopping-place. (That’s Twain’s second whack at Cooper – the first one is probably more famous).

Admittedly, it’s not quite fair to compare Woodward’s style to Cooper’s, because they were trying to accomplish very different things. Weighing against Woodward, though, is the fact that he was writing reports of his scientific work for technical journals. As much as I can enjoy a distinctive literary style, that ain’t the place for it. Reading a good scientific paper should be like being served by a good waiter in a fine restaurant, in that you never even notice how quickly and completely everything’s getting done. That’s what you are as a technical author: a waiter. The lab is the kitchen, where the dish is prepared, but publication is when you deliver the goods to the customers. I think that some chemists read Woodward’s prose and think “Now this is class”, the equivalent of a table setting with orchids, violinists, finger bowls, fish forks and the complete service a la Russe. But when I read it, I feel as if I’m sitting in a restaurant that, no matter the setting, has waiters who are twirling the plates and juggling the cutlery rather than bringing out the excellent meal.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not trying to imply that writing clear technical prose is easy. It’s actually very hard, which is why reading many journal papers is like walking through a trough of pea gravel. Some of them are like eating a trough of pea gravel. Opinion writing or journalism can be done so clearly that it’s as if the author’s points (and points of view) are dropping directly into your head – Orwell had a gift for writing like that, although he worked hard on it as well. (Given the power of his writing, it’s a good thing that he was a sensible a man as he was). But doing that with a technical subject is much harder still, what with all the layers of background knowledge, specific vocabulary and abbreviations, and the intrinsic difficulty of getting across some of the concepts themselves.

Woodward’s thoughts about chemistry were at a high level, and to me they often come across despite his prose style, rather that because of it. That isothiazole section is one – he’s talking about a protecting group, in the end, but one that not only just sandbags a nitrogen atom for a few steps, but also allows for new chemistry to take place around it while it’s in place. That’s quality work, and he produced a great deal of it. Complaining that he tended to present it in too rococo a style is, in the end, a minor problem  – but I still think it’s a bug, and not a feature.



38 comments on “Woodward’s Prose Style”

  1. steve says:

    This harks back to an earlier time, when scientists were noblemen (sorry, it was almost all men) who had Renaissance backgrounds and wrote like that. There are some more modern example. My favorite was Elizabeth Hay at Harvard who wrote about salamander limb regeneration. When a salamander’s limb is cut, the remaining cells dedifferentiate, grow a mass of cells called a blastema, then re-differentiate. Hay wrote that the cells “dedifferentiate in order to engage in the pleasures of proliferation”. May not be that scientific but it made me smile and sure stuck in my mind.

    1. Isidore says:

      Or, if not noblemen, at least with excellent command of the language they were using, the occasional flowery prose notwithstanding.

  2. luysii says:

    As a brief sojourn as a Woodward grad student (’60 – ’62) before going back to medicine, I found him far from flamboyant in person, and certainly not in the famous Woodward seminars. Decades later I was amazed at the decline in prestige of organic synthesis and wrote a post wondering how he would have handled it —

  3. Curious Wavefunction says:

    Thanks for the plug Derek. I agree that this kind of language can be an impediment to clear understanding, although it is a marvelous aid for appreciating the beauty of organic synthesis.

    Contrast Woodward’s style with the style of the pioneering papers in nuclear physics from the 20s and 30s written by Rutherford, Bohr, Chadwick, Aston etc. Richard Rhodes says that when he was writing his seminal book “The Making of the Atomic Bomb”, he (a Yale history major) could actually understand almost all those papers mainly because of their jargon-free prose and simple descriptions. That art is clearly one that has been lost.

    1. Phil says:

      Bohr didn’t write any of that himself – he was a brilliant scientist, but such a horrible writer that he had to dictate his PhD thesis to his mother. I’m speculating that the absence of jargon may have been from enlisting the help of non-scientists to write up his results. I also wonder if maybe he had dyslexia or some other problem that he would have gotten help for in modern times.

      Another good reason to avoid jargon – it can cause misunderstandings when read by another scientist outside your own subfield. For example, I’m a polymer chemist, and we use the word “catalyst” to mean a free radical initiator – I’ve seen this cause misunderstandings before.

      1. Mark Thorson says:

        You guys also make a distinction between “polymer” and “resin” which is unique to the plastics industry.

        1. Phil says:

          I’ve seen the word “resin” used differently between different polymer subfields. I don’t think it has a clear definition.

          1. myma says:

            “Resin” is just a better word for “stuff”.
            In my subfield of polymers, it usually meant anything that one had large vats of back in the warehouse.

      2. Wavefunction says:

        Bohr’s speech was definitely nebulous but his writing wasn’t so bad. In the case of his 1913 paper Rutherford seems to have cleaned up some of the thornier parts. In his famous paper on nuclear fission one suspects that he was helped by his co-author John Wheeler. Nonetheless his memos to Churchill and FDR for instance do have a kind of simplicity, and the paper which he wrote in response to the EPR paradox seems to have been his own.

        1. Slurpy says:

          The younger Bragg’s paper on bubble rafts is a similarly beautiful piece of writing, on par with those ’20s and ’30s physics papers mentioned.

  4. Ben T. says:

    One thing I do appreciate about that passage is the humanizing of the investigators and the sense of narrative. Those elements are critical to making scientific talks engaging (and informative) but are usually absent in publications these days, which I think is a shame.

    1. Derek Lowe says:

      I can agree with you on those, up to a point. Fitting your total synthesis into the narrative frame of Theseus versus the Minotaur, however, does not count.

      1. synthon says:

        The question is Derek…how many here will get that reference? Brilliant BTW.

        1. sleepingatscripps says:

          I think at least 75% of readers would have heard of or read that review.

      2. KCN, Coloring Book Champion says:

        Does it count if I color-in all the rings in the figures? No? What if I add in some tasteful WordArt?

  5. Pick your poison says:

    Better Woodward’s use of real, albeit esoteric, vocabulary than today’s dominance of senseless phrases and buzzwords. I would rather suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous diction than another mention of ‘activation modes,’ ‘traceless activating groups’ (TAGs, because of course that needed an acronym), or the various markov chains invariably including ‘photoredox’ in article titles.

  6. Generic says:

    Any thoughts on which contemporary scientists have clear writing styles?

    1. I personally enjoy the writing of Whitesides! I find it clear, concise, and compelling.

      An example is in the link in my name

  7. bad wolf says:

    Srsly? Two-thirds of contemporary chemistry journal articles written in ESL Minimal and you’re critiquing Woodward?

    I mean, this blog cites literary figures constantly and is thus a little “flowery” for my tastes, but hey, who doesn’t take every opportunity to show themselves above the greats in the field? For myself, I hear I am taller than Baran, thus sleep the sleep of the just every night.

    1. Derek Lowe says:

      Yeah, the other end of the scale is definitely a subject for another blog post. And I don’t break into Latin in my journal manuscripts (!)

  8. Al says:

    Another style of science writing

    Following is the entire abstract from a PNAS paper that was to launch the science that led to Kornberg’s 2006 Nobel Prize for Chemistry.

    “A yeast nuclear extract supported transcription from the CYC1 and PYK1 promoters. Transcription was initiated in vitro at or near sites used in vivo. Deletion of “TATA” sequences abolished the reaction. alpha-Amanitin (10 micrograms/ml) and chloride (100 mM) were highly inhibitory.”

    Short, precise and tells everything you need to know. An incredible result, but presented in a way that was neither ostentatious nor self-aggrandizing, but just communicated the facts, and nothing but the facts.

    A classic.

    1. dearieme says:

      “A yeast nuclear extract supported transcription …” is jargon, not English. That’s OK if he’s writing for people immersed in the jargon. It’s little use for outsiders. Our blogger’s point was that some early work in nuclear physics was so well written that outsiders could follow it.

      I may say that things must have advanced by the 20s and 30s: I’ve read some papers by Clerk Maxwell were hard to follow in places.

  9. Chrispy says:

    I just went to take a look at Woodward’s 1954 total synthesis of strychnine. And all I can say is: really JACS, you are going to put a 70 year old paper behind a paywall? That’s just the 3 page version, anyway. Wanna look at the 42 page one he published a few years later in Tetrahedron? Nope — paywall.

    Not to derail the conversation, but there really ought to be a law against this. I remember being inspired by Woodward’s papers as a young grad student.

    1. Hugo says:

      It helps if you put behind the url.

      It’s only a matter of time before most articles are open access, until that time this works like a charm.

  10. Glen says:

    The glory and beauty of English comes from the richness of its vocabulary. Concise writing using common words is certainly helpful to those who did not have English as a first language, and those without a liking for English literature.

    I find richly written prose a pleasant change from the more spare, modern style. The challenge is to write well within the style you choose. I’ll note that Fieser’s writing desk contained the two volume OED, and a copy of Fowler. If you master both of those, you should be able to write well.

    1. DCRogers says:

      Ah, I started my experience in Organic Chemistry in high school, reading Fieser and Fieser’s “Organic Chemistry”, with writing that read like a adventure novel! (Mary Fieser apparently did most of the writing, and is underheralded as an early female pioneer in Chemistry.)

      So I vote, keep in the narrative, but deconvolute the rococo (“And perform this final act with grace it did.”), that forces the brain to reorder the parts back into the standard noun-verb-object preference order of English.

  11. Thomas McEntee says:

    As an about-to-graduate PhD, I remember reading the B-12 paper where he talked of the “shrewd” use of some type of protective group and thought to myself, “I’d never get away with language like that…” That aside, I liked reading Woodward’s papers and they were inspiring to some degree and certainly very out of the norm for style. As a former UVM undergraduate and grad student in 1967, I had a chance to meet him at a Vermont faculty member’s outdoor party on the shore of Lake Champlain during the National Organic Symposium in Burlington. I spent most of the time talking with Roger Adams but do remember that RB was wearing a summer suit with the blue tie and sat the entire time in a chair, speaking to almost no one. It’s not as if I would have even known what to say to him. The martinis were flowing like water and I distinctly remember him chain-smoking Du Maurier cigarettes…memories of the great man.

    1. luysii says:


      RBW always wore blue, but his cigarettes were Benson and Hedges. All the grad students who smoked (including me) took them up. They certainly were milder than Pall Malls or Camels. Remember this was before the surgeon general’s report in ’64.

      1. Phil says:

        Du Mauriers are Canadian – he might have gotten his hands on some because Lake Champlain is pretty close to the border.

  12. JSR says:

    The waiter analogy is faulty. The food speaks for itself, the waiter just delivers. Sometimes a technical report needs a bit of flair to make the subject appetizing or digestible. Especially to readers who are sampling fare outside of their regular daily diet.

    I always loved Danishefsky’s papers. Back when I was a chemist…

  13. tangent says:

    The complaint is primarily not about function, though, from what you’ve quoted here. With that colchicine passage, I don’t imagine you had any significant risk of taking the wrong meaning away, and I imagine 99% of your elapsed time to read the paper was taken in considering the chemistry rather than the vocabulary? So it isn’t substantially ambiguous or obscure. Those functional problems we get mainly from papers that are just bad, and don’t give the reader what they need, even if the vocabulary and sentence structure are fine.

    The complaint about Woodward seems more social, that people consider the style inappropriate (which, yes, people can then read slower because they take time out to grumble, but that’s on them too). And what’s more it’s quite intentional, because Woodward must have had the ability to turn this off.

    Social is real too, but people can tend to feel the social affront and imagine a functional problem because that’s easier to call the author on.

    1. T says:

      “With that colchicine passage, I don’t imagine you had any significant risk of taking the wrong meaning away, and I imagine 99% of your elapsed time to read the paper was taken in considering the chemistry rather than the vocabulary”. This holds for me. But I am a native english speaker. Quite a lot of the people reading scientific articles are not. The function of a scientific paper is not to entertain/delight the reader (which that passage certainly does) but to clearly communicate research results. Imagine having to read a passage like that in french or german or whatever language you learned at school in order to extract the meaning from papers relavent to your work. In a primary research article, such flowery language is simply not fit for purpose.

  14. petros says:

    And at the time that RBW was writing much of the Organic Chemistry literature was still in German

    1. luysii says:

      Yes, it was a big blow to morale when Angewantde Chemie started an English language edition in 1962

  15. anon says:

    No doubt a very succinct writing of brilliant mind that he was! If not a chemist he could have been a novelist in the Scottish tradition of Ian Fleming, Alistair MacLean.

  16. anon says:

    There was a paper fully written in verse published in JOC in 1981:

    Google “Comparative mobility of halogens in reactions of dihalobenzenes with potassium amide in ammonia”

    by Joseph F. Bunnett and Francis J. KearleyJr.

  17. DCRogers says:

    For stunning clarity of writing, I don’t think any paper I ever read met the standard set by Alan Turing’s 1950 paper in Mind titled “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” – it’s the one where he sets up his famous “imitation game”:

  18. Robert Burns W says:

    Alas, the vagaries of history!
    The flowery colchicine paragraph by RBW quoted above is NOT from a paper in a scientific journal! It is a transcript of a lecture RBW gave on the total synthesis.
    Yes, it is flowery but even RBW would not have written in the same way if it had been JACS.
    There is an excellent paper describing the race between RBW and Eschenmoser to achieve the first total synthesis of colchicine-
    Woodward’s unfinished total synthesis of colchicine, a collaborative prelude
    Hans-Peter Sigga, †, James B. Hendricksonb, G. Wayne Craigc, ,

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