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Scientific Prose

Many folks have noted this advice from well-known novelist Cormac McCarthy on writing scientific papers, usually with a sense of disbelief that he has anything to do with scientific papers at all. I felt the same way, but he’s been associated with the Santa Fe Institute (physics and math) for some years now, and has been providing editing help. (Edit: fixed the first line of this post on writing because it went out making no sense whatsoever. Argh.)

It’s sound stuff. His general rules (which include: remove what you can, pick a theme or message and make sure that everything is devoted to getting it across, one message per paragraph, use concrete language and images, and more) are all worthwhile, and similar to writing advice from other well-known authors (from Mark Twain’s “eschew obfuscation” to Elmore Leonard’s “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it”) McCarthy’s last suggestion is a key one: read your work aloud. I did that, for example, with every entry in The Chemistry Book, and found any number of phrases that needed to be reworked.

I wonder, though, if the read-it-aloud advice works best if you’re already a fairly smooth speaker (or at least have an ear that can tell when you’re listening to one!) Reading your own prose out haltingly or uncertainly probably won’t work; you have to stress-test it by going right through it at realistic speed. That’s when the potholes will reveal themselves. In the same way that it can be hard to write fluent prose, it can be hard to read it out fluently, and often the same people who are having trouble with the former are having trouble with the latter, too. That’s not always the case, though. There are actors and politicians who can put someone else’s speech over with great effect, but could never have written anything like it themselves. And at the other end of the spectrum, you have people like Nabokov, who said “I think like a genius, I write like a prize-winning author, but I speak like a small child“.

Applying general writing advice to a scientific paper is somewhat tricky, though, since it is a rather specialized form. I find writing a scientific manuscript much slower going than putting almost anything else to paper; it’s like high-stepping through a swamp. But that probably makes such advice even more valuable, because it’s too easy otherwise to make your manuscript so dense as to be unreadably unpleasant (and thus incapable of getting its points across clearly). Turning research results into clear prose can be hard, even for a very good writer, which is even more reason to put the effort into doing it.

I once worked at a company where we had to write up detailed multipage research reports every six months. I would just sit down and bang the thing out; doing the structures and schemes probably took longer than writing about the work. But I had a new colleague whose first report got sent back for reworking because it was just too long to read. Not that anyone had necessarily read it – I was never convinced that anyone really did that. Had I only known a few years later that my last report for that company was actually my last, I would have done what I’d always wanted to do and worked in the line “. . .and I will pay $5 to the first person who tells me that they have read this sentence“. Sadly, I missed my chance.

My colleague came to me for advice on how to shorten the thing; they had tried and gotten nowhere. If anything, I think the report had gotten a bit longer on revision. I had a look, and I swear it started out something like “My lab has been working on structural variations of the lead series involving numerous stereoelectronic diverse substitutions in order to alter the pharmacokinetic behavior in various assays so as to modify the half-life of the scaffold which will lead to a more favorable dosing profile by addressing different metabolic liabilities through blocking sites of oxidation with a variety of substituents with electron-withdrawing effects and/or steric hindrance which are expected to slow the rate of the various enzymes responsible for the clearance of the lead molecule, with is believed to take place through bioconjugation of the. . .” and it went on from there. On and on, down the page, an ever-flowing river wandering through a trackless landscape.

I read enough of this to be sure that it went on in the same human-wave-attack manner (it did), and asked “So what are you trying to say? What have you guys been doing?” “Oh, we’ve been putting groups on the left-hand ring next to the phenol to slow down the clearance” “OK,” I said, “Say that instead of your entire first page”. I believe the response to this was something like “Well, I can’t just say that!”, to which I asked “Why not?” Somehow it just didn’t sound right to them – that wasn’t formal enough or detailed enough, and it didn’t show that every single box had been checked and every single possibility had been gone over. But when you did that, of course, you ended up with the doorstopper, the embolism of prose that had been sent back as too much even for middle-managers to work through.

In the end, the report did get hacked down to an acceptable length somehow. But I doubt if reading Cormac McCarthy’s rules would have kept it from being produced in the first place!

54 comments on “Scientific Prose”

  1. KazooChemist says:

    Derek. Try your “read it out loud” technique on the first line of your post😁

    1. cancer_man says:

      Funny!

    2. Isidore says:

      In fairness to Derek this particular blog post is not scientific in nature.

      1. Derek Lowe says:

        True, but the plan *was* for it to be in English. . .

        1. An Old Chemist says:

          Derek, thanks for posting this stuff about writing papers writing well. ACS, on its website, has advised the paper submitters to get their paper checked by a native English speakers for grammatical and diction errors. Reading an article which is poorly written takes half the fun away. BTW, R.B. Woodward is famous for writing papers in a marvelous style. Now that so many non-English speakers are in US science, I would suggest that all the graduate schools should consider teaching a short course in writing technical reports. Someone has famously said that the language of science is ‘broken English’, but now could be the right time to change it to ‘well written, powerful English’.

          1. VTJ says:

            The English written by my international students, while perhaps not perfect, is usually fairly good. In fact, many non-native English speakers write exceptionally well because they have learned the language in a deliberate way, with all of the rules in place. It’s the students who I know are native English speakers that commit the real linguistic travesties.

  2. SirWired says:

    I find the “read it aloud” is helpful even for informal writing, especially if somebody is one of those unfortunate souls whose minds run waaaay faster than they can type. It may not produce a masterwork of writing for everybody, but it *will* be helpful in catching super-obvious grammatical problems which are easy to introduce, especially if the writing process was a bit halting, with copious cutting, pasting, and inserting involved.

  3. Lambchops says:

    Lots of good advice here, my only quibble is that it’s absolutely worth sticking to your guns over using “significantly” correctly – statistical significance is a defined concept, not a stylistic choice! Sloppy use of the term should be discouraged.

    1. eub says:

      “Significant” is an English word not owned by the statisticians, who gave it a new and perhaps regrettable definition that includes what is real (small p-value) but insignificant (small effect size). English still has a finger in this pie, and hasn’t abandoned it to statistical scavengers.

      1. johnnyboy says:

        Yeah well, go and tell that to reviewers…

  4. Thoryke says:

    Yes, I see that kind of “But we always have to explain the basics before we get to our point!” problem in many of the papers I edit [and substantially revise]. It’s exhausting…. Let us know as soon as possible what problem you’re trying to solve, and why we should care about it! What are you going to contribute to the conversation?

  5. MattF says:

    I disagree about not putting mathematics in the middle of sentences. If you can’t get the equations into a sentence, you’re doing it badly.

    1. Pedwards says:

      If the equations are important enough to be included in the main text (and not the SI or an appendix), they’re important enough to be highlighted by being separate from the text.

    2. MrXYZ says:

      David Mermin, a solid-state physicist, wrote an essay on about how to include equations in scientific papers. He thought equations should almost always be considered part of a sentence.

      http://www.pamitc.org/documents/mermin.pdf

  6. Isidore says:

    I, and many other scientists, take advice on writing scientific papers from the late Edward Bulwer-Lytton.

  7. Earl Boebert says:

    Best writing advice I ever ran across is the chapter entitled “How to Write Potent Copy” in David Ogilvy’s “Confessions of an Advertising Man.”

  8. JB says:

    I do a lot of technical writing for a living. Many scientists and engineers have never taken a technical writing class in their lives, yet their entire careers are based on what they publish. I often find many scientific papers impenetrable due to their lack of readability and overemphasis on trying to use beautiful prose rather than clear thoughts. A scientific paper should try to explain things as simply as possible. While I know you have to use technical words and ideas, sentences should rarely be longer than 20-25 words most times. Microsoft Word even has built in readability scoring for you to check how you’re doing. If your Flesch-Kincaid scoring is exceeding 15-16, there is a good chance that your document is too complex. And don’t make excuses either…..technical law documents for The US Supreme Court rarely exceed scores of 14-16. A New England Journal of Medicine article would clock in typically around there too. I’ve come across scientific papers with scores of 18, 19, 20, or even 21+! They’re absolutely brutal to read. For a technical document, be as simple as possible and use plain language when you can. A technical document is not the place to write complex and beautiful prose like Tolkien or Dickens. KISS….keep it simple stupid. Take a technical writing course. I thought it would be a waste of time, but I ended learning a lot, and now I do a lot of it for a living.

    1. Derek Lowe says:

      I definitely agree with your points about keeping technical writing straightforward – if you haven’t seen this blog post from a few years ago, I think you’ll enjoy it: https://blogs.sciencemag.org/pipeline/archives/2016/07/22/woodwards-prose-style

      As for Flesch-Kincaid scores, I’d never checked those numbers. This blog post, for example, has a score of 10.5. The one from Monday on the Nobel in Medicine, though, was a 16.8. The Copernicium post this week was a 14.1, and the covalent fragments one was a 15.3, for what that’s worth.

      And it may be worth a bit, but there are a lot of problems with such a readability score. F-K scores are based *only* on average words per sentence and average syllables per word. A sentence with a lot of short words with unusual or complex meanings (such as “tort”, “plasmon”, “monist”, or “spinor”) will score higher in readability by this method than one that uses multisyllable words known to every English-speaking elementary student (such as “hippopotamus”).

      1. JB says:

        Yes, you certainly have a point there Derek. F-K scores are *just a guide*. Sometimes it is difficult to avoid ballooning up your F-K scores due to the nature of what you’re writing about. But the beauty of F-K scores is that they are agnostic. It does not matter what you’re writing about — as you pointed out, F-K scores are based solely on sentence and word length. Linguists have spent a lot of time analyzing this subject and came up with the F-K scoring method as a ballpark place to start. You appear to be averaging 10-16, which is pretty reasonable for a technical blog.

        Try reading and reviewing some grant applications with sentences that contain 40+ words and all sorts of technical jargon. It is impenetrable when F-K scores start approaching 20+. Also, if you’ve ever had to deal with government documents, they specifically prioritize the use of common language and teach their technical writers who write reports for everyone from Congress, to the CIA, to the FED, to the FDA to use these same kinds of linguistic approaches. Again, there are no hard and fast rules, just ballpark guidelines to help improve the readability of your output. These things can also become particularly important when you’re writing something like a patient informed consent form for a clinical trial. It can be borderline unethical to write an informed consent form with a score of 16+, because subjects might not be able to understand the risks they’re being exposed to. People absolutely do look at this stuff for things like the readability of IC forms.

    2. paperclip says:

      I suspect that scientists fear that their intellect will be doubted unless they write those long, dense sentences. Scientists: resist this fear. Such writing is dime-a-dozen in the literature. Write cleanly and clearly, and people won’t scoff at you — they will appreciate you.

  9. Wavefunction says:

    “My lab has been working on structural variations of the lead series involving numerous stereoelectronic diverse substitutions in order to alter the pharmacokinetic behavior in various assays so as to modify the half-life of the scaffold which will lead to a more favorable dosing profile by addressing different metabolic liabilities through blocking sites of oxidation with a variety of substituents with electron-withdrawing effects and/or steric hindrance which are expected to slow the rate of the various enzymes responsible for the clearance of the lead molecule, with is believed to take place through bioconjugation of the. . .”

    Ironically, that one-sentence-per-page construction is exactly like Cormac McCarthy in his seminal “Blood Meridian”.

    1. Ian Malone says:

      It’s a modernist masterpiece!

  10. 508-is-where-im-from says:

    Cormac McCarthy can perfectly recreate the Southern drawl in my head as I read dialogue in his novels. I would like to attempt that in my next article. Or add somewhere in the SI that materials used in experiments were obtained from “the getting place.”

  11. Lawrence says:

    A great resource for learning how to cut the fluff out of a sentence is the book “Plain English for Lawyers.” Don’t assume it’s a crash course in writing legalese, because it’s the very opposite. A short book with many great tips that could apply to scientific writing.

  12. pv=nrt says:

    In biology this doesn’t apply. You read the abstract and look at the figure legends, and you’re done. No one reads the text except the copy editor. Often the reviews don’t even read the text. Putting time into making it readable would be wasted.

    Pop sci writing, or writing review articles, might need word smithing. Certainly textbooks. But 90% of biology papers get their point across in the figures.

    1. Earl Boebert says:

      Your comment reminds me of advice that I got from an ex-editor of Scientific American in the 80’s: Make sure every important point is stated in a picture caption. Many people skim or skip the body prose, but almost everybody reads the caption to a picture. If you look at Scientific Americans from that era you’ll see those boldface picture captions that run to as much as a quarter of a page. The more complex the topic, the more important this is. In some of their articles, the pictures + captions are essentially a storyboard of the narrative.

  13. soulcoffr says:

    As a kid growing up, I watched the Connections series by James Burke with fascination. Only later as an adult did I realize how amazing of a feat that series was. It sounds simple to communication complex ideas, but in reality, having worked as a journalist, it’s murder.

    I made it through majors chemistry at the university level (I was studying to be a metallurgical engineer and it was recommended I take the more difficult class with a lab) and so I’m comfortable with chemistry and it’s terminology. However, there are times where I’m completely in the weeds about what it is that Derek is writing about. Not his fault, as talking about advances in medicinal chemistry is pretty technical stuff.

    I didn’t earn an engineering degree as I washed out of the program due to calculus issues (among others) and became a videographer instead. A technical field that appeals to my language skills. I did, however retain a respect for how communicating technical information and how important it is. It’s surprising it doesn’t come up more often. Having someone from outside of a technical field demonstrate this can be really useful.

    I’m curious, has anyone worked with the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science? It seems like something of this nature would be helpful, but I don’t know if that’s just because it’s associated with Mr. Alda (whom I enjoyed watching on Scientific American Frontiers) or if it truly stands on its own?

    1. soulcoffr says:

      And I cant see proofreading a comment like this is also important. Sheesh.

    2. KazooChemist says:

      Thanks for reminding me about the Connections series. I looked forward to every episode and learned a great deal from watching it. Some of the “connections” were a bit tenuous, but the overall story was compelling.

      I am off to search the Internet to see if this remarkable series has been archived and is available.

      1. Jerome G Buescher says:

        Yep. Search “connections” on Youtube.

    3. Lori Kie says:

      Re: Your question about the Alda Center (Full disclosure: I work at the Alda Center.) However, I do firmly and passionately believe it is worth it. Everything we do is informed by Alan Alda’s time working with scientists on Scientific American Frontiers, and focused on helping researchers learn to really relate with their audience and share why what they are doing matters so much.

      That said – please don’t take my word for it. We offer a series of free, 90-minute online programs that give you a taste of what we do and how we do it. Check them out here: https://www.aldacenter.org/AKLC

  14. An Old Chemist says:

    I guess that this old post from the ‘In the Pipeline’ is relevant to today’s blog:

    Woodward’s Prose Style:

    https://blogs.sciencemag.org/pipeline/archives/2016/07/22/woodwards-prose-style

  15. luysii says:

    Speaking of reading your prose aloud, one of the reason’s Feynman’s Lectures on Physics is so good (aside from Feynman’s brilliance in explaining things), is that Leighton and Sands tried to capture his speaking style in the lectures.

    Darwin doesn’t read nearly as well, but both show a brilliant mind at work, and both are well worth reading. — https://luysii.wordpress.com/2019/08/25/feynman-and-darwin/

  16. Barry says:

    When I write to the “read it aloud” test, it comes out more like:
    Methanogens detox ungulates’ gut
    by stripping hydrogen out of the chyme,
    that forms when fermentation’s firmly shut
    from oxygen (if only for a time).
    What’s once produced is belched into the air
    to trap IR–‘though UV shines right through.
    A threat to which we’re slow to grow aware
    as we poach in our man-made greenhouse stew.
    A million years of symbiotic bliss
    recycling cellulose into prime meat
    could make a sterile Venus out of this
    blue planet as it traps more of our heat.
    Our steak in worlds to come’s ever more dear
    if we must buy it with our atmosphere.

  17. Tran Script says:

    Aside from cutting down on unnecessary prose, another thing is cutting down on the use of acronyms. I suspect molecular biology is particularly prone to this, and I’m not talking about protein/gene names. I recently saw a paper where they abbreviated ‘hexapeptide’ as ‘HX’. Like, please…

  18. x says:

    Technical writing is easy to do, like Go, and difficult to master, also like Go. I say this ruefully, since it is also ubiquitous…

  19. Jim says:

    “Write drunk, edit sober” – Ernest Hemingway

  20. Nick K says:

    For my money.the best guide for writing clear, elegant English prose is a little book entitled “The Chemist’s English” by Robert Schoenfeld. It’s a joy to read.

  21. dearieme says:

    Use adjectives and adverbs sparingly.

    Be very reluctant to use nouns as adjectives.

    Don’t use “very”.

    1. tim Rowledge says:

      Don’t noun verbs and don’t commit verbing of nouns.

  22. Anonymous says:

    I have edited and critiqued many mss. When I get a draft from a junior colleague with long, complicated sentences, I often start by asking them, “What is the subject? What is the verb?” It is surprising and disappointing how many cannot identify subject and verb! START with ONE subject and ONE verb, then add bits and pieces.

    In order to get TO the editing stage, it is crucial to get “words on paper” (or computer). I think that people panic (writer’s block or similar). I don’t care what the first draft looks like! Just show me SOMETHING and we can go from there. (I have advice on getting “words on paper”, but not for this topic.)

    I think that many readers here have the language skills to write grammatically correct, long, complicated sentences. For science writing, I often suggest replacing a lot of commas and semicolons with periods (subject to grammar rules) in order to keep sentences short. Parentheticals can be taken out as their own sentences.

    As far as the “reading aloud” goes, I think that many of us are actually writing what we have been saying out loud and revising out loud for weeks and months during regular lab or group meeting discussions. Woodward, it is said, lectured engagingly and “spontaneously” without notes. Welllllllll, I don’t think is was extemporaneous. He was writing and rewriting those lectures in his head every day of the week. Likewise, for many excellent contemporary speakers. (<– Not a grammatically correct sentence but understandable — I hope.)

    Although it is a blog, not a technical paper, I like Derek's many literary references and excursions. (I don't always get them, but I like them.) I also liked that in Woodward's technical papers and lectures ("… the almost ocular evidence of the x-ray structure …").

    Sometimes I like my own writing and sometimes I don't. I do feel that some editors have made my writing worse. That is, I have the whole "story" in my head (and have been working on it for months) and the editor will "suggest" or even require changes that disrupt the story and it no longer works (for me). Better for readers? Maybe. Better for me? Nope.

    I'm not sure if it applies to technical writing, but there is the story of some famous writer (TS Eliot? FS Fitzgerald? E. Hemingway?) who was to give a talk about writing (at a Ford Hall Forum, in one version). All of the local literati and glitterati were there. He came out to the podium, and said, "If you want to learn how to write, go home and write." Then he left the stage. (Does anyone know the actual who, where, and when? Everyone has some version of that story but no verifiable source.) Practice should help, so go home and write a scientific paper or proposal.

  23. Anonymous says:

    … And avoid the use of ambiguous pronouns. Use nouns. “The ester and the alcohol was treated with the acid. It boils at 137 C.” ??? “The mixture boils at …” or “The ester boils at …” or … .

  24. Thersander says:

    Maybe in a previous life Cormac McCarthy was a biologist and wrote a first draft of The Road entitled, “Novel bioinformatic super highway as model for organism necrosis modulated by cellular post apocalyptic doom factor.”

  25. You mean you missed “No nation with its own government, occupying a particular territory for geriatric males”?

  26. loupgarous says:

    At the end of a specific thought, if you write the word “and”, replace it with a period/full stop. Most things you’d add after “and” to a discrete thought usually deserve their own sentences.

    The ONLY thing Twitter is good for is disciplining Tweeters in how to write (certain presidents of the United States notwithstanding). If you can frame a coherent thought within 140 characters, you’ve learned how to write longer sentences clearly.

  27. bacillusca says:

    Every intellectual has a very special responsibility. He has the
    privilege and the opportunity of studying. In return, he owes it to
    his fellow men (or ‘to society’) to represent the results of his study as simply, clearly and modestly as he can. The worst thing that intellectuals can do – the cardinal sin – is to try to set themselves up as great prophets vis-à-vis their fellow men and to impress them with puzzling philosophies. Anyone who cannot speak simply and clearly should say nothing and continue to work until he can do so. Karl Popper. “AGAINST BIG WORDS” http://www.therathouse.com/shortreviews/Against_Big_Words.pdf

    1. RHB says:

      A dash is missing from the link. Should be:

      http://www.the-rathouse.com/shortreviews/Against_Big_Words.pdf

      Interesting read. Also this:

      “Unfortunately many sociologists, philosophers, et al, traditionally regard the dreadful game of making the simple appear complex and the trivial seem difficult as their legitimate task. That is what they have learnt to do and they teach others to do the same. There is absolutely nothing that can be done about it.”

      To sociologists and philosophers, add reputation management consultants, corporate external relations executives, customer (dis)service managers, operational excellence officers, any other overblown job title you can think of, etc, etc, ad infinitum…

      1. Anonymous says:

        (Link to Sokal wikipedia entry in my handle.)

        “In 1996, Sokal submitted an article to Social Text, an academic journal of postmodern cultural studies. The submission was an experiment to test the journal’s intellectual rigor and, specifically, to …. [see if it would] publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions”. …”

  28. Jen says:

    “Write Like a Chemist” is also a good resource.
    https://global.oup.com/us/companion.websites/9780195305074/

  29. Bruce Grant says:

    “My lab has been working on structural variations of the lead series involving…”
    Faulkner is envious.

    1. Derek Lowe says:

      Some of this stuff comes out reading like Benjy’s section of “The Sound and the Fury”, though, so there is that connection. . .

  30. steve says:

    I would add another piece of advice – read older literature when scientists were also educated in the arts. It used to be that science was not a profession but rather an avocation that was conducted (largely) by wealthy and broadly educated individuals. I used to work with such a person who was in their 80’s spoke 6 languages and easily had the equivalent of another PhD in history. Having to read the older literature, where people worked for years and then published a single paper that was definitive was really enlightening. One of the best was a paper on limb regeneration (where cells dedifferentiate to form a blastema) that described the process of “cells losing their differentiative aspect in order to engage in the pleasures of proliferation”. Papers would be a lot more interesting if those sorts of descriptions were allowable nowadays.

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