Do you struggle to read scientific articles? Does it feel like every one of them puts you to sleep? Do you find yourself reading the same paragraph or sentence over and over trying to understand what the author is trying to say?
If so, you’re not alone. And it’s not your fault. Your struggle to extract meaning from the average journal article isn’t a reflection on you — it’s a failure of the authors.
There’s an epidemic of poor writing in science and engineering. Sentences are long and complicated, the jargon comes thick and fast, and everyone uses the biggest words and phrases they can to sound as smart as possible. The end result? Readers struggle to actually understand and interpret the authors’ work and ideas.
Worse, this cycle of poor writing is self-perpetuating. Students see how papers are written, and they spend their efforts on mimicking this obtuse style rather than learning to communicate clearly.
Writing Science in Plain English
Fortunately, there’s a solution to this problem: write about science in clear and simple English. That’s the heart of Anne Greene’s Writing Science in Plain English (non-Amazon affiliate link). She’s taken linguistic principles that guide how readers parse complex information and applied them to writing about science. As she notes, what’s needed is remarkably simple:
Readers look for a story about characters and actions; for strong verbs close to their subjects; for old information at the beginnings of sentences and new information at the ends; and for specific kinds of information in predictable places in paragraphs and documents.
Greene illustrates each point with real examples of both well- and poorly-written science. She shows readers how to revise words, sentences, and paragraphs to improve their readability. And despite the short length of the book, it’s densely packed with practical examples and with exercises for the reader to try out.
Greene’s book is an excellent, concise guide to writing science in simple language. As she points out:
Writing stories about science doesn’t mean making it up or dumbing it down. Rather, we can hang complex ideas on the scaffolding of good, simple stories and make our science as exciting to our audience as it is to us.
This is the heart of good communication. The purpose of writing a journal article isn’t to make ourselves sound intelligent; it’s to share our knowledge, and that’s best accomplished by thinking first and foremost of our readers. Explaining complex science in a simple and understandable way is far more impressive than a dense and incomprehensible wall of text.
Writing Science in Plain English (Amazon affiliate link) is all about helping scientists achieve those communication goals, and, in my opinion, it deserves a spot on every scientist’s bookshelf. Or better yet, have a copy sitting open next to you as you revise!
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(Image credit: U. of Chicago Press)