Why Good Writing Matters

January 9, 2013 at 10:56 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 119 Comments
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A hand about to write

Years ago now, I recall a senior scientist who’d read a piece of my work saying doubtfully, ‘It’s very well-written. Very literary.’ The implication was clear: ‘But is it good science?’

With hindsight, I can agree: that particular effort wasn’t ace. I can’t even remember its title, and the obscurity’s well-deserved. What did stick was my surprise that my colleague (undoubtedly a good scientist) saw good science and good writing as not just independent, but even perhaps opposed, since science is all about precision and language is irretrievably vague.

Years later, I still have a problem with this.

The problem for science is that the vast majority of scientific communication, even within the fraternity, uses language, not mathematics.  The better they write, the clearer their message. The more equations, the fewer people read them and cite them, at least in my research field, biology. Science, as we keep being told, needs good communication.

If you think language is vague, you may (incorrectly) infer that how scientists write their abstracts and articles doesn’t matter. It does. A poorly-written abstract can be ambiguous, confusing and at times incomprehensible. Yet in science training, writing skills can be downplayed, or even seen as suspicious. Media dons have good writing skills, you know.

Hmm. Sure, language isn’t mathematics. Thank goodness, it’s much richer and more flexible. But even though individual word meanings aren’t rigidly defined, they can be combined with surprising subtlety. A simple example: Microsoft Word assures me that ‘pleasant’ and ‘pleasurable’ are synonyms — i.e. they mean the same thing — but they don’t. Saying to your lover ‘Sex with you’s so pleasant’ is less complimentary than ‘Sex with you’s so pleasurable’. For another example, think about the difference between ‘Microsoft Word assures me’ and my first choice, ‘Microsoft Word tells me’, when it comes to deciding how much faith to place in MS Word.

A science example

Here’s an instance from the research literature: an abstract of a 2012 article by Dannlowski et al. in Biological Psychiatry. It’s not a bad abstract; I’ve come across far worse. It does however show how language can affect understanding.

Childhood maltreatment represents a strong risk factor for the development of depression and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in later life. In the present study, we investigated the neurobiological underpinnings of this association.

Nice clear opening statement. But … which association? Between maltreatment and depression, maltreatment and PTSD, or both? I’m already unclear what’s being argued here; depression ≠ PTSD.

Hmm. So I’ll guess it means both.

Since both depression and PTSD have been associated with increased amygdala responsiveness to negative stimuli as well as reduced hippocampal gray matter volume, we speculated that childhood maltreatment results in similar functional and structural alterations in previously maltreated but healthy adults.

So depression and PTSD are associated with a) more amygdala responsiveness (a functional difference) and b) less hippocampal gray matter (a structural difference), but it’s ambiguous as to whether a) and b) are themselves associated.

One hundred forty-eight healthy subjects were enrolled via public notices and newspaper announcements and were carefully screened for psychiatric disorders.

The word ‘carefully’ here has the unintended effect of making me wonder why the authors felt they needed to put it there. Who writes, ‘Our screening was pretty crap, we just ticked a few boxes’? I’m now a smidgen less inclined to trust this research.

Amygdala responsiveness was measured by means of functional magnetic resonance imaging and an emotional face-matching paradigm particularly designed to activate the amygdala in response to threat-related faces. Voxel-based morphometry was used to study morphological alterations.

What sort of threat? Anger, disgust, a knife gripped between the teeth? And — morphological alterations? Why not say ‘gray matter changes’ if that’s what you mean? Or ‘structural changes’, to make the link with earlier sentences transparent. It’s also easier to read. I like the idea of an emotional paradigm, though, stuck in the corner sulkily matching faces.

Childhood maltreatment was assessed by the 25-item Childhood Trauma Questionnaire (CTQ). We observed a strong association of CTQ scores with amygdala responsiveness to threat-related facial expressions.

Right. This tells me the functional result, and now I want to find out more about the control conditions, and I’m curious as to whether the CTQ’s any good, so I’m more likely to read the article. Now for the structural result:

The morphometric analysis yielded reduced gray matter volumes in the hippocampus, insula, orbitofrontal cortex, anterior cingulate gyrus, and caudate in subjects with high CTQ scores. Both of these associations were not influenced by trait anxiety, depression level, age, intelligence, education, or more recent stressful life events.

Both of what? Guys, you lost me. I’m reading about associations between high CTQ scores and five brain regions. So — retracking here — maybe ‘both’ means ‘both the functional and structural associations’? And what does ‘depression level’ mean — now, over the past year, or what? Too much neurotransmitter got used decoding these sentences.

Childhood maltreatment is associated with remarkable functional and structural changes even decades later in adulthood. These changes strongly resemble findings described in depression and PTSD. Therefore, the present results might suggest that limbic hyperresponsiveness and reduced hippocampal volumes could be mediators between the experiences of adversities during childhood and the development of emotional disorders.

I thought participants were screened to be free of such disorders? Or are they just not reaching the required clinical thresholds? And, eek, that stretch from ‘amygdala’ to ‘limbic’!

All in all, I’m confused, and that makes me feel stupid, and as if I’ve already wasted too much time on this abstract. There’s an interesting-looking piece on reconsolidation in the same table of contents. I think I’ll read that instead …

Clarity matters

In the fierce competition for readers’ attention, clarity is crucial — and clarity comes from using language well. Ease of reading is also important, because I (and I suspect most readers) are less inclined to struggle through an abstract, let alone a whole paper, if the authors make it hard work. I like to read in a smooth, fast flow, sucking up meaning without having to stop and think about how to interpret every sentence; if I wanted that kind of intellectual workout I’d read French. Translating from science into English can be quite hard enough even if the writing’s limpidly transparent, given the jargon and surfeit of acronyms.

Of course, language can also be used to create deliberate ambiguity, as in the apocryphal job reference, ‘You would indeed be lucky to get this person to work for you’.

Words can also be used to trigger particular ideas without saying so explicitly, as in ‘that particular effort wasn’t ace’ (implying that all the others were). These and other skills come with good writing, and allow the writer to be remarkably adept at putting across ideas. Indeed, one problem with mathematics is that it can convey a false sense of clarity and hence security, as all those failed economic models should have taught us.

Even foggy language, as in government or scientific jargon, can be skilfully and carefully unclear if the aim is to obfuscate — as when a politician claims to have refuted an argument (destroyed its force) when all they’ve done is rebutted it (argued against it, unsuccessfully in the case I’m remembering).

Then again, it may just be that the person is inept, or isn’t quite sure what exactly they’re trying to say. Writing is a great way to sort out thoughts. And a skilful writer has more armour against the linguistic trickery of others, another reason for learning to write well.

Accuracy matters

On a different level from the slightly prickly abstract above is simple abuse. Language-lovers get extremely frustrated by common linguistic slopperies, like the following horror from the BBC, who should know better:

(of a dead soldier) ‘if he’d had the equipment, he may have survived’

NO! ‘may’ ≠ ‘might’! The whole point is he DIDN’T survive! I hope the grieving family didn’t hear that insensitive report.

Language-lovers understand that putting words in order can be a counterproductive mess, a workaday chore, or a useful and beautiful craft. Like athletes, they aim to use their skills as best they can because, basically, why settle for mediocre when you can do better? That athletes are more admired is unfortunate for writers trying to make a career of it, but like science, writing’s more a compulsion than a career choice. Seeing the gift of language wasted makes skilled wordsmiths wince, just as a pianist might wince on seeing a Steinway grand being bashed about. Why have such a powerful language-enabled brain if you’re going to use its powers so poorly, just to get by, leaving yourself open to manipulation and blind to the fabulous riches of your linguistic heritage? Besides, as hobbies go wordplay’s a good choice for these fearful and thrifty times: safer than swordplay, easier than foreplay, and cheaper than gameplay.

Setting feelings aside, however, clear and fluent language is hugely important to communication. For that reason alone it’s worth trying to do it better. In science, as elsewhere, good writing matters.

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  1. hello It’s a good post.

  2. Writing is indeed a craft. I have a special place in my heart for anyone that can use words to transport me, convince me or shock me. The goal of achieving ‘wordsmith’ status can be daunting, but there is nothing like fluidly communicating in the written word what is floating around in your mind.

    As far as your post – I will agree with the senior scientist. “Very well written”‘ indeed!

  3. Wonderfully put…

  4. Reblogged this on Anchoring Hope.

  5. Even though it’s not my field, I’ve always thought it would be important to use the most specific words and the clearest sentence construction in math and science papers. Otherwise, the reader might have difficulty following your instructions and applying your theories. Of course, I’m a little biased here because I used to tutor English in a school where most people thought it was more important to be good at math and science than to focus on the “picky details” of language.

  6. Writing is so subjective. I have two books published. In each case I received several rejections. In one case after the book was accepted the in house editor butchered my work so badly I decided not to go forward with it and it was accepted and published someplace else with simple gramitical changes etc. I have gotten to the point that I dont care what someone else thinks about my work. I like it or I dont and thats that. I suck at spelling and typing, aside from that I write and I move on. I have pages and paragraphs i have written and rewritten so many times that I end up right back at the original work.

  7. EXCELLENT blog, thank you so much. So often I have read scientific reports and ended up feeling stupid at first then had to remember that I’m not stupid and gone back to unravel an apalling use of language to discover that the fault wasnt with my intellegence but with the carelessness of the author in selecting language (and that actually, in some cases, there was something important being said – though badly expressed – or in other cases (the worst outcome) that it was sheer obfuscation). it is a great relief to know that others have had similar experiences.

  8. My M.A. degree is in Composition and Rhetoric (i.e. English), and while I was earning that degree I had to teach first year composition courses that were required for all majors. A decent chunk of my speciality spent time discovering what kind of writing skills other professionals need (e.g. in the sciences) and developing lessons to teach those skills in the required composition classes. In some schools, there are even advanced writing courses for specific majors (Writing for Engineers).

    Still, writing in the sciences receives a tremendous amount of backlash from tenured professors (both in Literature and in the hard sciences), and it can be a real fight to change attitudes about the importance of writing!

    And don’t get me started on arguments about the purpose of language and whether or not its purpose is, in fact, clarity! If you’re still interested in this you should look up some Technical Writing pieces using Google Scholar.

  9. Hi. I’m a sudent of the 11th grade and we study english as a foreign language and when we write esseys, especially dependent ones, my classmates are always trying to show their lexicons and sometimes they use incorrect words that change the meaning of what they try to or want to say. Our teacher always tells us that the information we want to give is more important in this case than the vucabulary we use. So it must be correctly formulated.However, everyone has his or her own style of writing and we can do nothing about it :) And about article: it was so interesting for me because english is going to be my future, I want to get specialized in it)) And thank you for information I learnt many things))

  10. Many research articles I read have bad writing. Misplaced modifiers abound and passive voice reigns supreme (although some reviewers dislike active voice), and the overall contempt for good writing from ‘real scientists’ is palpable. And that’s published articles. While reviewing manuscripts for a journal, I end up getting high from inhaling highlighter fumes when I decide to mark every error.
    Nice post. Congrats on getting Freshly Pressed.

  11. This was such a great post! Even though I studied Creative Writing in college and never took a science class (thanks, Sarah Lawrence!), I can tell you that the same problems exist in Creative Writing. I found that a lot of my fellow students were so fixated on sounding smart and superior that their writing often ended up being confusing, no matter how interesting or unique the original ideas for their stories were. My favorite student writing came from students who weren’t afraid to say what they wanted to say or use small words and sentences if they felt like it. Now that I live in Bogota, I sometimes make extra money editing English-language research papers written by Colombians, and no matter how great their grasp of the English language is, I spend a lot of my time trying to get them to calm down and reign in their writing so that it’s clear and understandable. To me, there’s nothing more beautiful than a clear, direct sentence that can be understood by anyone–whether they have a Ph.D. or never graduated from high school.

    Keep fighting for good writing! And thanks for the awesome post.

  12. Very insightful and well written, I totally agree with you on the importance of good writing to convey a clear message. English isn’t my mother languages, therefore I try to choose my words very carefully to avoid misunderstanding. I have to admit that I am not always successful, but I do my best. Thank you for sharing!

  13. As someone who consistently butted heads with professors over this exact topic, i wholeheartedly agree. I now work as a copywriter, and have been compelled to relearn my style altogether. Have you heard of Stylish Academic Writing by Helen Sword? She’s a fabulous resource for this exact topic. I think you would enjoy the book, considering your field.

  14. This vagueness shows up in all writing these days, not just in scientific writing. I think it’s a sign of the language changing, plus the lack of editing in contemporary culture.

  15. Reblogged this on Jaggi.

  16. As a social science researcher, I see the same problems in a lot of research-related writing in my disciplines. I really like your point-by-point analysis of the example and its problems, and your very clear suggestions on how the problems could be avoided. This is the sort of detail that might help researchers think about improving their writing. Thanks!

  17. Thanks for a very articulate and important piece of writing. I’ve found that taking the time to check for the kind of ambiguities you mention, I not only write more clearly, but also make improvement style-wise. It may seem tedious at times but without that important step it’s almost a ‘foul play’ on words.

    Your article also reminds me of something oddly humorous when I think back to my early algebra days, and that is subjective nature of ‘letting any letter of the alphabet be equal to any number of your choosing’. How strangely arbitrary!

  18. Thank you for writing this article. As a language student, I often find it frustrating to convince my friends (the majority studying science) that accuracy in language is as important as accuracy in science. The attitude of ” as long as people grasp the meaning” is widespread, and the apathy people nurture towards languages, grammar and spellings is saddening. I did not know how to explain this to people. Thanks to your article, I do now.

  19. Great article. I agree- a reader’s mental energy should be spent on the content of the study, not on trying to figure out what the writers were attempting to communicate.

  20. My brain hurts….

  21. [...] Why Good Writing Matters: [...]

  22. This is one of my bugbears; trying to get my junior staff to write clear simple English rather than jargonese which they think is appropriate. Good on you for writing this blog. I shall refer to it when counseling. Thankyou! Tony

  23. [...] via Why Good Writing Matters. [...]

  24. Reblogged this on nvisionmd.

  25. Reblogged this on Africa Travel Guide.

  26. Your piece is very on point. I’ve struggled with saying what I mean and nothing else. In my field of Communication Studies, it is said that one always says more than is intended.
    I see this issue arise most often in the classroom where students have slightly varying definitions for the same word. At times this creates confusion, but there have been other times where it fosters a deeper conversation about how various individuals came to adopt a single meaning.
    Scientific writing is a whole different realm. There are words and names that I endlessly fail at pronouncing let alone spell. One of the most entertaining clips that relates to me with respect to scientific writing is Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s appearance during On The Verge: http://goo.gl/Fx3T1 (Skip to about 49:50). Specifically, he discusses how Astronomy uses simple language such as, “Jupiter’s Red Spot”, to describe things they study since astronomy is already complex enough.

    It is truly a fascinating area, and one that is always in the background that I never get around to fully researching.

  27. nice posting and best regard :)

  28. I’m totally hiding my handwriting from psychologists and psychiatrists. Especially now with the keywoboards – I can barely scribble.

  29. Brilliantly put. Fantastic post.

  30. Wow! Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the matter. Being an aspiring writer myself, I could definitely make use of your experience and perspective.

    What really caught my attention was the ability or the inability to select appropriate words in their right context’s. I would love to hear any further tips on the topic as well. Cheers

  31. Reblogged this on Elliot Claire London and commented:
    Good read on writing.

  32. I couldn’t agree more. Thanks for writing this post and congratulations on being Freshly Pressed!

  33. Great post. Familiar challenge I had when I taught agriculture to students who had learned (in some schooling system somewhere?) to overdress everything. Paring things back with them so that what they wanted to say was clear without being bland – was a really satisfying part of the job.
    Of course Watson and Crick’s superb paper proposing the helical structure of DNA should always feature as the exemplar for newcomers to this game – ie if you’re describing some truly amazing finding you don’t need to bang on about it. http://www.exploratorium.edu/origins/coldspring/printit.html
    Sadly Franklin only got a footnote mention here. Although history has corrected her place in the story, the other salient message here is to always include the people who deserve it in the authorship of your work.

  34. Couldn’t get past the~childhood trauma~but I’m sure this is well written.

  35. I’m cheering! Thank you for posting this. We need more people to appreciate the importance of language and its subtleties. No, we can’t all be Shakespeare, but we should at least be aiming to communicate clearly and effectively.

  36. Thanks to everyone who’s taken the time to comment on this post. It’s been wonderful to see how many other people care about language. I can’t thank you all individually, but I’m so delighted to know you’re there …

  37. [...] Why Good Writing Matters. [...]

  38. Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed!
    School was challenging for me as taking tests was not my strong point. As an adult I now see it wasn’t that I was stupid… it was more a fact the questions were not written well. Just as in science writing where each chosen word is important, so is each word in a question to illicit the correct response. It makes me wonder… is there a class on ‘writing tests’ for teachers?
    Currently I am writing a book… which is more difficult than I ever thought it would be. Your article has given me ‘one more thing’ to think about as I put words to paper.
    The beginning of your article caught my attention as I had never given any thought at all to the challenges of writing for science… however I found my attention waning until my eye caught the letters PTSD. I have PTSD. Your choice of that particular example kept me reading… and to my surprise I learned more about science writing, writing in general AND PTSD. Score!

  39. If a good image says a 1000 words, writing is putting 1000 words to create an image in the minds of the reader.

  40. I wish to take away with me one special sentence of your post: “why settle for mediocre when you can do better?” Have a nice day!

  41. I used to work in drug regulatory affairs, and we used to assess the effectiveness of documents using seven criteria
    Purpose. What’s the purpose of this document, and does it match the stated purpose of the research?
    Context Why was the research appropriate within the context of the filed?
    Content Is everythng there that needs to be there? Is there anything there that doesn’t need to be there?
    Logic Are the conclusions supported nby a clear logic trail?
    Organisation If everything is there, is it where you would expect to find it.?
    Presentation All manner of aspects to this including font size, line spacing, layout and labelling of tabes and charts
    Language Use English not jargon

    There you go. That’s my contribution

  42. “Writing for Engineers” is an ambiguous course title. Is this appropriate ambiguity, or is it appropriate use of the ambiguity force? (Thanks to Caitlin, whose comment prompted this question.)

    Thanks, Kathleen, for the post. You use an abstract to illustrate sub-optimal (though competent) writing. One thing you do not criticize is the abstract’s use of the passive voice. What is your opinion on passive voice?

    • Of course I messed up the writing of the above comment… that should be “or is it the dark side of the ambiguity force.”

    • Hi Andrew, re passive voice, I don’t have a particularly strong opinion; it’s a linguistic tool which can be used badly or well. Its associations with nameless authority need to be considered, especially in scientific writing, and used lazily it can make academic prose much worse. Focusing on clarity and succintness will help to reduce such habitual usage.

  43. Reblogged this on SpicaBookDesign.

  44. I skipped your methods and went right to your conclusion.

    Ha! Just kidding. Nicely written.

  45. When I was in graduate school (studying literature), one of my professors was impressed with a paper I’d written and suggested I revise it for publication. “You’re going to have muddy up your prose,” she said. “It’s too clear for journal publication.” I was dumbfounded and asked for clarification. “Instead of saying a character lies,” she told me, “you should say he prevaricates. Editors like that kind of thing.” She meant it well, and gave me lots of good advice over the years I worked with her, but I just couldn’t bring myself to muddy it up and so never did. My list of academic publications is, not surprisingly, very short. This experience did shed some light, though, on why so much of what I read in graduate school was incomprehensible.

  46. I loved reading your post. At the U of C, where I completed my B.Sc in chemistry, we were required to take a scientific writing course for this very reason.
    I remember early on in my degree, placing colons, semicolons and other “fancy” punctuation into my repots because those who were marking them didn’t understand their full purpose and therefore would “admire” my use of them.
    After taking this course on scientific literacy, it really opened my eyes to how crucial it is that we are using correct grammar and language in our science writing.

  47. Reblogged this on cftc10.

  48. Yep, a lot of that is true. I’ve just finished a PhD on writing processes and theory. Daniel Chandler is really good on the different values and orientations that scientists and arts people have in relation to writing. He terms these Classical and Romantic – which fits very well with your sense that scientists value clarity etc. It’s very good. You can view the full text online too – bottom of this page: http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/act/act.html

  49. A good read and very well written.
    I got to agree on the emphasis to convey a clear message to the readers

  50. I so agree with you. As a journalist the amount of bad writing I come across is quite astonishing and I always wonder what wonderful information never sees the printing press due to bad penmanship. After all if you don’t read a thesis, a theory a discovery past the first sentence you never write about it for the world to see.

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