Why Good Writing Matters

January 9, 2013 at 10:56 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 120 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.

120 Comments »

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  1. […] Why Good Writing Matters. […]

  2. Seems like writing may be a two person task, especially writing for public consumption. Someone to write, and someone else to review.

  3. Quite a fair description of the value of writing: if your idea is brilliant, but you can’t intelligibly present it — your brilliance is n’t going to be confirmed.

    I ‘d agree that the scientific branch of academe needs to relearn the value of communicative skills, and therefore of the legitimacy of other intelligences, particularly as scientific studies continue to be jargonized, the result being that cross-disciplinary communications are a hopeless translation exercise.

    Cheers.

  4. It’s true. Although I do love science, and love to learn bits and pieces here and there, I don’t ever pick up anything that has too much technicality and equations in it. I like words, words that mean something, words that make me think.

    And more often than not – the words that catch my eyes are words of good writing.

    Thank you for such great post.

  5. Reblogged this on Degrees in hot demand.

  6. As an English AP teacher I know the students in my class will go on into fields where communication is essential. I extoll the necessity and the art of employing language to their benefit. I so well remember those dry, dry confusing abstracts forced to wade through in various college courses. Your post brings up the need to have available refreshers on how the value of writing clearly.

  7. […] Why Good Writing Matters « neurotaylor […]

  8. Very interesting and thank you for writing.

    I finished my PhD a couple of years ago and have since moved into a career as a medical writer. Our job is to take the complex data from medical clinical trials and translate them into easy-to-understand chunks of information for patients and doctors: websites and leaflets, diagrams and graphs.

    One freshly-baked addition to our team has yet to learn the value of simplifying and lyricising the language. It can be a tough lesson to learn that all your positing, proposing, powering, possibilities, potentials and other scientific language is basically useless to those without a densely-knit academic mind. But seeing the difference that a well- and clearly-written article can make to a patient? That’s what a writer needs to see in order to understand the power of the language.

  9. You lost me when you inferred mathematics was not a language ….

    • Yes, of course mathematics is a language … But if your writing to an audience that doesn’t understand the language that you are writing in, why are you writing? Many that use math every day don’t understand it as a written language. Even fewer can clearly translate it into English. (Hence why equations are used so much in science journals.) Those who do both make excellent expert witness in court.

  10. Reblogged this on bulletproofx.

  11. Very interesting!

  12. […] limpidly transparent, given the jargon and surfeit of acronyms.” ~  Kathleen Taylor, “Why Good Writing Matters” (January 3, […]

  13. True 🙂 Both science and politics use their own lingo, i’ve worked for years as interpreter and i am working on my PhD thesis… these are downright languages unto themselves and while i get the need for a thesis to be written according to certain standards, often time indeed it’s more about the form than about the content. Not to mention the political jargo, especially the one that’s widespread in Balkans… One word: AWFUL.

  14. Reblogged this on Oyia Brown.

  15. A truly great Post! I agreed with you that clarity and accuracy are the keys to good writing! I’ve learned from your post a lot and Congratulations for being on FP!

  16. Very good post and lots of useful info.

    Thanks.

  17. Reblogged this on Peculiar Wallflower and commented:
    Yeah, yeah. It really do matter.

  18. “Language-lovers understand that putting words in order can be a counterproductive mess, a workaday chore, or a useful and beautiful craft.”

    YES. As a teacher, I believe this to be true.

  19. Writing – it is born of history and creates history. It predicts the future. It’s a reflection of self. It’s the tool to make new. It’s intelligence. It’s permanent.

    S. Thomas Summers
    Author of Private Hercules McGraw: Poems of the American Civil War

  20. […] Why Good Writing Matters. […]

  21. You said it: “… skilful writer has more armour against the linguistic trickery of others, another reason for learning to write well.” Lingo abounds in all corners of study but saying something well is an art unto itself. Thanks for sharing yours!

  22. […] Why Good Writing Matters. […]

  23. What a relief. When I read ‘Good writing matters’ I thought your article was about handwriting. Memories of my grade 3 teacher lecturing me came flooding back. As for the other, you’re saying, quite rightly, that some of your colleagues believe that their results should do the talking so they needn’t bother.

  24. Brilliant points! To me a lot of the obfustication comes because (a) writing is a learned skill like any other, it takes practise and that’s not a priority for people who aren’t full time writers; and (b) the need to make what are often simple concepts seem sophisticated; or to add an intellectual gloss to quite simple experiments. It is very much the norm and I often feel that the cause (as in most academic fields, including my own which is history) is as much the status that accrues to the author from being seen to be more complex, or more sophisticated.

    But as I often say, why use ‘discourse’ when you actually mean ‘talk’?

  25. very astute

  26. hey..really liked your article. being a medical student, i do understand how important “good writing” is when you are trying to put a point forward. its always necessary to present matter in such a way that the reader is able to understand as well as appreciate what he is supposed to and thats where good writing plays its role. 🙂

  27. Indeed. . . and writing well is such an important tool for reaching a broad audience to get them interested in reading more (about our fields, mine being history). 🙂

    Have you read the article by Robin Wall Kimmerer entitled, “Learning the Grammar of Animacy” in The Leopold Outlook, Vol 12, No 2 (Winter 2012): 4-9? It’s all about how Western science often has no terms that explain what occurs in nature, such as the “force which causes mushrooms to push up from the earth overnight”–or puhpowee in Anishnaabe–which American Indians, in fact, do. She’s a biologist who explores the role of native knowledge and language in understanding the natural world.

    Fascinating article that my botanist husband found. I plan to use it in my American Indian history class, and he in his Environmental Science and Botany classes this spring. I think you would love it (based on what I’ve read above).

    It’ll be republished in BRAIDING SWEETGRASS (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions) soon. You can also preorder copies to orders at milkweed.org.

    • Hi Sandra, thanks for the Kimmerer reference, which sounds fascinating. It’s new to me, and I’d never have come across it otherwise. That’s the best thing about writing this post — how it has resonated with people from so many different fields of research. (It’s so kind of everyone to take the time to comment; thank you all.)

      • You are welcome!

  28. Reblogged this on Sunflower Communications and commented:
    This. This is why good writing is important. I’ll return to this topic (again and again, probably, because there is no topic that deserves good writing more than science) but for now, read this and enjoy. It’s splendid.

  29. Super. This is what I’m continually trying to explain to people: why good, clear writing is important. In fact, why it is important to be clear in all forms of communication. Science deserves better, and poor writing (especially in the media) has a lot to answer for (the MMR nonsense, and myriad other health scares). I’ve reblogged this – thank you! And congratulations on being freshly pressed!

  30. […] Why Good Writing Matters. […]

  31. […] easy to follow (which is why the media often misunderstands and misreports research outcomes) or are difficult to understand because they’re just really badly written.  It’s also true that researchers are, or should be, trained in good research […]

  32. Indeed good writing does matter but there is very little of it about.
    thanks.

  33. An fantastic post with insightful examples. The business world also needs to re-evaluate the importance it places on clear writing.

    • stefk3, you are so right about business jargon. And another form of verbiage is the kind of ‘management-speak’ which seems to be spreading through the higher ranks of UK universities. For example, students being ‘inducted’ has been around for a while, but now they’re being ‘outducted’ too. Where, why, what this is about … who knows?

  34. Reblogged this on eBook Lovers Co-Op and commented:
    Interesting article about the value of good writing skills

  35. […] Why Good Writing Matters. […]

  36. As a scientist and a writer, I wholeheartedly agree. Too many people in the ‘hard’ sciences are dismissive of good writing, whereas I tend to believe that being able to communicate your research is equally, if not more, important as producing quality data. Bravo, nice post.

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

  38. Writing for and STEM field is difficult as you tend to want to dumb it down, but at the same point you want to get the info out quickly. Delicate balance.

  39. […] Why Good Writing Matters: […]

  40. The real problem for scientists is not their writing style, but the lines of thinking. I compare it to a beginner playing chess and making all the obvious moves; a few years later the scientist realise that the initial conclusion was a dreadful piece of over-optimism.

  41. […] Why Good Writing Matters. […]

  42. Amen. I’m a medical writer, but I actually think of myself generally as a translator, transforming the incomprehensible into English.

    It is nice to know I’m not alone in thinking “if I wanted that kind of intellectual workout I’d read French.”

  43. My brother’s in neuro-psych and a really good writer. We’ve been talking about this for years. Somehow, in the sciences, good writing is viewed with scepticism – as if a serious scienctist would never deign to make himself understood to the lay person. Ironic given all the brain science that’s come out about the human brain retaining information best thru story.

  44. Reblogged this on Educating Rosi.

  45. […] Why Good Writing Matters. […]

  46. Thanks to everyone for the fascinating comments. I just wanted to add that this isn’t a new concern. A friend working on literary history drew my attention to this excellent comment by the great chemist Robert Boyle:

    ‘And certainly in these discourses, where our design is only to inform readers, not to delight or persuade them, perspicuity ought to be esteemed at least one of the best qualifications of a style’.

    The reference is to a 1772 edition of Boyle’s Works, p. 301. Digitised by Google, it’s available at:

    http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=LqYrAQAAMAAJ&dq=Perspicuity%20persuade%20boyle&pg=PA304#v=onepage&q=Perspicuity%20persuade%20boyle&f=false

    (I did modernise the fpelling.)

    He also worries about ‘dull and insipid’ prose that might disgust readers ‘by its flatness’. It’s lovely stuff. Guess they didn’t have the two-cultures split back then.

  47. […]  Reblogged from neurotaylor: […]

  48. Reblogged this on Mark E. Mitchell.

  49. Hey, this is great information, thanks! I agree that writing is a great way to sort out thoughts, especially for people who are better at expressing themselves through writing rather than verbally.

    -Melanie, The Networker Next Door


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