Preface to The Craft of Scientific Writing

Writing Guidelines
Writing Exercises
Writing Courses

Table of Contents
Chapter 1
Chapter 2 (Excerpt)
Chapter 4

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In October 1984, the weak writing in a scientific report made national news. The report, which outlined safety procedures during a nuclear attack, advised industrial workers "to don heavy clothes and immerse themselves in a large body of water." The logic behind this advice was sound: water is a good absorber of heat, neutrons, and gamma rays. Unfortunately, the way the advice was worded was unclear. Was everyone supposed to be completely submerged? Was it safe to come up for air? Besides being unclear, the writing conveyed the wrong impression to the public. The report came across as saying "go jump in a lake"--not the impression you want to give someone spending thousands of dollars to fund your research.

Chances are that Dan Rather will not quote sentences from your documents on national television, no matter how weak the writing is. Still, your writing is important. On a personal level, your writing is the principal way in which people learn about your work. When you communicate well, you receive credit for that work. When you do not communicate well or are too slow to communicate, the credit often goes to someone else. On a larger level, your writing and the writing of other scientists and engineers influences public policy about science and engineering. When the scientific community communicates well, its opinions shape this public policy. When the scientific community does not communicate well, other groups dictate this public policy.

Although scientific writing is important, many scientists and engineers have never sat down and thought out exactly why they write or what they want their writing to accomplish. Instead, these authors rely on a set of vague conceptions that they have developed over the years. Often these conceptions arise from two untrustworthy sources: simplistic rules and weak examples.

The simplistic rules that scientists and engineers remember originate in freshman composition classes taken years ago, late night conversations with colleagues, DOs and DON'Ts articles cut out of company newsletters.

  • Use synonyms for variety.
  • Never use the first person.
  • Always write in the active voice.

These rules contain absolutes such as "always" and "never." Worse yet, many of these rules are untrue. When applied to the wide range of writing situations in science and engineering, these rules fail. Face it: Writing scientific documents is difficult, much too difficult to be solved by a list of one-liners.

An even bigger influence on how scientists and engineers write comes from weak examples that they read. Just as hearing a spoken dialect influences the way you speak, reading a certain writing style influences the way you write. Word choices, sentence rhythms, even the ways that papers are organized are absorbed by readers. Unfortunately, many writing examples in scientific literature are weak. In many documents, the results are not emphasized well, the language is needlessly complex, and the illustrations do not mesh with what is written.

Because of simplistic rules and weak examples in scientific writing, many conceptions that scientists and engineers have about scientific writing are really misconceptions. For instance, many authors think of scientific writing as a mystical aspect of science. Scientific writing is not that at all. For one thing, scientific writing is not a science. It does not contain laws obtained through derivations or experiments. Scientific writing is a craft. It consists of skills that are developed through study and practice. Moreover, scientific writing is not mystical. In fact, scientific writing is straightforward. Unlike other forms of writing, such as fiction, where the goals are difficult if not impossible to define, scientific writing has two specific goals: to inform readers and to persuade readers.

How do you achieve these goals? When the purpose of the writing is to inform, you write in a style that communicates the most amount of information in the least amount of reading time. When the purpose of the writing is to persuade, you write in a style that presents logical arguments in the most convincing manner. You should understand, though, that there are no cookbook recipes for these styles--the writing situations in science and engineering are just too diverse for recipes to apply.

If this book doesn't give recipes, what does it do? First, this book dispels the common misconceptions that prevent scientists and engineers from improving their writing. Second, this book uses examples from actual documents to show the differences between strong scientific writing and weak scientific writing. Finally, this book discusses the style of scientific writing by going beyond the surface question of how things are written to the deeper question of why things are written as they are. In essence, what this book does is make you a critical reader of scientific writing so that you can craft a style for your writing situations.

In addition to discussing the style of scientific writing, this book discusses the act of sitting down at the computer to write: getting into the mood, writing first drafts, revising, and finishing. I wish that I could tell you that this book will make your scientific writing easy. Unfortunately, that's not the way scientific writing is. Scientific writing is hard work. The best scientific writers struggle with every paragraph, every sentence, every phrase. They must write, then rewrite, then rewrite again. Scientific writing is a craft, a craft you continually hone.

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Last updated 3/99

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