Table of Contents
Chapter 2 (Excerpt)
Note: All materials at this web page are the property of Springer-Verlag. For proper viewing of this page, use Netscape.
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
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
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
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
Back to Top