The tyranny of reader expectations

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a sentence I was tempted to be proud of.  It’s part of the Introduction to a paper* about how the impact of insect herbivores on their host plants might evolve over time.  We’d pointed out that insects frequently acquire new host plants and plants frequently acquire new herbivores, and to build on that, I wrote:

That herbivore-host associations are frequently reassorted means that some herbivore-host pairs are evolutionarily well acquainted, while others are strangers recently met. 

And then I had second thoughts.  It’s not the phrasing I’d usually use in a scientific paper.  In fact, we’d written plainer versions in the past – things like “Some herbivore-host associations are evolutionarily ancient, while others are more recently formed”.  Was my “strangers recently met” over the top, stylistically?  So I asked Twitter:

strangers-tweets-crop

The responses ran about 3:1 in favour, which was gratifying**.  One response, from Brian Waters, was particularly interesting:

strangers-tweets

Let’s unpack Brian’s response a little, because he makes some really good points about scientific writing.  First, Brian says that “[it] depends on the audience. Too much for a journal article, but maybe it would be OK for a general audience.”  I agree completely that in writing, everything should depend on the audience – content, vocabulary, structure, style – you name it.  But (and you knew there was a “but” coming) – why might a stylish turn of phrase be too much in a journal paper, even if it’s OK for a general audience?

Brian had a good answer for that: reader expectations.  “Authors should keep needs & expectations of the audience in mind”, he replied. “As a reader I get grumpy if the writing is off.”   Again, bang on: when we work with reader expectations, we ease the reader’s job – as we should.  I make a big deal of this in The Scientist’s Guide to Writing.  But: should all reader expectations be met?  I don’t think so, actually.

Most reader expectations should indeed be met: for instance, that English sentences should be structured subject-verb-object***, or that results should appear only in your Results section.  Neither of these is the only possible system, but meeting each expectation means working with your reader rather than against them.  But scientific readers have a few expectations that I (and Brian!) think can be profitably disrupted.  Here are a few things that many scientific readers expect:

  • Jargon.
  • Passive voice.
  • Long, complicated sentences.
  • Colourless prose, without style or individuality.

If you doubt this, well, I can show you peer reviews suggesting more of each; or you can ask senior undergraduates why they write lab reports and term papers the way they do.  We write dull, weighty prose because we believe that’s appropriate scientific style; but we believe this because that’s what we read in our literature****.  This is entirely circular.

This is too bad, because – as long as clarity isn’t compromised – it seems likely that a little style (not too much) can make a paper memorable, and can even bring readers to it.  [What’s “too much”?  That, of course, is a little tricky – in e-mail discussion, Brian and I discovered that we agree that a bit of individuality and style is a good thing, but have slightly different ideas about where “too much” starts.]  I can even point to (anecdotal) evidence that many scientists would like to see more writing with style – although they keep this opinion largely private.

So Brian is quite right: my “strangers recently met” fails to meet reader expectations.  But that’s the very reason I’m going to stick with it.  Usually, reader expectations are a help; but sometimes they’re a tyranny, holding us back from writing better.  I’d like to break free, to get to a literature we could all enjoy reading a little bit more.  Our literature will never be One Hundred Years of Solitude (and it shouldn’t be); but it doesn’t need to be colourless.  I don’t know any way to get from here to there other than gently poking at reader expectations, and encouraging others to do the same.  As I say near the end of The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, “We can change our culture to deliver, and value, pleasure in our writing – if we choose to”.  As I get older, increasingly I choose to. Or at least, I choose to try.

© Stephen Heard (sheard@unb.ca) December 5, 2016

 Thanks to Brian Waters for sparking this post, and for comments on a draft of it. In case I haven’t been clear: Brian is not on the side of jargon, complicated sentences, or colourless prose.  His objection to “strangers recently met” was much more nuanced, and I appreciate being allowed to share it here.


*^Along with my (ex) Masters’ student, Yana Shibel, who of course did all the real work.

**^It wasn’t unanimous, and if you’re on the side of “too much”, that’s OK.  My more general point survives, I think, even if this specific example is shot down.  Twitter feedback also suggested the revision to ‘reassorted’ seen in the featured image.

***^Consider the way Rod Stewart’s omnipresent Maggie May grates on the ear (well, one of the ways, anyway). “I laughed at all of your jokes/My love you didn’t have to coax” – subject-verb-object/object-subject-verb.  Say what?

****^With a few exceptions, of course.

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10 thoughts on “The tyranny of reader expectations

  1. crowther

    Great post, Steve — but I must defend Rod Stewart against your uncalled-for attack! I hear that line as, “My love, comma, you didn’t need to coax,” i.e., “Dear, you didn’t need to coax [me].” Doesn’t that seem more acceptable?

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      I don’t know, Greg. I think that logic I’m not going to buy 🙂 Must admit that reading hadn’t occurred to me, but it seems a bit forced. If you’re going to defend Rod Stewart, I think you could find more potent weapons. Like “possibly gave the best response ever to being offered a knighthood” (I’m assuming you saw this, when he replied “I’ll wear it well”). Cheers!

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      I think a big part of the problem is that (1) undergrads are still taught active voice; and that (2) once you have the habit ingrained, it’s REALLY hard to dislodge. I still edit passive voice out of my own manuscripts, and I’ve been pushing active on people for years!

      And you would think I made point (1) passive on purpose to make some kind of a joke. But I swear, it was inadvertent, which perfectly illustrates point (2).

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  2. sleather2012

    Interesting thoughts; I always try to avoid jargon when writing papers but must admit that my mainstream writing is much more detached than my blogging (as it should be, or should it?). In mainstream science I guess the places where we get the chance to be more “colourful” are in Forum pieces or Editorials, but even those are less so than if we were blogging. I was recently invited to write a ‘forum’ type piece for Agricultural & Forest Entomology, so as an experiment wrote it pretty much as I would my blog. One of the referees picked up on what he/she termed the unusually informal style or as he/she put it “almost blog-like style” but felt that this was not a problem. The Editor and other referee agreed so look out for it in the first issue of the year. No early-view either as they felt that they would like to spring it unannounced on to the world stage 🙂 Perhaps it will stimulate more colourful writing in the mainstream journals?

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      I think it’s all about degree. Yes, our regular papers will be, and probably always should be, less colourful than blog posts. We’re not trying to produce great art; but the fact that we don’t want to be at one end of the continuum doesn’t mean we have to cower pressed hard up against the other end! Now, where’s the right place on the continuum? I’d love to know the answer. To some degree that’s an empirical question (what place makes our writing most effective?) which is almost completely unstudied.

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  3. Jeff Houlahan

    Hi Steve, despite the fact that I read a lot of fiction and the authors that I love best (like James Lee Burke and Ken Bruen) are unique stylists-there’s nothing generic about the way they write- I surprise myself by siding with Brian Waters on this. In the vast majority of cases, I think the role of scientific writing is to communicate – pure and simple. It’s not to inspire, to be evocative, to move – and, in fact, while being inspirational, evocative and moving might all increase the enjoyment of the reader they probably distract from the message you’re trying to deliver. They add an emotional layer that, I believe, is a distraction. And I hear the push back on this – “scientist’s are not emotionless automatons and shouldn’t be forced to pretend they are”. Sorry, I disagree – when designing our experiments, analysing our data and interpreting and explaining our results we should be doing it from as objective and dispassionate a position as we can . I get that most scientist’s are passionate about their work and it’s that passion that allows them to invest the time and energy they do but there is a fundamental tension between the passion required to do the work and the distance required to do it without bias (i.e. without caring what the answer to your question is). One way to maintain that is by writing with clarity as the only objective.I think,

    “Some herbivore-host associations are evolutionarily ancient, while others are more recently formed”.

    is a better piece of scientific writing than,

    ” some herbivore-host pairs are evolutionarily well acquainted, while others are strangers recently met.

    It’s clearer – I don’t have to filter through the metaphor to get at the meaning. And the second sentence draws my attention to the author rather than the meaning of the sentence.

    I think the difference between creative and scientific writing is that creative writing can have many objectives and scientific writing has one (clear communication) – I suspect that’s where most disagreement about this would stem from.
    Having said all that, I don’t want to make too much of my position on this – wouldn’t bother me a bit to see the second sentence…I just prefer the first. Jeff

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Thanks, Jeff. You represent the “anti” forces well and that’s a good argument. Ultimately, it’s really an empirical issue. I’d like to be able to publish 2 version of the paper, randomly assign readers to them, and test for effects on things like the % of readers who finish the paper, number of citations, etc. That experiment can’t be done, of course, but there are observational ways to accomplish the same thing. To my knowledge, they have never been executed (or at least, not well). It’s a huge opportunity for a PhD thesis in science studies!

      I would disagree (gently) with you about the issue of disguising one’s passion. I don’t think that *pretending* that we’re objective makes us *actually* objective. So I side with the “pushback” there; and it’s your clarity argument that I think is the good one.

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