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:
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:
- 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 (email@example.com) 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?