Image: Gustav Flaubert, portrait by Eugène Giraud (1806-1881), via wikimedia.org. Public domain. I bet you’re wondering why he’s relevant. All in good time…
A couple of weeks ago I wrote about an old chestnut: whether you can, or should, reuse blocks of text when you write a new Methods section describing methods you’ve already published. My suggestion that you generally can’t, and that often when you can you shouldn’t, raised a predictable number of people to a high dudgeon. I won’t rehash that here, except for one objection that’s both common and interesting. It’s this: the claim that “there are only so many ways you can write we prepared a one molar solution of KNO3*”.
This claim achieves an interesting trifecta: it’s simultaneously irrelevant, false, and important.
First, it’s irrelevant. I don’t think (am I wrong?) anyone’s been arguing that you can’t reuse a single, simple sentence between one Methods section and the next. The COPE guidelines, for example, recommend that journals allow such limited reuse; and whether it would constitute a copyright violation worthy of anybody’s time seems doubtful to me**. The real issue, of course, is something else: it’s whether you can reuse whole blocks of text – paragraph-length descriptions of entire protocols and the like. Reducing the issue to reuse of a single simple sentence is, one assumes, an attempt to reduce it to one with an obvious answer. And it has an obvious answer – just not the one we’re supposed to infer. Which brings us to…
Second, it’s false. English is a very flexible language. There are plenty of ways to write we prepared a one molar solution of KNO3. Here are five more:
- We made a one molar potassium nitrate solution
- We dissolved one mole (101g) of KNO3 in one litre of H20
- We mixed KNO3 in water to produce a 1 M solution
- We mixed potassium nitrate solution to one molar concentration
- A one molar solution of potassium nitrate was prepared
That makes six alternatives, and if they aren’t all beautiful, consider that I spent less than three minutes crafting them. They certainly don’t exhaust the possibilities. Actually, there are many, many more possibilities if we’re allowed to back up a little and work with a bigger block of text, but my point here is that even with the strict constraint of sticking to a single simple sentence, it’s easy to rewrite.
Third, it’s important. Not, I grant you, in the context of reuse vs. rewriting of Methods: if you object that my KNO3 rearrangements are rather trivial, I agree entirely. I’m not arguing that picking a different one in each paper will make your writing better – only that, if you need to rewrite, it isn’t hard***. But the only-so-many-ways claim is important in a broader sense, as a cause of considerable trouble for many scientific writers. Many writers (especially early-career writers) are convinced that there’s only perfect way to write a passage. Paralyzed by the fear that they haven’t found it, they don’t write anything at all – laying the problem to “writer’s block”. Or, nearly as bad, they dither endlessly making minor edits rather than forging ahead and completing a draft they can polish later.
Which brings me, at last, to the owner of the fabulous moustache above this post. Gustav Flaubert was a French novelist (1821-1880) who wrote Madame Bovary and a handful – but only a handful – of other novels. Flaubert famously laboured to find le seul mot juste, “the only perfect word”. He was legendarily slow both to compose and to edit, once taking three days (of mental agony) to make two small corrections to a draft.
Flaubert is revered as a great writer, but I wouldn’t propose him as a role model, because he was wrong about le seul mot juste. There isn’t (usually) a single perfect word, or a single perfect phrase, or a single perfect sentence. There are nearly always several good ways to write something (to be fair, there are always more-than-several bad ways, too). Imagine how much more of Flaubert’s work we could have enjoyed, had he spent a little less time paralyzed by the quest for imagined perfection. Imagine how many more papers I could have published**** had I understood earlier that le seul mot juste is a myth.
Any one of several ways to write “we prepared a one molar solution of KNO3” will do, as long as it’s clear. That’s trivial, as a matter of rewriting instead of reusing Methods. It’s profound, as a key to the craft of writing.
© Stephen Heard April 17, 2018
The third part of this post is based on my treatment of writer’s block and of “bashers”, “swoopers”, and “draggers” in The Scientist’s Guide to Writing (my guidebook for scientific writers).
*^The example here is taken directly from at least three different instances of this objection, varying only in the identity of the solute and the concentration of the solution. (I’m not sure why this particular kind of methodological step is the go-to one.) The phrase “only so many” seems to be a constant.
***^When the bits of text are bigger, then rewriting often does make your writing better, because each paper will likely call for inclusion or emphasis of different details (full argument in the original post). The focus on rewriting a single simple sentence manoeuvres around this by defining which details matter right into the question – a nice rhetorical trick, but an unhelpful one.
****^Or, more realistically and more healthily: how many more walks I could have taken or books I could have read or curling bonspiels I could have entered, while writing the same number of papers more quickly and easily.