Image: Trolley by McGeddon CC BY-SA 4.0 via wikimedia.org
Our scientific literature has a reputation for being not much fun to read: colourless, tedious, and turgid. By and large, it deserves that reputation (and I would include my own papers in that assessment). There are exceptions, of course, but they’re few and far between. I’ve speculated before about some of the reasons for this. But there’s a possibility I think I’ve been missing, and I’m going to use this post to think through it.
One thing I see fairly often is early-career writers struggling because they think there’s a single best way to write a given piece of text. Although this is wrong, it’s an easy thing to think*, and it’s easy to become paralyzed at the keyboard by the belief that one hasn’t found that single best way yet. I wonder if there’s a connection between this problem and style that I haven’t appreciated before. I wonder if writers think that there’s a single phrasing that will be the clearest to, and most appreciated by, everyone – or to turn that around, a single phrasing that isn’t unclear to anyone.
What does style have to do with this? Well, think for a bit about style in fiction writing. I promise, I’ll get back to scientific writing, but bear with me. In fiction (and literary nonfiction), style and “voice” are enormously variable. Think of the no-nonsense terseness of Ernest Hemingway, the dizzying busyness of James Joyce, the sardonic choppiness of Kurt Vonnegut, or the conversational yet lyrical sweep of Toni Morrison – and that’s just four that occurred to me while writing this sentence. And each of those styles has its fans and its detractors. Those who love Hemingway may loathe Joyce, or Morrison, or Mario Vargas Llosa, or Barbara Kingsolver, or for that matter Barbara Cartland (sorry**).
But if every stylistically marked piece of writing turns some readers off, then a superficially attractive conclusion is that one can turn nobody off by rinsing away from one’s writing all vestiges of style. The problem, though: what’s left will look a lot like our scientific literature – bland, colourless, and uninteresting. I don’t think this is too strong. I read a lot of science fiction, and I know that I can identify (blind) a passage by Ursula LeGuin, or by Sherri Tepper, or by Clifford Simak just by its rhythm, its tone, and other elements of style. I’m quite sure I can’t do that with scientific papers. We’ve converged, I think, on a common scientific style that’s essentially an absence of style.
And that’s where the trolley problem comes in. The trolley problem is a superficially simple, but endlessly knotty, problem in ethics and philosophy. You probably know it (especially if you’ve watched The Good Place, and if you haven’t, why not?). Here’s a simple version. Imagine you’re at the controls of a trolley. Ahead on the tracks are five people, and you can’t stop the trolley in time to avoid hitting them. You can, however, switch the trolley to another track with only one person on it. You’ll hit them instead – so should you actively decide to kill one person, to save five? And if that one seems easy, there are elaborations and variants enough to keep you up night after night.
What does this have to do with writing? Well, the attempt to expunge style from our writing is an attempt to steer the trolley down a track nobody is standing on (although rather than counting up people’s deaths, we’re less disturbingly counting up people who are confused or turned off by a paper we’re writing). But: there is no track that nobody is standing on. We write stylelessly because we think that won’t turn anybody off – but we simultaneously complain about reading dull and turgid literature. Have you ever put aside a boring paper in favour of reading, or doing, something else? I have. There are people on the styleless track.
If we accept that lack of style has readership costs just as style does, we come to what I’ll call the trolley problem of writing. Imagine that I write a paper with an unusual bit of writing style – perhaps a colourful metaphor. Image that doing so leaves 10 readers confused or repelled; but imagine that the style gets my paper a little social-media play or word-of-mouth that recruits 11 new readers. I’ve saved 11 readers, but run down 10: writing with some style has increased my net readership, even if it’s turned some people off. This is a trolley-problem win, isn’t it?
Thinking of writing style as a trolley problem converts our decisions about style to a quantitative optimization. Or at least, it would if we could quantify the readers standing on each stylistic track. I can’t do that, unfortunately: the question of how scientific readership responds to style is rarely and poorly studied. But there are anecdotes suggesting that style both repels and attracts readers:
- That style can repel is evident from the occasional rant (often on Twitter) by someone from the just-the-facts-ma’am school of scientific writing. Such folk will insist that we write without adverbs, or insist that “the data speak for themselves”. They’ll explain the importance of exclusive adoption of the passive voice, or of the banishment of contractions, on the grounds that anything else “sounds unprofessional”. You’ve met these people; you may have even been taught by them.
- That style can attract can be seen very occasionally when a paper gets passed around with the suggestion that people read it, not because the results are staggeringly and broadly important, but because it’s a great read***. And consider Hurlbert 1984 (Pseudoreplication and the design of ecological field experiments). This is a 25-page, fairly difficult paper about a statistical issue that’s important but not exciting. In fact, this paper could easily have been the statistical equivalent of watching very complicated paint dry. And yet it’s been cited over 4,000 times, and after 30+ years is still widely read. Why? I believe it’s at least in part because of Hurlbert’s discussion of “demonic intrusion” and “non-demonic intrusion” in experiments. I know that when I was a grad student, that’s what made me stick with the paper, and years later, it drew me back to re-read it. I don’t think I’m the only one.
So, the big trolley-problem question is this: what kind of stylistic choices might attract more readers than they repel (trolley-problem wins), and what kind of choices might repel more than they attract (trolley-problem losses)? I don’t know the answer to that – nobody does. But at least framing the question this way makes clear something that I think is rarely said out loud. I’d like to think it’s something that matters – something that offers us a path to making our scientific writing less tedious.
© Stephen Heard June 26, 2018
My assessment of Hurlbert (1984) is borrowed from The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, my guidebook for scientific writers.
*^Partly because as high-school students and undergraduates, we often learn to write in courses that involve our writing being graded right or wrong against a rubric – with the idea that, as on an exam, a perfect grade comes by knowing each of the correct answers.
***^This happened to me quite recently with this paper. It’s about ecoevolutionary dynamics in butterflies, but even if you don’t care about that (or understand what it means), you should read the paper. It’s that good.