Monthly Archives: April 2019

Where did our (scientific writing) voices go?

Image: European starling by hedera.baltica via; CC BY-SA 2.0

A few weeks ago, I argued that unlike fiction writing, scientific writing largely lacks “voice”.  By “voice”, I mean recognizable attributes of text, such as rhythm, vocabulary, style, and other  that makes a particular author’s text unique and that suggest the author’s attitude or personality.  Novelists often sound very different; with rather few exceptions, I think scientific writers all sound the same.

This lack of voice may be one reason among many that our literature has, and deserves, a reputation for being tedious and unrewarding to read (there is of course some brilliant writing in the scientific literature, but these glints are rare).  It wasn’t always this way. Continue reading


The unluckiest naturalist ever

Image: Ambrose Palisot de Beauvois (public domain).

Writing my forthcoming book has taken me down a lot of rabbitholes.  Many of them have involved the history of science, and especially, the history of natural history.  I’ve learned about naturalists who were heroic and naturalists who were despicable; naturalists who were centuries ahead of their times and naturalists stubbornly stuck in the past; naturalists who had every privilege and naturalists who struggled even to feed themselves, let alone to do science.  But no naturalist I’ve encountered was as extraordinarily unlucky as Ambroise Marie François Joseph Palisot, Baron de Beauvois. Continue reading

(Limited) use-cases for “utilize”

Warning: if you had your fill of ‘use’ vs. ‘utilize’ last week, I won’t blame you for clicking away. Here, this post is kind of fun and I promise it’s not about semantics.

Last week I let myself rant a little bit about one of my writing pet peeves, the overuse of utilize when use will do.  Going just slightly over the top, I wrote that “my claim is that in every writing situation, use is a better choice”. So, is “never use utilize” a categorical rule of writing?  Or is there a case, in particular circumstances, for using utilize in scientific writing?

Here, briefly, are four pro-utilize arguments.  Thanks to readers who pushed back (many of them quite politely).

1. Rhyme. OK, this is admittedly a bit trivial, but I was tickled a couple of tongue-in-cheek suggestions that utilize is better than use when you need something to rhyme. After all, Continue reading

For the love of all that is holy, stop writing “utilize”

(My Writing Pet Peeves, Part 5.)

Last week, in a moment of grading-related frustration, I suggested on Twitter that there is never any good reason to use the word “utilize”.  As scientists, we love to use it – and I’ll have more to say about that below – but my claim is that in every writing situation, “use” is a better choice. It’s shorter, it’s simpler, it sounds less pretentious.

I thought this was a pretty trivial claim, so I was surprised to get pushback.  Maybe I’ll get some more once I’ve posted this.

Why the pushback?  Continue reading

Do scientific writers have “voice”?

Image: The Writer in the Window, by Mark Heybo via, CC BY 2.0

Scientific writing has a reputation for being dull (among other things).  By and large, it deserves that reputation (although there are admittedly exceptions).  I’ve become very interested in why our writing is dull.  I don’t have a definitive answer, but in today’s post I’ll begin to explore one possibility: that pressure for conformity has prevented most scientific writing from having voice.

What is “voice” in writing?  Continue reading

Aenigma, enigmas, and the progress of science

Image: an Enigma encoding/decoding machine (Greg Goebel, CC 0 via  Which, I admit, is only tangentially related to this piece, but it’s pretty cool.

I’ve celebrated many a Latin name on Scientist Sees Squirrel, sometimes for something as simple as the way it sounds, but more often for a story it tells.  But this time, I’m celebrating the loss of a Latin name.  Not because I didn’t like the lost name; I did.  But its loss – or, more precisely, its replacement by a new name – has a lot to tell us about the process of naming and the progress of science. Continue reading