Image: The Writer in the Window, by Mark Heybo via flickr.com, 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? The concept is slippery, without a clean consensus definition, but what I mean by voice is the recognizable traits of text that makes a particular author’s text unique and that suggest the author’s attitude or personality. Voice may arise from an author’s choice of sentence structures, patterns of punctuation, word choice, rhythm – all kinds of things that you may not notice consciously as you read, but that unite different passages by the same author while distinguishing those passages from the work of other authors. It’s because authors write with voice that you can read a passage and recognize the author, even if you don’t recognize which book it comes from. Consider these four snippets, from novels by four different American authors. Can you guess who wrote each one? (Tell us – be honest – how you did, in the Replies).
“Come on down-stairs and have a drink.”
“Aren’t you working?”
“No,” I said. We went down the stairs to the café on the ground floor. I had discovered that was the best way to get rid of friends. Once you had a drink all you had to say was: “Well, I’ve got to get back and get off some cables”, and it was done. It is very important to discover graceful exists like that in the newspaper business, where it is such an important part of the ethics that you should never seem to be working. Anyway, we went down-stairs to the bar and had a whiskey and soda. Cohn looked at the bottles in bins around the wall. “This is a good place,” he said. (—Who wrote this?)
Lou Ann walked past both of these establishments nearly every day. Something about the Jesus Is Lord place reminded her of Kentucky, and she always meant to ask (if she only had the nerve) if the people there came from her part of the country. Fanny Heaven she just tried to ignore. There was something innocent and primitive about the painting on the door, as though the leopard-bikini lady might have been painted by a schoolchild, except that she was positioned in such a way that the door handle, when a person pushed it, would sink into her crotch. This door always gave Lou Ann the shivers, though she tried not to give it a second thought. (—Who wrote this?)
The gun made a ripping sound like the opening of the zipper on the fly of God Almighty. The gun lapped up snow and vegetation with a blowtorch thirty feet long. The flame left a black arrow on the ground, showing the Germans exactly where the gun was hidden. The shot was a miss.
What had been missed was a Tiger tank. It swiveled its 88-millimeter snout around sniffingly, saw the arrow on the ground. It fired. It killed everybody on the gun crew but Weary. So it goes. (—Who wrote this?)
“We got a lot to do and a lot to see,” said Towser. “We got a lot to learn. We’ll find things–-“
Yes, they could find things. Civilizations, perhaps. Civilizations that would make the civilization of Man seem puny by comparison. Beauty and, more important, an understanding of that beauty. And a comradeship no one had ever known before – that no man, no dog had ever known before.
And life. The quickness of life after what seemed a drugged existence.
“I can’t go back,” said Towser.
“Nor I,”, said Fowler
“They would turn be back into a dog,” said Towser.
“And me,” said Fowler, “back into a man.” (—Who wrote this?)
How’d you do?*
Now imagine that we did the same thing with scientific papers. Do you think you could read a few sentences from one of my papers and identify me as the author? Do you think I could work the trick on a few sentences from one of your papers?
I’m pretty confident that the answer is “no”. Even if you had read every single one of my scientific papers**, I don’t think you could identify me as they author of a passage from my next manuscript***. In other words, I don’t think my scientific writing has a recognizable voice, and I’ll wager a fair bit of money that yours doesn’t either.
This raises three interesting questions:
- Is this a good thing or a bad one?
- Why is it so?
- If we wanted to give our writing voice, how could we do so?
The second and third questions I’ll leave for future posts. But for now: if I’m right that you can’t tell my scientific-writing style from anyone else’s, should we regret that, or should we heave a sigh of relief?
The case for a sigh of relief – Voice is one reason that readers of fiction have authors they love, and authors they despise. (It’s not the only one, of course.) Some people love James Joyce, but others can’t stand him – finding his writing pretentiously unintelligible (and that’s a charitable way of putting it). Some people love Leo Tolstoy, but others find him interminably long-winded. Some people love Cormac McCarthy, but others find him – well, to be honest, I couldn’t even get far enough into Blood Meridian to decide why I hated it. If my scientific writing had a strong voice, there might be readers who loved my papers and readers who hated them****. I’m not sure it’s wise to turn off a set of readers stylistically – not when every paper I write inevitably competes for readers’ attention with the ocean of other papers they could read instead. I can see a second problem with a voice-rich literature, too. There’s a mental cost associated with switching, as a reader, from one voice or style to another. Even if stronger and more individual voices didn’t make individual papers harder to read, they might make a literature harder to read. I might find it interesting and fun to switch from a Raymond Chandlerish meta-analysis of host choice in plant-insect interactions to a Gabriel Garcia Marquezian report of a novel host shift in passionflower beetles – but I wouldn’t find it easy. To a considerable extent, our literature has converged on formulaic structure (IMRaD, and much more) and homogeneous style because that eases the task readers face. A single, consistent way of encoding and decoding information makes for efficient information retrieval.
The case for regret – Homogeneity may be efficient, but it’s dull. In converging on a style that’s consistent across our literature, we’ve converged on a style that’s plain and – more than that – grey. It’s important that our literature be clear, of course (that’s a major theme of The Scientist’s Guide to Writing); but I don’t think that means that our writing must be completely unornamented. It’s possible for scientific writing to be clear, but also stylish (as Helen Sword argues in this very nice little book). It’s possible for scientific writing to be clear, but also enjoyable. Writing that has voice (well, as long as it’s not Joyce’s) is more enjoyable, more engaging, than writing that doesn’t. Voice shows something of the personality of the writer, and we like to see the personality behind the science. (Ignore those who argue that showing personality in writing robs our work of objectivity. Objectivity, if it exists at all, is a feature of our methods, not of the rhetorical tricks we use to pretend to be objective.) If I wrote papers with a distinctive voice, I might have readers who enjoy them; readers who tell their friends they’ve enjoyed them; and readers who return to my work because they get some pleasure along with their science. I’d love to have such readers. And if I lose a few readers who don’t like my particular voice, perhaps I’ll recruit enough new readers to outweigh the losses (in the Trolley Problem of Writing).
So: an argument against voice, and an argument for it; and of course the obvious possibility that the optimum is some voice, but not too much. What do you think? Would our literature be improved or ruined, if we each sounded a little bit like ourselves?
© Stephen Heard April 9, 2019
Expect a few more posts exploring this issue of voice in scientific writing. Meg Duffy, Helen Fricker, and someone in the audience at my most recent talk (at Université Laval) asked me similar and very interesting questions about writing, collectively spurring me to begin writing up my not-very-coherent thoughts – thanks to each of them!
*^I kept these fairly short so they’d be a little bit challenging, although none is from an obscure work by its author. Some of the four authors are more widely read than the others – and of course it’s completely expected that you wouldn’t recognize the voice of author X if you’ve never read their work! If you don’t know the work of authors 2, 3, and 4, please check them out – each is wonderful. If you don’t know the work of author 1, count yourself lucky.
**^I do not recommend doing this.
***^Other than possibly by topic, I mean. It’s true that if you read a new paper on host- and habitat-associated genetic structure in leafmining flies on goldenrods, you could reasonably guess that Julia Mlynarek and I are (possibly among) the authors. But you’d be doing so based on the flies and the goldenrods, not based on our inimitable style.
****^I heard that. Don’t make me come back there.