Reclaiming voice in scientific writing

Image: Western meadowlark singing, © Jim Kennedy via, CC BY 2.0

I’ve argued recently that our scientific literature is tedious to read in part because it lacks voice – those hints of individuality in vocabulary, style, and structure that show personality and mark one writer’s work as distinct from another’s.  I’ve also thought a bit about where our voicelessness comes from  Today, the obvious next question in the series: if we wanted to see scientific writing with more voice*, how could we make that happen?

The answer is both extremely simple and very complicated.  To start with the simple answer: we get more voice by putting more in and taking less out.  Roughly, that’s us as writers, and us as reviewers.

As writers: putting more in.  As scientific writers, most of us learned our craft largely by reading the literature already published in our fields, and then modeling what we saw there.  This is a pretty good system for erasing any voice we might have had, but the good news is that our voiceless literature is a matter of practice, not of possibility.  We could write scientific papers with (a little) voice, if chose to.

Now we come to the massive irony, of course.  I can’t tell you how to write with voice – because the very definition of voice is that you write a little bit differently than I do.  (Steve Martin may have said this best, with his Nonconformist’s Oath).  But I’ll offer one thought anyway.  I think the key is a little experimentation.  With your next few papers, why not try out a few little things?  Perhaps use some contractions.  Perhaps use a metaphor, or a pop-culture reference, or a tiny little joke (tuned in such a way that a reader who doesn’t understand simply misses it, rather than being mystified).  Perhaps slip in a little alliteration, or an ornament in a figure.  If we let ourselves experiment a little, we won’t all do the same things.

It’s important not to overdo this, of course.  With every quirk you’re tempted to introduce, ask yourself if it impedes clear understanding of your paper.  Clarity should always come first.  But “clarity” needn’t be the same thing as “every paper sounds the same”.  If you experiment, you may find you’ve written a sentence that doesn’t sound like the rest of our literature.  The correct reaction isn’t “gosh, that doesn’t sound science-y, so I’d better change it”; the correct reaction is “OK, that sounds a bit different, but is it clear?”

As reviewers: taking less out

Reading that first part, you probably thought something like “I can’t do any of that stuff – reviewers will just make me undo it”.  And much of the time, you’re probably right.**  Reviewers who refrain from squashing voice will be just as important as writers who offer it.  So: when you have your reviewer’s hat on, you’ll likely have a strong reflex to question prose that doesn’t sound quite like everything else in our literature.  Suppress that reflex.  Instead, ask yourself this: “does the style I’m noticing make the writing unclear, or just different”?  If the former, by all means, squash away; but if the latter, perhaps it’s a good time to praise rather than criticize.  Or at least to stay neutral.

Mentors of undergraduate and graduate students will play an outsized role here.  As supervisory committee members and especially as advisors, we’re on the front lines as our students learn to write.  We may comment on, or edit, a student’s thesis through a dozen drafts – and (as my students will tell you) we can use Track Changes to make a truly impressive masterpiece of markup.  And since we’re likely to be the first in that student’s career to have done so, what we say may be influential.***  So it’s worth thinking about how we might work with a student’s writing without flattening their voice.  I’ll switch into first person now, because my perspective here is that of sinner, not saint: I strongly suspect that over the years I’ve over-edited, at cost to students’ voices.  So, if I’m to do better, how?

Since we’re talking about voice, let’s set aside comments/edits**** that pertain to paper content, and think about those that pertain to paper style.  When I’m reading a student draft, I’ll notice a point of style that isn’t how I would have written it.  Rather than immediately “fixing” it, I think I should be sorting the piece of writing I’ve noticed into one of three bins:

(1) I wouldn’t have written it that way, because it isn’t clear. This I should go ahead and edit; if style is getting in the way of clarity, then it’s bad. No need for me to change my practice here.

(2) I wouldn’t have written it that way, because it doesn’t sound like a scientific paper.  I’ve done this – marked for editing things that were “too conversational”, “too informal”, and so on.  That’s problematic because, if our literature lacks voice, then this category includes the very things that could bring it back.  On the other hand: too much style that “doesn’t sound like a scientific paper” may mean a manuscript that suffers in peer review.  My job as a mentor, then, is probably to bring the text closer to what reviewers and readers expect, without bringing it all the way into homogeneity. As a practical matter, this may mean reducing voice without removing voice.  And I should explain this strategy to the student: “This sort of thing isn’t very common in scientific writing.  I actually think there’s no reason it shouldn’t be, and you might choose to keep it – but realize reviewers may react negatively if you do, and more negatively if you do it often”.

(3) I wouldn’t have written it that way, because it doesn’t sound like me. This is where I should mind my own business: text that sounds fine, but just isn’t what I would have written. Actually, this category is difficult to recognize: a piece of text that isn’t quite what I would have written may not “sound fine” to me even though it would sound fine to a different reader. Here’s where I need to think of what I’m doing, as I read my students’ work, not as “we’re co-writing a collaborative paper” but instead as “I’m helping this student learn how they write”.  Notice – not “how to write”, but “how they write”.

If all this sounds difficult, well, I’m pretty sure that it is.  Writing is hard; there’s no reason mentoring writers shouldn’t be hard too.  But if we want writing with voice, we can reclaim it: with some work as writers and some work as reviewers, and a little at a time.

© Stephen Heard  May 14, 2019

This series of posts on voice was inspired in part by a set of overlapping questions posed to me by Meg Duffy, Helen Fricker, and M. Abas Shah.  Thanks to all three!  The previous posts in the series: “Do scientific writers have voice“, and “Where did our scientific-writing voices go?

*^As I’ve pointed out a couple of times – “more” voice doesn’t mean excesses of style that would make our writing sound like James Joyce – or even more modest excesses that would simply make our writing unclear.  Nonetheless, some folks will surely object that they don’t want our literature to have voice.  As a matter of taste, that can’t really be right or wrong; but there’s an empirical question too, about whether papers with voice might engage and retain more readers.  I suspect so, but I can’t prove it.

**^I could tell you stories.  Some day I will.  But the thing is: if half your jump shots miss the basket, the way to score more points is not to stop taking jump shots; it’s to take more of them.  Good Lord, I just made a basketball metaphor.

***^That is, for students who pay attention.  Like most of us, I’ve had that kind, and I’ve had the other kind.

****^I’m leaving aside here the issue of whether it’s best for me to simply make an edit (using Track Changes, so the student can see what I’ve done), to make the edit and explain why in a marginal comment, or simply add a marginal comment asking the student to make a change.  These are, I think roughly in increasing order of time consumed, but might also be in increasing order of utility for the student learning to write.


16 thoughts on “Reclaiming voice in scientific writing

  1. Tim McKay

    Thanks for reminding scientific writers that voice makes essential contributions. Stephen Pyne makes another great case for the importance of voice in his “Voice and Vision”, in his case about writing history and ‘other serious non-fiction.’


  2. Jeremy Fox

    To what extent is lack of voice in scientific writing a coordination problem–a self-fulfilling prophecy? That is, is it the case that nobody writes with voice even though many people want to, because nobody realizes that many others want to?

    The solution to coordination problems is providing a way for everybody to learn what everybody else really thinks. Polls would be one way to do that.

    Solving coordination problems is apparently a big part of how revolutions against the government succeed. Maybe if you want a figurative “revolution” to get voice back into scientific writing, you need to read up on actual (political) revolutions! 🙂


    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      I think that’s an important part of it, indeed. I learned this when I started talking a lot about beauty and humour in writing – I thought nobody would be interested, but in fact people love to be given permission (as I think of it) to talk about it. So yes, any mechanism that brings attention to the large number of people who would encourage, or at least tolerate, more interesting writing is a Good Thing (TM).


  3. sleather2012

    Interesting – I guess what we should be doing is writing papers a bit more like how we write books and book chapters? I tend to use a slightly less formal style (only slightly but..) for books material


    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Interestingly, I don’t think I’ve written any differently in book chapters; in books I’ve written VERY differently. I think I’ve conceptualized book chapters as papers in different binding (but I haven’t written many), while I think of books as an entirely different medium. But I don’t know that this was deliberate!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: Friday links: do blind orchestra auditions really benefit women, advice vs. coaching, machine learning vs. eggnog, and more | Dynamic Ecology

  5. Rafael Pinheiro

    Hi Stephen,

    I think am a bit latte to this discussion. I read this post some weeks ago and really wanted to comment, but was very busy with preparations for my Ph.D. thesis defense (which was successfully done last week 😊). Your related post, about humor in scientific writhing, reminded me of this one.
    I fully agree with your main point here (and in the more recent post about jokes). Style is not at all opposed to scientific objectivity. To be honest, thinking so, is itself a lack of scientific objectivity. Saying that a paper does not “sound scientific”, does not sound scientific to me. We should evaluate a paper based on scientific accuracy, clarity, reproducibility, logical consistency, etc … and not based on “soundness”.
    But there is something that should be considered. I am speaking only for myself, but I’m sure it resonates with a lot of non-native English speaker. Style is not a problem as a reader, but it is a huge challenge as a writer. Your point 3 (I wouldn’t have written it that way, because it doesn’t sound like me.) describes almost everything I write in English (yes, including this comment). It requires me a lot of effort to not sound like a robot.
    English is already a major gatekeeper for academy in Brazil (I bet this is true in other non-rich countries). And one that is understated by people within academy, just because they often come from a privileged background. If you had no contact with the language while still young and no formal training in it, is really hard to use it naturally. This is my case and the case for most of Brazilian population, but maybe not for most of Brazilian academics.
    In my projects until now, writing in English was a challenge as big as the research itself. And I’m not talking about writing poems, just about producing texts that follows the basic rules of the language and are clear enough. I am getting better, especially after a year abroad, daily speaking in English (which is itself a privilege available to a minority of people). But, if voice was a requirement, I would probably not have my few published papers by now. Thus, my chances of succeeding in academy would be minor.
    So, let’s allow style in scientific writing. It is much better to read papers with voice, humor, personality, poetry (why not?). But please, let’s not turn it into a requirement.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Rafael – first off, congratulations on your successful defence! And second – yes, I agree fully about not adding further obstacles to writers of English as an additional language. Stylish flourishes and jokes should never be a requirement – but if we allow more diversity, more voice, that should actually help writers less familiar with English, not work against them. At least I hope so!


  6. Pingback: Is my worst writing habit also my writer’s voice? | Scientist Sees Squirrel

  7. Pingback: What copyediting is, and what it isn’t | Scientist Sees Squirrel

  8. Pingback: Edit to polish the writing, or edit to polish the writer? | Scientist Sees Squirrel

  9. Pingback: My favourite word is appreciably: overused words in scientific writing – Brushing Up Science

  10. Pingback: Guest post: four drafts of Acknowledgments | Dynamic Ecology

  11. Pingback: Science is interesting, but not exciting… according to our papers – Brushing Up Science

  12. Cecilia Hennessy

    I love this. I felt that some of my mentors squashed my voice. They had me rewriting sentences and reordering paragraphs for the simple reason that I hadn’t written it the way they’d write it, not because the meaning wasn’t clear. As a professor, I’m aware how quickly a student’s writing voice becomes familiar, which I appreciate for two reasons: I love getting to know their thinking processes, and it helps me to detect plagiarism.
    Not to throw shade, but I notice that you don’t address use of slang*. While I do often comment on informal language, sometimes I let it slide, especially if the flow is good. However, if something is slangy, I definitely call that out and recommend replacing. It’s just hard to know if people are going to be able to reliably distinguish “the shit” from “total shit” (to use an extreme example) or what to means to “be groovy, man” 100 years from now. Ya hip?
    *I haven’t read your fine tome, so please forgive if this is addressed therein.

    Liked by 1 person


Comment on this post:

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.