Is my worst writing habit also my writer’s voice?

If I have a shortcoming as a writer – and believe me, the only thing wrong with that proposition is that I don’t just have one – it’s my fondness for parentheticals.  (See what I did there?)  I love them; as I say in The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, “I use parentheses as if I’d gotten an irresistible deal on a bulk purchase of water-damaged ones”.  I even have a special step in revision of my early drafts in which I search for all occurrences of parentheses, with the intent of excising as many as I can.  Sometimes it even works.

Actually, it’s not just parentheses, because what I mean by a parenthetical is more general than that.  It’s any piece of text that interrupts a sentence or passage that is logically complete without it (the Collins English Dictionary suggests that “a parenthetical remark or section is put into something written…but is not essential to it”).  A parenthetical can be set off by parentheses, to be sure, but also by commas (like “to be sure”) or by dashes – like this – or by other, less in-your-face constructions.

You may not have thought of it this way, but academic writing leans heavily on parentheticals.  Citations are parentheticals; so are footnotes and endnotes (although these are much more common in academic writing outside of science); so are in-text references to figures and tables.  Arguably, supplemental materials are just very large parentheticals.*  These kinds of parentheticals are so integral to scientific writing that we don’t even notice them – but they’re not the parentheticals I think of as my weakness.  Instead, my weakness is the use of parentheticals to offer ancillary information and metadiscourse (by metadiscourse I mean writing about the writing; often, that takes the form of author commentary, such as “(surprisingly)” or for that matter the parenthetical in the opening sentence of this post).

I’ve known for a long time that I use a lot of parentheticals, and I’ve assumed that they’re simply a bad habit.**  But lately, a confluence of two things has led to me reassess that diagnosis.  First, I’ve been thinking and blogging a bit about voice in scientific writing – about the fact that we don’t have much, about why that is, and about how we might get some voice back.  Second, I ran across this tweet from André Brock:

and thereby discovered Arthur Palacas’s (1989) paper, “Parentheticals and Personal Voice” (Written Communication 6:506-527).  Palacas argues that authorial voice emerges at least in part from interplay between the author’s “factive” world (their perception and telling of things that are simply true) and their “reflective” world (their thoughts about the factive content, or reflection about what they are saying).  Voice then emerges from the author’s movement between factive and reflective expression.  Parentheticals, Palacas argues, are the clearest way for an author to present reflective expression while demarcating it from factive content.

There’s a lot more than that to Palacas’s paper, but even reading that much led me to realize two things that seem important.

First, there’s an obvious connection between suppression of authorial voice and the supposed need for objectivity*** in scientific writing.  If scientific writing needs to be objective, then the author’s reflective world shouldn’t be allowed to intrude on their factive one – and this just-the-factive-Ma’am stance on writing leads to dull, dull papers.  (It also betrays a shocking lack of respect for the reader’s ability to think about what they are reading, or for authors’ ability to skilfully mark factive vs. reflective content.)   Now, this isn’t the only reason for our literature’s lack of voice – because voice includes things other than reflective content – writing style, word choice, puns, cultural references, use of contractions, etc.  But it’s certainly a contributor.

Second, what I thought of as my writing weakness may actually be, at least in part, what makes my writing my writing.  That is, my use of parentheticals gives my writing voice; it lets me reveal something of my personality, or at least my presence, to my readers.  I think there are many reasons that’s a good thing – among them, honesty (the refusal to pretend objectivity that isn’t really there) and the need for writing to engage its readers (so as to recruit and retain them in the face of the bottomless sea of other written work that they could turn to instead).  So if I tell you that I’m surprised by a particular result, or if I suggest an obscure connection to an interesting piece of the history of science, or if I use a parenthetical in some other reflective way: that’s just me, showing the humanity of the scientist behind the science.  We spend altogether too much time, as a profession and as a society, suppressing the human nature of science.

Now, this doesn’t mean I’m going to abandon all attempts at parenthetical self-control.  The overuse of parentheticals is definitely a bad thing: shorter, plainer sentences are easier to read, and constant digressions are a distraction from the core message of a piece of writing.  But I’m going to worry a bit less, and increase my guesstimate of the optimal frequency of parentheticals.  Will some readers be turned off by that?  Of course – some people really hate footnotes, for example. But other readers will be turned off by the flat, voiceless, dull prose that results from eradicating every trace of reflection.  Writing is a trolley problem – always.

So, fair warning to reviewers and editors of my writing: expect reflection, and expect parentheticals to be one technique by which I communicate it.  My worst writing habit is also my writing voice.  Am I making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear?  No; instead I’m deciding it may have been a silk purse all along.

© Stephen Heard  July 2, 2019

Thanks to Meg Duffy for pointing me to André Block’s tweet, and thus to the Palacas paper.


*^It’s possible to argue that online supplements have done quite a lot of damage to the writing form “the scientific paper”.  It’s even possible that I agree with a good bit of that argument.

**^The original draft of The Scientist’s Guide to Writing had about twice as many footnotes as the published version.  I cut heavily in revision, although I just couldn’t make myself cut ruthlessly; I really like many of those footnotes!  And yes, I’m aware that I’m using a footnote to comment on my liking for footnotes.  You can see that as deliberate whimsy, if you like, or you can simply believe that I’m pathetically unable to help myself.

***^I say “supposed” because when people profess that scientific writing should be objective, most of the action they recommend really relates only to the pretence of objectivity.  The passive voice is an excellent example: refraining from writing the word “I” doesn’t make you objective as a scientist; it just makes it easier for your reader to imagine that you are.

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12 thoughts on “Is my worst writing habit also my writer’s voice?

  1. sleather2012

    Excellent, I try to avoid dashes, (after all what are brackets for), as I think they are too ‘in your face’ but nothing wrong with a good in text digression 🙂

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  2. Peter Apps

    “It’s any piece of text that interrupts a sentence or passage that is logically complete without it..” of which by far the most common example in science writing is the habitual use of extra words that are not even marked off by punctuation. Putting “behaviour” after everything that is a behaviour is one example; feeding behaviour, scent-marking behaviour, mating behaviour, and so on.

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Interesting – I’d have simply called those “redundant” (and in The Scientist’s Guide to Writing I mention “tautologous modifers”, like “blue in colour”). I don’t know if I’d include those as “parentheticals” because, as you say, they don’t add anything – so maybe my definition was incomplete?

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      1. Peter Apps

        They are certainly redundant, and so perhaps a parenthetical is an interruption that adds something, instead of simply inflating the word count and creating a ponderously academic style. A pair of brackets or dashes is certainly more concise than adding phrases such as; “It occurs to the author … (how’s that for ponderously passive ?!), or “It should be noted that ….”

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        1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

          I think your definition now is what I should have written! Those redundancies and tautologous modifiers are certainly a bad writing habit, but distinct in my mind from parentheticals. Thanks for helping me draw this line more clearly!

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  3. Pavel Dodonov

    I like parentheticals. Some of the best literature writers (like Neil Gaiman, whose parentheticals are sometimes longer than the sentence they’re in; sort of what I’m trying to, and probably failing miserably at, emulate here) are masters of parentheticals. And I don’t think that they make a text harder to read or truly break its flow – if well-used. The key is to use them well; but isn’t this the key to all things in writing?
    Conversely, I do hate footnotes. They make me look from the text to the note and then back, and this does break the flow of reading.

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  4. pheidole

    What splendid topic! What makes a writer’s style is so much the little rules they cite, invent, and rationalize for how they do things. Regarding this topic:
    () are the most informal asides. I concur the image of a person speaking with the back of her hand to one side of her mouth. I use them rarely, and almost never in sci writing.

    — — are added relevant information, often an example, or list. They are a workhorse for my sci writing, and capture someone in the act of explaining something (You know, like, for example…).

    Footnotes are strong medicine. As others have said, they break you away from the text. So footnotes *better* be worth it. I have gotten footnotes into a handful of my sci writings, due to kind and generous copy editors (I’m looking at you Patricia Morse). They are either interesting stories that illustrate the narrative, or out and out jokes.

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