Moby Dick and scientific writing

Call me Ishmael.

It’s one of the most famous opening lines in English-language literature, and it starts one of the most famous books.  Like everyone else, I knew about Moby Dick.  Like a very large fraction of everyone else, I’d never read it.*  I’ve just finished it, and you know how each reader comes at a book in their own way?  I found that Moby Dick made me think about scientific writing.

I know, that’s a little weird, and I’ll admit that scientific writing is something I obsess about a tiny little bit. But as I settled into Moby Dick, and thought about what Melville was doing in the writing, I kept noticing things.  Moby Dick, I claim, has things to teach us about scientific writing – both in the ways that it resembles good scientific writing, and in the ways that it does not.

Let’s start with how Moby Dick is a poor model for scientific writing. I’ve commented elsewhere on the ambiguity of Moby Dick (the whale, and the novel, both): what, if anything, is the great white whale a symbol of?  This kind of beautiful mystery can make a novel successful**, but it can’t make a scientific paper successful.  Our technical writing should work at clarity and precision; beauty and style are good when they help with that, but probably not otherwise.

Beyond that issue, the most obvious contrast between Moby Dick and good scientific writing is a simple one: length.  Melville doesn’t make an observation and move on. Instead, he bobs and weaves; he writes as if he were holding up a glass of claret, swishing it around and sniffing, then eyeing it from all directions, then sniffing again to see how hard-warming has changed the bouquet; he writes as a dog worries a bone, gnawing first one side and then another, then tossing it up in the air to return to the first.***  At one point, he spends two full pages ruminating on the fact that a whale’s two eyes look out from its two sides, rather than forward from the front – this as part of a multi-chapter disquisition (not to say digression) on the external anatomy of the sperm whale’s head.  In Chapter 104, Ishmal explains that if he’s writing about whales, he should write big:

One often hears of writers that rise and swell with their subject, though it may seem but an ordinary one. How, then, with me, writing of this leviathan? Unconsciously my chirography expands into placard capitals. Give me a condor’s quill! Give me Vesuvius’ crater for an inkstand! Friends, hold my arms! For in the mere act of penning my thoughts of this leviathan, they weary me, and make me faint with their outreaching comprehensiveness of sweep…

In scientific writing, we don’t have this luxury. We need to streamline our prose so that we say each thing once, and having said it, we move on to the next.  This is a crucial step in revising my own first drafts, and a near-universality in the comments I make on student writing.

Moby Dick sets a good example for scientific writing, too, though, at least in places.  To start with, Ishmael is a remarkable observer, fond of well-organized categorization and systematic description. You can see this, for example, in Chapter 32, “Cetology”, which is an attempt at a classification of whales – not, biologically, a particularly good one, but a well organized and clear one. Ishmael could think more carefully about which observations are relevant to his narrative and which are not (another important task in scientific writing!), but what he presents is structured well. 

Perhaps the thing I admired most in Moby Dick, at least from the scientific-writing perspective, is Melville’s signposting. By “signposting”, I mean various devices that keep a reader oriented in an argument, knowing what’s come before and what’s coming next, and what each piece of the argument is for. Most obviously, consider Moby Dick’s many short chapters: in scientific writing, our equivalent is section and especially subsection heads. But Melville goes further, with frequent metadiscourse (writing about the writing, as in “It is some systematized exhibition of the whale in his broad genera, that I would fain put before you” (introducing Chapter 32, “Cetology”).  Sometimes the signposting is explicit, as in this discussion of the whale’s tail (Chapter 86, “The Tail”):

Five great motions are peculiar to [the tail]. First, when used as a fin for progression; Second, when used as a mace in battle; Third, in sweeping; Fourth, in lobtailing; Fifth, in peaking flukes.

First….

You may find all this a little much in work of fiction, but it’s tremendously helpful in a scientific paper. Readers have a lot on their plates: not only is any given paper likely to be complex and dense (as a result of the natural world’s own complexity) but any given paper is just one in a deluge. One reason we’ve evolved standardized structures for papers (IMRaD, legends and standard display conventions for graphs, etc.) is that signposting helps, and familiar kinds of signposts help the most.

But I can’t let Moby Dick go without pointing to a metaphor that explains a lot about our literature.  There are a lot of badly written papers out there; in fact, some of the most recognizable characteristics of our literature are best understood as bad writing (the profusion of acronyms is just one example, but I’ll throw the passive voice in there too just to rile up its few remaining defenders.)  The problem is, we often ask early-career folk to learn to write by modeling the existing literature; and we often reward them when they do this well – that is, by writing equally badly.  In a nutshell, we think acronyms and the passive voice and a grab-bag of other sins sound science-y, because they’re what we see in our literature; and so when we want to sound science-y ourselves, they’re what we do.  The result is a circularity of expectation that prevents us from doing any better. “Wait!”, you say, “what’s this got to do with to Moby Dick”? Well, consider this from Chapter 69, “The Funeral”, where Ishmael talks about ships mistaking breakers and spray around the carcass of a dead whale for breakers and spray around a shoal:

And for years afterward, perhaps, ships shun the place; leaping over it as silly sheep leap over a vacuum, because their leader originally leaped there when a stick was held.

Ships shun, and silly sheep leap; and we write what we’ve read, and all suffer for it.

© Stephen Heard  August 11, 2020

 Image: Moby Dick attacking a whale boat (which, you have to admit, seems completely fair).  Detail from illustration by Augustus Burnham Schute, from an 1892 edition of Moby Dick. Public domain via Wikimedia.org.


*^I did take an unsuccessful stab at it in my teens.  I found it insufferably boring, and gave up quickly.  Now that I’m older and have become insufferably boring myself, I wondered if the book and I might be a better match.

**^Although Moby Dick was a colossal failure in its day: critically drubbed, and largely unread. It more or less ended Melville’s career as a novelist; his later books flopped, and well before his death all his books were out of print. It was only in the late 1910s that the academic world decided he had been a great novelist and that Moby Dick was one of the English language’s greatest novels. Perhaps there’s some eventual hope for my least cited papers.

***^See what I did there?  And it was fun, let me tell you; but if you ever catch me doing it in one of my scientific papers, please tell me to stop.

6 thoughts on “Moby Dick and scientific writing

  1. Pavel Dodonov

    The beginning of this post made me thing of great first sentences. The best first sentence I can remember from non-scientific literature is “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”, from Stephen King’s The Gunslinger. It’s a perfect first sentence – short, concise, perfectly summarizes the entire book and leaves you curious: who is the man in black? Why is the gunslinger following him? Will he catch him? The way a good sentence in a scientific paper should make you feel.

    Another thing this post made me think about is the book “The visual display of quantitative information”, by Edward Tufte. An interesting suggestion in it is that we can and should repeat information and, for example, place the same figure more than once in the text if it makes understanding easier – instead of making the reader always look several pages back to check again what that figure actually showed. It makes me think of acronyms – why do we insist on making people memorize acronyms that will aonly be used once? Why must we have acronyms for everything instead of, well, spending a bit more ink on repeating an expression? Ink and paper are expensive but space in PDF files is not.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      I agree with you about acronyms, very very much (https://scientistseessquirrel.wordpress.com/2019/06/18/the-dangerous-temptation-of-acronyms/)! Less sure about repeating figures more than once in the text – I may have finally found something I disagree with Tufte about! As a reader I’d be trying to figure out what difference merits the repetition, and not finding it, and getting frustrated. Essentially, repeating a figure would violate a reader expectation, wouldn’t it?

      Like

      Reply
  2. John Pastor

    With regard to your third note, the one with three asterisks (***). Lewis Thomas did this all the time in his essays. It’s charming if done with wit and not overdone. I would welcome a few more of these in scientific papers.

    Moby Dick has been on my list of books to read. You moved it further to the top.

    Like

    Reply
      1. RM

        He is a fine writer, but his books are a little repetitive, IMO. A lot of the essays are very similar thematically. Probably it would have been better to read him at the time when they were released issue by issue. (Or limit your consumption to one a day.)

        I think this is his finest essay, not only because it stands out from the crowd of others, but also because it is adorable.
        http://www-personal.umich.edu/~jlawler/punctuation.html

        Like

        Reply
  3. Pingback: A year of books (5): where did the summer go? | Scientist Sees Squirrel

Comment on this post:

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

WordPress.com Logo

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

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google 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.