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.
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.