Writing is hard; writing well is even harder. It’s easy to find advice, as a result, not to work too hard to polish what you’ve written. You’ll see people arguing that an imperfect-but-submitted paper is better than the perfect one you might finish next week, or that writing something just good enough to be accepted lets you move on to the next paper.
At some point, of course, these thing become true. It would be a bad idea to spend your entire career endlessly polishing one paper that you publish, on your deathbed, perfect and deserving of a (nonexistent) award for literary merit in the scientific literature. But the state of that literature – to a considerable degree turgid, tedious, and impenetrable – suggests that nobody much is making that mistake.
So I argue instead that writers should tackle the hard work of writing clearly (and, if at all possible, with a little bit of style and a little bit of humour). I am, of course, not the first or only one to argue that. But it’s interesting to consider three quite different motivations we might have for writing well. Who benefits, when you put in the work it takes to write well?
The most obvious idea is that good writing benefits the reader. This was the position of William Strunk, coauthor of that simultaneously admired and reviled little writing book The Elements of Style. The other coauthor, E.B. White,* described Strunk’s belief that “the reader was in serious trouble most of the time…floundering in a swamp, and it was the duty of anyone trying to write English to drain this swamp quickly and get [the reader] up on dry ground, or at least throw [down] a rope”. In other words, writing well is an act of generosity to the reader. And that’s true enough, but it’s not a full accounting.
Another possibility is that good writing benefits the progress of science. Science is cumulative, and future scientists are most able to build on your work if it’s described clearly and can be read easily and accurately. This idea has an interesting history. Modern scientific writing was more or less invented in the middle of the 17th century, when the founding of the Royal Society (in Britain) and the Académie des Sciences (in France). Each began to publish a journal, full of writing that (in contrast to the earlier, secretive, alchemical tradition) was meant to communicate scientific results to a broad readership. In 1667, Thomas Sprat wrote a history of the Royal Society,** in which he explained its rhetorical philosophy:***
There is one thing more about which the Society has been most solicitous; and that is, the manner of their discourse: which unless they had been very watchful to keep in due temper, the whole spirit and vigour of their design had been soon eaten out by the luxury and redundance of speech. The ill effects of this superfluity of talking have already overwhelmed most other arts and professions….They have therefore been most rigorous in putting in execution the only remedy that can be found for this extravagance, and that has been, a constant resolution to reject all the amplifications, digressions, and swellings of style; to return back to the primitive purity, and shortness, when men delivered so many things, almost in an equal number of words. They have exacted from all their members a close, naked, natural way of speaking; positive expressions; clear senses; a native easiness: bringing all things as near the mathematical plainness as they can; and preferring the language of artisans, countrymen, and merchants, before that of wits or scholars.
Most scientists were on side with this, and science accelerated as one worker was able to build on the progress of another. This is captured by Newton’s famous remark that he had “seen further…by standing on the shoulders of giants”. (Ironically, Newton wasn’t very interested in being that giant for others. He deliberately wrote the 3rd volume of his Principia Mathematica to be difficult to read, telling a friend he did so to avoid being “baited by little smatterers in mathematics”.) So writing well is an act of generosity to the field and to the progress of science. And that’s true enough, but still not a full accounting.
This brings me to the third motivation for writing well. Rather than generosity to a reader or to the progress of science, the third motivation is generosity to yourself – which you might even call selfishness. In the 17th century, Newton had the luxury of writing a difficult book and knowing that anyone who mattered would read it anyway. In the 21st century, I don’t have that luxury. My potential readers, like yours, are facing an absolute firehose of things they could read. Just try a quick Google Scholar search for the topic of your next paper, and see how many thousands of hits you get! And that doesn’t count books, grant proposals and manuscripts for review, or even the weekly rantings of a Scientist Seeing a Squirrel. But my career, like yours, depends on people facing the firehose and yet choosing to read what we’ve written. Editors and reviewers can’t be asked to read and re-read looking for the unpolished gem in a mediocre manuscript; hiring and promotion committees look for citation data (and papers can’t be shouldn’t be cited if they aren’t read). I could go on, of course, but you get the point. There’s just too much on your desk for me to think you’ll read something that I’ve written poorly. So the biggest payoff from the labour of writing well might not be to the reader, and it might not be to the progress of science. It might be to you and me, as the writers.
Writing is hard; writing well is harder. But nobody has more to gain from that hard work than you do.
© Stephen Heard June 1, 2021
Image: © Phoebe via Wikipedia.org CC BY-SA 3.0
This post is an expanded version of an argument in The Scientist’s Guide to Writing***LinkTSGTW, my guidebook for scientific writers. It’s important enough, I think, that I put it in Chapter 1: “On Bacon, Hobbes, and Newton, and the selfishness of writing well”.
*^Many readers of The Elements of Style don’t make the connection, but White is actually better known for his wonderful children’s books, including most notably Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little. Strunk is not better known for anything.
**^It was, at the time, merely 7 years old. Anyone who wrote their “autobiography” as a young child is on Team Sprat.
***^There’s some irony in Sprat’s rather fancy way of rejecting fanciness (and in fact, the ellipsis replaces another 550 words that don’t add much more meaning). I guess you don’t get to Hemingway overnight.