Should science writing be dry?

Nov 01 2011 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Having spent far too long on the student reviews of a manuscript for my class recently, there was one thing that really struck me. Grad students seem to think that science writing should be dry.

It's been a while since I thought this way, but I can remember a time when I viewed science writing as an exercise in "just the facts". Granted, one can write that way and publish just fine, but there was a string of about three or four papers I read as a graduate student that made me say "I really enjoyed reading that". At first I wasn't sure exactly why. The science was decent, but nothing that knocked my socks off. In rereading the papers I realized that the writing was just good. It was still to the point and delivered the gory details, but in a way that was nice to read.

From that moment on I looked at writing scientific papers a little differently and I have no idea why it took me so long. Perhaps it is the way we have students write in their undergrad science classes. Maybe it is that science students often forgo much of the literary training that many other students get, I don't know. But what I see before me is many graduate students who confuse a complex sentence for a run-on, who get tangled up in a misunderstanding of punctuation and, most of all, want their sentences broken down into the tiny morsels one might feed to a child getting their first meal.

What are the papers that you most enjoyed reading in the last year. Go back to them and see if it was just the sexy data or if, by some chance, those data were also wearing some snappy clothes. Science writing need not have the lack of texture akin to a government report, despite what you may have been told.

16 responses so far

  • Luna says:

    I understand you may not want to answer this due to anonymity issues, but would you mind pointing to some of the papers that you thought were well-written? I am trying to find some examples of well-written papers for my students, and it would be a great help. Thanks.

  • I find the best writing conveys the information, but captures your attention and sort of narrates the research story to you as oppose to dry recitation of findings.

  • Pascale says:

    Good science writing is good story telling:
    We knew this, we suspected this, we tested it this way, the moral of the story is, and we lived happily ever after (at least until the next grant renewal).
    The best science in the world will be dry and boring if the authors do not convey the story - what led to this study, what its ultimate meaning might be.

  • FSGrad says:

    I am in favor of complex sentences if they are clear. Short and choppy makes me crazy. But then, I'm a humanities-major-turned-scientist.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Paah. I want to get to the data as efficiently as possible. All else is a PIA. Write clearly, not entertainingly. If it is "dry", so be it. I read novels if I need to be entertained.

    One of the best tools in the mentor's toolbox is "that's nice....but nobody is going to read that shit"

  • EpiGrad says:

    I'm not a particular fan of cheeky or overly clever writing in scientific reports (usually because the author isn't nearly as funny as they think they are), but adding a little life to a paper that makes it easier to read and understand is always welcome.

    I find "overly dry" and "conveys the needed information" to often be opposed to one another.

  • I agree that science writing should be more than just the facts. But, you have to cut your graduate students some slack. They're just learning how to be scientists right now. It's not that they think science writing should be dry...they just don't know yet how to write it more creatively. Learning how to creatively express science is something that takes a long time to learn, and is something that usually comes after learning the facts. Regardless, cheers to you for recognizing this and for helping your students learn to be better writers!

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Good writing =/= inefficient or verbose.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Luna, drop me an email.

  • strigiformes says:

    The first lesson about paper writing that really sunk in was to make the results section a story rather than a list of dry facts. That really helped. But good witty writings are hard to come by. Some review articles can be clever, but I think the next best thing is good, flowing style that's easy to follow, even if some can be a bit long.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    I guess I need to clarify that when I say "interesting writing", I'm not talking about being witty or clever, but simply delivering the information in a style that is conducive to reader interest. If you're giving me just facts, they better be the best damn facts I've ever seen if you want me to walk away from the paper with a better than average impression. However, if you give me the facts in a leading narrative that tells the story, I am more likely to enjoy the experience.

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    Writing in the first person is not forbidden, and makes for much more interesting reading than passive tense writing. "I made the following measurements . . . " instead of "The following measurements were made . . . "

  • Dr. O says:

    I'm a fan of walking the reader through my science when I write, but that's not often how the manuscript starts out. I write out the facts - dry, choppy, pieces of scientific goodness - then find a way to weave them into a cohesive story that will make sense to an "outsider".

    Because of this, I can understand why your students are writing so dryly (is that even a word?). As pointed out by Science Mother above, learning how to tell a story from facts takes time, knowledge, and experience.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    It's not that the students write dryly, it is that they actively appear to disparage writing that does not conform to their vision of science being doled out in short sentences devoid of punctuation-driven complexity. I find this curious.

  • Dr. O says:

    Hmmm...now that is a little odd.

  • wandering hoosier says:

    When I was an undergrad it was explicitly discouraged to use the tricks we had learned in creative writing classes and in high school to make writing more interesting. Makes sense because we knew so few tricks and they were not applicable to science writing. However I'm still trying to figure out how to write a paper that isn't a total snooze and would definitely be in your camp of students.

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