The Science of Scientific Writing
If the reader is to grasp what the writer means, the writer must understand what the reader needs George D. Gopen and Judith A. Swan*
*George D. Gopen is associate professor of English and Director of Writing Programs at Duke University. He holds a Ph.D. in English from Harvard University and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. Judith A. Swan teaches scientific writing at Princeton University. Her Ph.D., which is in biochemistry, was earned at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Address for Gopen: 307 Allen Building, Duke University, Durham, NC 27706
Science is often hard to read. Most people assume that its difficulties are born out of necessity, out of the extreme complexity of scientific concepts, data and analysis. We argue here that complexity of thought need not lead to impenetrability of expression; we demonstrate a number of rhetorical principles that can produce clarity in communication without oversimplifying scientific issues. The results are substantive, not merely cosmetic: Improving the quality of writing actually improves the quality of thought. The fundamental purpose of scientific discourse is not the mere presentation of information and thought, but rather its actual communication. It does not matter how pleased an author might be to have converted all the right data into sentences and paragraphs; it matters only whether a large majority of the reading audience accurately perceives what the author had in mind. Therefore, in order to understand how best to improve writing, we would do well to understand better how readers go about reading. Such an understanding has recently become available through work done in the fields of rhetoric, linguistics and cognitive psychology. It has helped to produce a methodology based on the concept of reader expectations. Writing with the Reader in Mind: Expectation and Context Readers do not simply read; they interpret. Any piece of prose, no matter how short, may "mean" in 10 (or more) different ways to 10 different readers. This methodology of reader expectations is founded on the recognition that readers make many of their most important interpretive decisions about the substance of prose based on clues they receive from its structure. This interplay between substance and structure can be demonstrated by something as basic as a simple
table. Let us say that in tracking the temperature of a liquid over a period of time, an investigator takes measurements every three minutes and records a list of temperatures. Those data could be presented by a number of written structures. Here are two possibilities: t(time)=15’, T(temperature)=32º, t=0’, T=25º; t=6’, T=29º; t=3’, T=27º; t=12’, T=32º; t=9’; T=31º time (min) 0 3 6 9 12 15 temperature(ºC) 25 27 29 31 32 32
Precisely the same information appears in both formats, yet most readers find the second easier to interpret. It may be that the very familiarity of the tabular structure makes it easier to use. But, more significantly, the structure of the second table provides the reader with an easily perceived context (time) in which the significant piece of information (temperature) can be interpreted. The contextual material appears on the left in a pattern that produces an expectation of regularity; the interesting results appear on the right in a less obvious pattern, the discovery of which is the point of the table. If the two sides of this simple table are reversed, it becomes much harder to read. temperature(ºC) 25 27 29 31 32 32 time(min) 0 3 6 9 12 15
Since we read from left to right, we prefer the context on the left, where it can more effectively familiarize the reader. We prefer the new, important information on the right, since its job is to intrigue the reader. Information is interpreted more easily and more uniformly if it is placed where most...