My Masters thesis had some pretty ground-breaking results for the time. Some of the first data on what the Southeastern US was like during and after the last glacial maximum. The problem is that by the time my advisor and I were done with my thesis we were both so sick of the work (the writing itself) that neither of us could face working on a version for peer review.
The problem was simple:
My writing sucked.
Now, almost 20 years later, I think my advisor would be pretty stunned that I’m a published author and I write for a living. The path to getting here is another story, today the story is that while I write well now, I don’t think that my writing could pass muster in science.
I write too clearly.
I found this post today and it isn’t just scientific papers that make no sense, it’s a lot of other “professional” writing too:
Years ago now, I recall a senior scientist who’d read a piece of my work saying doubtfully, ‘It’s very well-written. Very literary.’ The implication was clear: ‘But is it good science?’
With hindsight, I can agree: that particular effort wasn’t ace. I can’t even remember its title, and the obscurity’s well-deserved. What did stick was my surprise that my colleague (undoubtedly a good scientist) saw good science and good writing as not just independent, but even perhaps opposed, since science is all about precision and language is irretrievably vague.
I don’t know when science writers decided that being obtuse and obscure was better science writing, but it’s a true shame. Why? Because it only promulgates the perception that science is an impenetrable wall of terms that aren’t even put together well. The examples in the post are just…mind blowing. As I said, sadly, it’s not just scientific writing that suffers from this problem, it’s a lot of other writing too.
Have you read a job posting lately? Just for kicks, go to Monster or wherever and read a few of them. I don’t know who writes them but not only do they make absolutely no sense, but sometimes it’s even hard to figure out what the job is and what skills are required. Ironically sometimes the bigger the company the worse the job post is. HR must have some kind of rule that you can’t really say anything about the job lest you let people actually know what they are applying for and what the qualifications are. The posts just aren’t written to do more than say we’re hiring for some job, it could be the CEO or help desk, but teamwork and passion are important to us!
The shame is, there is a belief that “good writing” has to be full of complex sentences and great Scrabble words. But the truth is simple:
Good writing is clear. Good writing makes sense. Good writing is engaging. Doesn’t matter if it’s a blog post, job post, or a 20,000 year history of climate and vegetation around Clear Pond, SC, if you want people to understand what you’re trying to say and convey some sort of valuable information.
It has to been written well.
It has to be good writing.