a few choice words from the red pen brigade

CocktailPhysicsMoiOkay, the Semester From HellTM is over and I'm back to my usual teaching schedule, which means you'll be hearing from me more often. Part of my Semester from HellTM involved teaching basic computer skills (mostly Microshaft's Office Suite) to remedial freshmen, along with a little computer history. While I don't have a degree in computer science, I'm eminently qualified to teach this class, because I've been a power user (and often the only troubleshooter) of PCs since 1986. It was great fun recalling my earliest adventures with floppies, command lines, and ASCII in the context of a history lecture, and I felt oddly subversive as an English major and amateur geek talking about Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace and the Difference and Analytical Engines. But it was also somewhat fitting, I believe. After all, Babbage felt free to comment on Alfred, Lord Tennyson's poetry. Wikipedia (my students' favorite source of information) recounts the following story about Babbage:

Babbage once contacted the poet Alfred Tennyson in response to his poem "The Vision of Sin". Babbage wrote, "In your otherwise beautiful poem, one verse reads,

Every moment dies a man,
Every moment one is born.
 … If this were true, the population of the world would be at a
standstill. In truth, the rate of birth is slightly in excess of that
of death. I would suggest [that the next version of your poem should
Every moment dies a man,
Every moment 1 1/16 is born.

Strictly speaking, the actual figure is so long I cannot get it
into a line, but I believe the figure 1 1/16 will be sufficiently
accurate for poetry."

I fear Randy Olson's retort to this would be, "Don't be such a scientist!" but I think it's lovely that Babbage felt sufficiently competent in poetics to comment on the work of a master like Tennyson. But then, this was an era when expertise was not so tightly focused as it is now. Scientists were well- and widely read in literature, and most were fine writers themselves; poets were not strangers to the practices of science. Writing (or rhetoric, more specifically) was one of the major constituents of the liberal arts education one received at a good university.

The hardest thing about teaching anybody anything is finding the right level of communication, and the right way to express the concepts. It would seem logical that you don't go all jargony on a rank beginner, anymore than you have to spend time explaining the basics to an expert. But you'd be surprised how  hard it is to put that into practice. How much knowledge do you assume? And how clear an idea do you as an instructor or writer have of what each level of knowledge actually includes? One of the tricks of being a good teacher is to remember what it was like when you were just starting out. What didn't you know then that you know now? And then you determine the correct order in which to teach it.

But that's not all that you have to worry about, either. The next problem is expressing that knowledge clearly in a way that will allow the listener or reader to follow your argument and build on what they already know. When you're teaching, you tend to do this in a number of ways, using various media. You drag in handouts, you assign textbook readings, you draw pictures, you write concepts and key vocabulary on the board, you use PowerPoint, videos, diagrams, whatever you can get your hands on to reinforce what you're saying in your lecture. But in the end, it all boils down to words, and if you're not using them effectively and clearly, your students or readers are sunk.

Hell-in-a-handbasket I say "readers" because this is just as true in written communication as it is in oral, and I was reminded of that by a recent conversation on one of the professional editors mailing lists I belong to. As a some-time freelance editor, I occasionally proof and copy edit dissertations and so do many of my colleagues. This would have been unheard of for an English major when I was in graduate school, but apparently isn't uncommon anymore, especially in the sciences. One list member confessed, "I work in the Medical Communications/Education industry. We hire PhDs in our scientific services department. Many cannot write an acceptable abstract much less a full length scientific paper. In my day if you did not have the writing skills to write a dissertation you did not graduate." Damn straight, I thought, accompanied by the usual visualization of hand baskets on their way to hell.

The reply from another editor floored me:

The graduate program that [the previous poster] referred to confused writing in the sciences with writing in the humanities. In the sciences, generation of original research and knowledge is the goal, which is separate from writing about that goal. For this reason, it is acceptable to not have writing skills to write a dissertation. Working scientists use writers and editors to communicate the thoughts of their (the working scientists') thoughts. In contrast, in the humanities, the author of the thought is also the author of the words that express that thought. Poets do not use writers to express their (the poets') thoughts.

Many thanks to Tom Lang, internationally recognized biomedical communicator, for explaining the essential difference between writing in the sciences and writing in the humanities.

(Tom Lang, I should note, is in the business of medical writing, so it's to his advantage to make excuses for bad scientific writing.) But there was more from the original poster that I think really goes to the heart of the matter:

It is NOT acceptable to not have 'adequate' writing skills (not exemplary, just adequate). In  addition to generating original research and possessing the required analytical skills the scientist must also be able to communicate both the essence and significance of that  research – regardless of which industry you work in.

This ignited a very opinionated discussion with a number of other editors. Katharine O'Moore-Klopf, another medical editor, opined:

Hmmm. I'm not sure which era ("in your day and mine") that [the first poster] is referring to. But as a medical copy editor, I encounter plenty of manuscript[s] written by researchers–MDs, DOs, PhDs–whose strength is in research, not writing. It is accepted practice in research institutes and medical schools for such researchers to have their manuscripts heavily edited by professionals like me before the researchers submit those manuscripts for publication. This is a practice conducted in the open, not in the privacy and shame of dark back rooms, because we medical copy editors are not writing manuscripts *for* the authors but helping them *rework* what they have already written. Indeed, several medical journals routinely refer such authors to freelance medical editors like me so that the authors can pay us to help them get their writing up to speed. These researchers are professionals whose scientific research skills use a different part of the brain than is used in writing, a part that in some researchers is rather underdeveloped. Inability to write stellar prose is not necessarily a reflection on a researcher's intelligence.

In defense of the researchers' bad writing, Mark Farrell added:

. . . [C]ompetency in one field doesn't necessarily translate to competency in another, nor should we expect it to do so. I could care less if someone with a talent for science or medicine or whatever can't write their way out of a paper bag–or be able to write at all, for that matter. They could be functionally illiterate, but if they are able to accomplish things in their field that others can't, things that could benefit humanity, why on earth should they be hindered or discouraged from achieving those things because they don't know how to write?

And Laurie Rendon, a social sciences academic editor, agreed:

I don't think good scientists are, by definition, able to express themselves well in their native language. I've edited reappointment documents for professors, and I'm amazed at the variety of things profs are required to do: develop courses, teach, supervise grad students, serve on committees, apply for grants, design experiments, do research… and then present the results of the research. Writing is not everyone's strong suit. And almost no one can decipher a style guide or thick style manual; maybe one in 10 of my professor clients does a half-decent job with reference list or footnotes, and none get it right. Keep in mind that one professor will submit to various journals over the years. Cross-disciplinary journals and even journals in the same field use different style manuals, and many journals have their own style guide, so it isn't a matter of learning to follow a single manual. As for schools and professors encouraging grad students to find an editor, yes they do. I used to make a living working for grad students. Many were sent to  e by their professors; others were told in their information sessions to hire an editor if they weren't good writers.

I have some quibbles with this comment because this is one of the things I teach: how to write research papers, and most of my students are in the social sciences. They know they have to get their references right, whether it's APA, AMA, or MLA and that's what they make those manuals for; nobody memorizes them, not even editors. You get to know them quite well through usage after a while, but master them? Hardly. Getting the reference style right is about following directions and examples; that's all. And surely if you have a Ph.D., you have the spare intellect to format your references correctly. Isn't that what junior authors are for? But  I'll also admit that reference styles are absurdly detailed things and need extremely careful proofreading, if nothing else, by at least one fresh set of eyes.

The discussion, which had shifted from dissertations to professional communications (not communications with the general public; that's another issue) went on over several more digest emails, but by the time I twigged to it, it was over, and not worth reviving on that particular list. I do, however, have some very strong opinions on this topic, as my students could probably tell you. I suspect that editors and teachers of writing have some different (but not completely) views on the topic too.

First of all, I think we both agree that everyone needs an editor, regardless of how good a writer you are. No one except the most arrogant of writers (who often aren't very good) disputes this. Even the best writers need someone to rein them in, point out their inconsistencies, and to say, "hey, this isn't very clear; can you break it down better?" Writing is necessarily an extremely interior activity and what every writer is trying to do is to convey their own mode of thought, their point of view, to everyone else. When we write, we know what we're trying to say, but that doesn't mean our readers will follow our train of thought exactly. Sometimes we're less successful at conveying our meanings than at others. That's where your editor comes in.

Exam-fail-win An editor's job is not usually to completely rewrite your prose for you, even in what's called a developmental edit. Rewriting is another job altogether and involves working closely with the putative "author" to get inside their head. The problem with rewriting or ghostwriting is that sometimes ideas get lost in translation or twisted beyond the original meaning. I think this is especially true when writing about science. Look at how often reporters twist the original meaning of research (PDF). Even specialists can do this unintentionally if they aren't especially well-versed in the particular field, and if the author can't explain himself adequately, how do you correct this or better yet, prevent it? The tricky part of writing about science is not necessarily describing the experiments or the research, but interpreting the data. If the researcher can't do that in a clear way, how can his audience be expected to trust his conclusions? More importantly, how easy is it to distinguish fraud or sloppy science from sloppy writing? It's one thing if you're working in your second language, but if you can't put a coherent thought together in writing in your native tongue, that's a big-time FAIL in my book.

Secondly, as a teacher of writing, I believe you can teach just about anyone to be a competent, adequate writer. Not brilliant, because that takes some innate talent, but certainly competent enough to express oneself clearly and concisely. Like anything else worth learning, it takes some effort and practice, but the effort is often not even made because there seems to be a general contempt for the efficacy of good prose in the sciences. When I was teaching science writing at Michigan State 20 years ago, one of my students brought me his lab manual which, in the introduction, plainly stated that "scientists have no time for crafting elegant prose." It would seem to me that scientists have no time for inelegant prose. Who wants to waste precious hours laboring through poorly communicated research results when you can spend half the time with a well-written article and be more certain of what you've read? It doesn't even have to be elegant prose, but it does have to be clear prose. Everyone should know how to express themselves adequately and clearly in writing. Sadly, more people outside the than inside the sciences do, even though universities spend a lot of time and money on writing workshops, tutoring centers, and writing centers.

I'm sure you've run into plenty of impenetrable prose yourself, but if you'd like some concrete examples of how it can be fixed, George Gopen and Judith Swan have thoughtfully provided examples of both errors and fixes in their article "The Science of Scientific Writing: Writing and the Scientific Process," in American Scientist. In it, Gopen and Swan discuss how keeping in mind reader expectations and interpretative processes can help make your prose more accessible and clearer, and how making it clearer actually changes your own thoughts as an author about the subject. Their examples also show you how an editor's mind works and how their transformation of your convoluted prose may actually give a different meaning to your data than you intend. A knowledge of how people read, of how stories are structured, of the rules of grammar and punctuation, can not only improve your writing but your own thoughts. Their two concluding paragraphs are worth quoting:

The substance of science comprises more than the discovery and
recording of data; it extends crucially to include the act of
interpretation. It may seem obvious that a scientific document is
incomplete without the interpretation of the writer; it may not be so
obvious that the document cannot "exist" without the interpretation of
each reader. In other words, writers cannot "merely" record data, even
if they try. In any recording or articulation, no matter how haphazard
or confused, each word resides in one or more distinct structural
locations. The resulting structure, even more than the meanings of
individual words, significantly influences the reader during the act of
interpretation. The question then becomes whether the structure created
by the writer (intentionally or not) helps or hinders the reader in the
process of interpreting the scientific writing.

The writing principles we have suggested here make conscious for the
writer some of the interpretive clues readers derive from structures.
Armed with this awareness, the writer can achieve far greater control
(although never complete control) of the reader's interpretive process.
As a concomitant function, the principles simultaneously offer the
writer a fresh re-entry to the thought process that produced the
science. In real and important ways, the structure of the prose becomes
the structure of the scientific argument. Improving either one will
improve the other.

In other words, we do well to remember that communication of any kind is a two-way street: information is both presented and interpreted and the more clearly it's presented, the more likely the interpretation will be similar to what's presented.

This is something Isaac Newton grasped intuitively, as Thomas Levenson points out in his book Newton and the Counterfeiter. Early on, Levenson describes Newton's structure for his most famous work, the Principia. Levenson writes, "Nothing in Newton's science depends on the shape of this narrative. In any order, his proofs would be just as valid. But to take the reader on an odyssey that begins with the orbits of the planets and extends to bring the entire cosmos into view allows the larger implications of the Netwonian idea to emerge." Newton realized that he was telling a story, and that the structure and order of it mattered as much as the presence of his mathematical proofs that formed the core of his argument. He was consciously guiding the interpretation of his words, so readers would see the same significance and usefulness of the discoveries that he did.

Third, scientists bemoan with great regularity the scientific illiteracy (and innumeracy) of the general public, and frequently insist that they are the best communicators of that science.Gil Watson, in the UK journal The Humanist, writes (in a somewhat cumbersome sentence) that, "most scientists have been perfecting the communication of
their particular area of science for the majority of their working
lives to their colleagues." Er, not according to all those editors I quoted above.

And are you sensing a disconnect here?

How can scientists be the best communicators of their disciplines if they don't learn how to write well enough to communicate even with their own colleagues? If they need specialist editors to clarify their prose for people in their own general field, then it doesn't bode well for the non-experts. Sorry, people, but you don't get to have that both ways. And you don't get to complain about people knowing nothing about science when your lack of communication skills is a large part of the problem.

Finally, there's the cost. In case you haven't noticed, scientific journals are not cheap, even the electronic ones. This is because of something called the "first copy cost": the initial costs of refereeing, rewriting, typesetting, copy editing, and proofreading set up for that first journal issue of which all others are but pale copies. The cost goes down with each subscription, but the range is still pretty hefty: from $420 to $2,500 per article, and it can be as high as $4,000 per article. Per article.  (PDF) While most authors who need help with rewrites shoulder the costs themselves (and line the grateful pockets of scientific copy editors), this still adds to the administrative costs of the journal with the to-ing and fro-ing. Hardly anyone gets a piece of writing right the first time, but a lack of intelligibility can waste a lot of time for staff and referees as well as risk having your research misunderstood and rejected.

Ultimately, as Gopen and Swan point out, writing is a form of thought, one that helps clarify what we know even to ourselves. Teaching does this too; you never have a clearer idea of what you know than when you have to teach it (read: explain it) to someone else, which is what a good scientific paper does. It's teaching your colleagues about a new result, a new idea, a new approach, a new hypothesis. The best and most creative scientists have not just not just mastered the art of explaining verbally but usually excel in it. This, in fact, may be an indicator for extraordinary creativity in the sciences. In their blog at Psychology Today, Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein quote physics Nobel Prize winner William D. Phillips on his own training:

In high school, I enjoyed and profited from well-taught science
and math classes, but in retrospect, I can see that the classes that
emphasized language and writing skills were just as important for the
development of my scientific career
as were science and math. I certainly feel that my high school
involvement in debating competitions helped me later to give better
scientific talks, that the classes in writing style helped me to write
better papers
, [emphasis mine] and the study of French greatly enhanced the
tremendously fruitful collaboration I was to have with [a French] research group.

One wonders if those "better papers" weren't a factor in Phillips's success as much as his insights into methods of slowing down atoms. So really, it's not just about being able to communicate your thoughts to others; writing well should be part of every scientist's training to foster more creativity and clarity. It might put some of my fellow editors out of business, but overall, it could only be a boon to science.

And really, if I were a scientist, I'd be just a bit embarrassed to know that editors think so little of my abilities. I mean, some of these people are . . . poets! Imagine Tennyson commenting on Babbage's work: poets commenting on your scientific communications. C'mon, aren't you just a little embarrassed? Just a little?

11 thoughts on “a few choice words from the red pen brigade”

  1. Lee, this reminds me of all those highly-educated engineers often couldn’t be bothered to write a coherent email – as though clear communication were some sort of “soft” humanities time-waster.

  2. Reading through your post, by the end I was aching to say just what you have William D. Phillips say at the end. What a cliffhanger! I read Sci-Fi all through adolescence and wrote as little as I could get away with, only realizing something of the nature of the flaw when I reached my 30s.
    I was also thinking of this: if one were a scientist who couldn’t do math, but you contracted out the doing of math to someone who could, how would that affect how you approach the work and what you could do? Being very comfortable with how words work lets you do things that someone who has to get someone to write for them simply can’t imagine asking for. A good writer has as many tools as a good scientist has, and can use them as well. When your editor’s third attempt at saying what you want to say only barely comes near what you want, and you don’t care that much about words anyway, there is a great temptation to be damned by saying it anyway. At least if one has a good sense of what can be done, and a proper respect for it, one can work well with an editor.
    I was amused by several split infinitives above, on both sides of the discussion, insofar as anyone cares.

  3. Peter, the injunction against split infinitives is an unnecessary one that we copyeditors often refer to as a Thistlebottomism. Miss Thistlebottom is the archetypical grade-school English teacher of decades past who was a stickler for rules by which she tried to squeeze the English language into rigidity. For information on many more Thistlebottomisms, see Miss Thistlebottom’s Hobgoblins: The Careful Writer’s Guide to the Taboos, Bugbears, and Outmoded Rules of English Usage, by style maven Theodore M. Bernstein, who also wrote The Careful Writer.
    Many current style guides say that there is no prohibition against splitting infinitives. From The Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition:
    5.106 Split infinitive
    Although from about 1850 to 1925 many grammarians stated otherwise, it is now widely acknowledged that adverbs sometimes justifiably separate the to from the principal verb {they expect to more than double their income next year}. See 5.160.
    5.160 Adverb within verb phrase
    When an adverb qualifies a verb phrase, the natural place for the adverb is between the auxiliary verb and the principal verb {the administration has consistently repudiated this view} {the reports will soon generate controversy} {public opinion is sharply divided}. See 5.104. Some adverbs may follow the principal verb {you must go quietly} {Are you asking rhetorically?}. There is no rule against adverbial modifiers between the parts of a verb phrase. In fact, it’s typically preferable to put them there {the heckler was abruptly expelled} {the bus had been seriously damaged in the crash}. And sometimes it is perfectly appropriate to split an infinitive verb with an adverb to add emphasis or to produce a natural sound. See 5.106. A verb’s infinitive or to form is split when an intervening word immediately follows to {to bravely assert}. If the adverb bears the emphasis in a phrase {to boldly go} {to strongly favor}, then leave the split infinitive alone. But if moving the adverb to the end of the phrase doesn’t suggest a different meaning or impair the sound, then it is an acceptable way to avoid splitting the verb. Recasting a sentence just to eliminate a split infinitive or avoid splitting the infinitive can alter the nuance or meaning: for example, it’s best to always get up early (always modifies get up) is not quite the same as it’s always best to get up early (always modifies best). Or an unnatural phrasing can result: it’s best to get up early always.
    And from the AMA Manual of Style, 10th edition:
    7.3.5 Split Infinitives and Verb Phrases.
    Although some authorities may still advise the avoidance of split infinitives, this proscription—a holdover from Latin grammar, wherein the infinitive is a single word and cannot be split—has been relaxed. In some cases, moreover, clarity is better served by the split infinitive.
    Ambiguous: The authors planned to promote exercising vigorously. Is it the exercising or the promotion of exercising that is vigorous?]
    Clearer: The authors planned to vigorously promote exercising.
    The authors planned to promote vigorous exercise.

  4. Thanks for a thoughtful post.
    (I love this blog!)
    Not exactly on the topic (you put it all very well), but I noticed you open this post with an “X from Hell” phrase, and I just discovered the linguistic term for those phrases with replaceable parts:
    (More here: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Snowclone & http://www.snowclones.org)
    Though that delighted me, I wasn’t going to bother mentioning it –you likely know it anyway–but when the comments turned to split infinitives, I felt moved to mention another one:
    Let us feel free…
    “to boldly split infinitives that no man had split before,” originally used in Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy radio series (1978).
    And we all know where that one came from.

  5. Katharine & Fresca: I think the modern blessing on split infinitives comes not from the CMOS but from the original Star Trek’s voiceover. And ever since, we have boldly gone where no grammarian has gone before.
    And Fresca, I didn’t know about snowclones! That’s delightful! And one of the things I really love about English. It’s so flexible and forgiving and inventive, unlike many other languages, and we’re happy to mug other languages for vocabulary. I’m actually reading a fascinating book about “standard” English right now called The Lexicographer’s Dilemma by Jack Lynch.

  6. I’m not even a third of the way through this and I have to laugh. And share. I’m getting ready to graduate with a BS in CS, and I already have a BA in Communications (minored in English Writing for that one). I can’t count how many classmates/project group members I’ve worked with who can’t seem to write a simple, comprehensible paragraph, much less a whole lab report. After a couple years, I managed to find a nice, core group of classmates who could write rather well, and stuck with them.
    Just last week, though, I was at a campus career fair, and stopped by a booth for a company looking for CS grads. I handed them my resume, and they scanned it over, stopping in disbelief when they hit the education summary – “You claim to be an engineer who can communicate?!” They seemed generally amazed. From the level of advice I’ve seen handed out at the school’s Career Services resume and cover letter help sessions, I’m not surprised by their surprise. Apparently, proper grammar and the use of spell-check are foreign concepts to a great many students.

  7. Thanks for this post.
    I’m a full professor in mathematics at a research university. I also had a blog post tweeted by Roger Ebert a few days ago. Yes, I’m bragging. I’m every bit as proud of that as I would be of having a research article accepted in a journal.
    Mathematical research journals do not always have copy editors, and when they do, it tends to be a cursory check to correct obvious grammar and spelling errors. It would take much more than that to actually change the quality of the writing. The only time I had a “real” copy editor was when I had an expository article published in a major “general audience” mathematical journal two years ago. Among other things, she corrected all of my split infinitives; she also changed the meaning of some of my phrasing. I rewrote some of it and asked her to walk it back in a few instances. In retrospect, I should have stuck to my guns a bit harder than I did. English is my second language (third in the order of learning) and I didn’t quite have the confidence.
    A good part of the mathematical writing that I have seen is quite atrocious, and just to make it clear: first-language (including single-language) English speakers can be as awful as anyone, although in different ways. You can become a research mathematician without any verbal skills whatsoever. Then, however, you hit a wall. To get past a certain point (e.g. winning major research grants) you have to be able to communicate your work to others and get them excited about it. Many scientists have to learn it on the fly, along with teaching, management and leadership skills, and too many other things to list here.
    I’m pretty sure that my teaching and research presentations have improved since I took up blogging. I’ve spent some time lurking on writing-related discussion boards, too. I’m not sure if it has had any effect on the actual research I do, but hell, I’m so glad I did it.
    (Hope that this doesn’t appear multiple times. The “post” button seems to be malfunctioning.)

  8. Good post Lee. It just amazes me how so many young folks out there (be they math wizz or other) are always using excuses for not applying themselves in basic skills, in school or even in later life. “it’s someone elses fault…”

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