Thoughts about science writing
This post is about communicating scientific ideas so that they can be widely understood. Carl Zimmer, who writes for National Graphic, the New York Times, and maintains several science-related blogs, is the author of the following:
“I’ve taught writing semi-regularly over the past few years. Over that time, I’ve come to realize that one of the biggest challenges in learning how to write about the natural world is to learn how to skillfully wield beautiful, plain language . Scientists and scientists-in-training often lard their writing with jargon, rather than looking for a conversational equivalent. This addiction to jargon can leave a piece of writing sterile. It can mystify everyone except the experts–which is a bad strategy if you aspire to write for the public. An addiction to jargon can even create catastrophic misunderstandings. Readers may apply a non-technical definition for a word that a scientist uses with a very technical meaning in mind. (Think of “theory” as a hunch.)
All writers, scientist and non-scientist alike, can be tempted by clichés and other useless constructions. Clichés like “Holy Grail” are just lazy surrenders to the challenge of inventing fresh phrases. And “miracle cure” is really just a cynical promise of false hope.
So I’ve gotten very persnickety about the individual words and phrases that students choose. I’ve built up a list of “banned words” that I’ve come across in assignments and which I never want to see in class again. It’s not that those words are absolutely wrong in terms of their meaning. It’s just that writers–both new and veteran–should try to do better. My index of banned words was a pretty modest enterprise–just a blog post that I updated from time to time (either from assignments or from suggestions from weary readers). But recently I got a chance to turn it into an interesting experiment.
The opportunity came to me thanks to Charles Best. Best is a former public school teacher who founded the philanthropy site Donors Choose, where you can give money for supplies requested by public school teachers. Wearied of dealing with tired, redundant, or pretentious language in writing, he decided to launch a web site called Irregardless. It allows people to crowd-source a list of words and phrases that writers should avoid, explain why, and offer alternatives.
What’s interesting about this site is that you can use it in a number of interesting ways. You can just read through the entries. You can pick out a list made by someone in particular. Author Reza Aslan explains why he loathes “essentializing the sacred,” for example.
You can also check your own writing. Choose the “check your writing” box, and paste text into the field that appears. You can choose to run your writing by all the tips, or just use a style guide. Best asked me to set up a science writing guide, and so I’ve poached my banned words, along with other good sources (like this paper). If you’re interested, check out Carl Zimmer’s Science Writing Guide at http://irregardless.ly/carlzimmer
You’ll see any flagged words highlighted in your text, with comments and suggestions appearing next to them. It can even distinguish between different uses of a word (I dislike “access” as a verb.)
Both Irregardless and my own style guide are works in progress. If you find any bugs, let the owners of the site know. And remember that you can add your own tips too. If you think I need to add a particular word to my own guide, let me know (this blog post’s comment thread is a good place). I can’t promise I’ll dislike it too, but it’s always worth learning about a word that sets someone on edge.”