Okay, 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 read]:
- 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.
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.
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?