Dr. Andrew Moore is Editor-in-Chief of BioEssays and author of the ebook Writing Science Well: Techniques, Tips and Pitfalls. He talks to Dr. Vera Koester for ChemistryViews.org about successful science communication, gives tips on how to attract reader attention, and what got him interested in writing.
What motivated you to write and teach about successful scientific writing?
The disconnect that I observe between writing and putting oneself in the position of a reader is what got me started. My knowledge of communication principles is strongly influenced by my experience as Programme Manager for Science & Society at the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO), where I founded a regular workshop that brought journalists and young scientists together. The journalists’ first rule of communication was “understand your audience”; but that is clearly not what scientists first think of when writing a paper. I often read sentences in manuscripts that are unclear or ambiguous, and not because the author is unsure of the topic. The problem here is that the author knows the topic, and what he/she has discovered and concluded, but he/she does not imagine that a reader might not know the field equally well. Certain concepts are stated vaguely almost with the thought “well, they know what I mean; I don’t need to spell it out”. When I find such sentences I can’t help but correct them or write a comment in the margin requesting clarification from the author(s).
It’s not enough to recommend that authors write in clear concise English: they need examples of the problems that I see from the editorial perspective, and so I decided to write about these problems in my Editorials for BioEssays; teaching courses to PhD students and young post-docs is good because the younger one starts, the greater the likely effect.
Isn’t “writing well” a matter of individual style and taste?
Yes and no. Yes, sometimes people have a preference for a certain way of writing things, and others simply can’t stand reading such phrases! You could say that this is a matter of stylistics, and as long as it doesn’t reduce the information value of the text that’s OK by me. For example, it’s almost a matter of tast as to whether you write “compared with” or “compared to”, though establishment figures of UK English will probably claim that it should always be “compared with”.
What bothers me more is inaccurate terminology and imprecise use of words or terms. Here accuracy truly means that you describe a concept fully, and minimize ambiguity; precision means that you use terms consistently instead of switching between terms of varying accuracy for describing the same concept. These aspects of writing definitely shouldn’t be considered a matter of style and taste: scientific English benefits from a consensus on the part of writers and readers such that when a word or phrase is written, the intent of the writer is always correctly interpreted by the reader. Equally important is that the science be told in the context of a story: a scientific narrative. That part is even harder: writing a good story has something to do with whether one intrinsically enjoys writing or considers it a necessary chore for communicating one’s research. If it’s a chore, the results will probably be a rather technical account. But even here, I can suggest technical measures to authors to create the basics of a narrative.
What are common pitfalls in scientific writing?
- Using unclear or ambiguous terms for describing something that you know well because you assume that others will also know it well.
- Creating sentences that combine many concepts and qualifications instead of splitting them into separate sentences. If anyone thinks that it is an achievement to cram so many things into one sentence, I can immediately disabuse them of that: the greater achievement is to write in short sentences.
- A variant of the last point: mixing principle with detail. I feel that many writers do this for fear of not telling the whole story at once, hence almost being economical with the truth. Or detail is mixed in with principle because the writer thinks that the point will be made more convincing in this way. However, the message is greatly weakened by such practice. It is always better to state principle first, and then qualify or elaborate it later.
Do the same tips and techniques work for every filed of science?
I would say yes; at least, I can’t think of any exceptions.
Do you have different tips for people from different countries?
I certainly see different writing styles from different countries. However, apart from certain strange word constructions that seem to be country-specific, most of the challenges that scientists face in writing are the same, regardless of country of origin.
But for a native speaker this is much easier, right?
Yes, it’s basically easier for a native speaker, but I’ve read some very badly-written manuscripts from native-speakers too! And some non-natives put natives to shame, I should add. I firmly believe that if you are not really interested in the process of writing, it is very hard to learn a flowing literary style; however, more important in the first instance is to learn to write in short sentences, not mix principle with detail, and to use terms accurately and precisely. That is a matter of discipline similar to the discipline necessary to do good research, and all researchers owe it to their métier. The only tip I can think of is to consider the writing stage a continuation of the scientific process: if you write badly, you diminish the understanding and impact of your research.
Non-natives who have serious intractable problems with their written English should enlist the help of a native English speaker in their field, if possible; if that isn’t possible, they should consider an editing service, because the quality of English can seriously diminish a paper’s chances in peer review.
How did you learn how to write?
Basically it was learning by doing, a lot of reading, and having an open ear to criticism. I’ll never forget writing what I thought was a very good simulation of a Nature News & Views article on my PhD topic and giving it to a fellow PhD student. The answer was a rather unenthusiastic “Er, it’s rather complicated, starting right at the beginning …”. That was a game changer for me, because at that point in my PhD I was seriously considering getting some experience in careers outside the lab. I knew that if I couldn’t even write a summary of my research that someone in a neighboring lab could understand I was doomed!
You wrote the book “Writing Science Well: Techniques, Tips and Pitfalls”. Who should read it?
Anyone who is just about to write a paper, or is in the process of writing one. It’s hard to put things into practice that you read a few months ago.
If you had to summarize, what is the most important tip you can give?
Think of your readership:
1. Would someone outside your lab understand what you’re writing?
2. Would you enjoy reading this piece when it’s published?
Reading science is a process of anticipated gratification: that is, one hopes to learn something new, and understand individual parts of a growing picture. If that process is made unpleasant because the writing is bad, then a major part of the potential gratification in the reader is neglected. Little gratification = little desire to continue reading. And these days there are even more alternative sources of the information, e.g., potted summaries, commentaries etc., to distract your intended readers. If you want what you’ve discovered to stand the best chance of being read as you’ve written it, make it pleasant to read.
Thank you for this interview.
Andrew Moore gained his PhD in molecular biology from the MRC-Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB), Cambridge, UK, in 1998. From 1999 to 2008, he was Programme Manager for Science & Society at EMBO, where he developed activities ranging from stakeholder conferences and education workshops for teachers to media communication workshops for scientists. Since 2008, he is Editor-in-Chief of the journal BioEssays.
Writing Science Well: Techniques, Tips and Pitfalls,