Death to Obfuscation!

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The latest blizzard socked us pretty hard here in New England. If the streets and runways are clear enough tomorrow, I will be attending a conference called ScienceOnline in North Carolina for the next few days. One of the sessions I’m supposed to moderate is called “Death to Obfuscation.” Ed Yong and I concocted it as a workshop in which we would share our thoughts on good science writing. I’m going to lay out some of my thoughts here in advance, partly to clarify what I’m going to say–Ed and I are a bit nervous that what we thought would be a pretty basic session has exploded into a 60+-person crush, infiltrated by seasoned journalists. And if, on Friday, I’m still stranded here, the whole undertaking won’t have been a complete waste…

Good science writing is some of the most interesting stuff on Earth to read. Bad science writing is the most painful. There are many things that determine whether a piece of science writing is good or bad, but I can sort them into four rough categories: words, sentences, paragraphs, and stories. Good science writing demands lots of care and inventiveness at all these scales.

After a few years of teaching science writing, I’ve started to ban certain words from my class. I add new words to my list on a regular basis, as they make unwelcome appearances in assignments. I may seem obsessively picky, but I hope through my pickiness, my students learn that every word can make a difference to their story. This lesson is especially crucial for scientists, most of whom are not accustomed to writing for a broad audience. Starting in college, scientists get accustomed to using scientific jargon. It’s how they impress their professors. It’s how they get taken seriously. Pretty soon, they start thinking that everybody knows what interferometry is.

But you’re actually writing for everybody–not everybody in your lab, who have been living and breathing this stuff for their adult life–but everybody who might be possibly enthralled with this research, if only they didn’t have to read a monograph on the subject.

This realization can produce a surprising bitterness, I find.

“Isn’t this dumbing down?”

“Aren’t we trying to teach our readers something?”

“Can’t people use a dictionary?”

It’s one thing to use a dictionary. It’s quite another to actually understand all the concepts lurking behind a word like interferometry. Look it up online and you may find, “the technique of diagnosing the properties of two or more waves by studying the pattern of interference created by their superposition.” Rather than doing the writer’s work–in this case, elegantly explaining how interferometry actually works–you dispatch your poor reader to the quicksand of a useless definition. Believe it or not, it really is possible to write well about even the most difficult sciences, with a minimum of jargon. Just consider all the pieces of jargon Bill Bryson did not use while writing this lovely piece on particle physics.

Oddly, scientists are so fond of jargon that they even make jargon out of words that are not, in fact, jargon–that is, they do not refer specifically to some piece of equipment, some laboratory method, some chemical process. For instance, many scientist think it makes perfect sense to write, “Recently chemists have discovered an interesting property of molecule X,”–when, in fact, by “recently,” they mean nine years ago. By that logic, I could write, “Recently my oldest daughter was born,” when, in fact, my daughter now takes ballet lessons and likes making star charts. Sometimes people seem to choose a technical-sounding word as if it was their sole mission to drain as much life as possible out of a piece of writing–“utilize” instead of “use,” for example.

Using these sorts of words is lazy. Rather than searching for a surprisingly apt word, a word that delights and informs, beginning writers fall back too often on what they’ve heard again and again. And while scientists may be particularly prone to fall back on their own mother tongue, everyone can be tempted by all-purpose cliches. Telling me that a piece of research is a “breakthrough” is unforgivable, unless you’re writing about the discovery of calculus or something of equal significance. If not, then show me why a discovery is important, rather than telling me with an empty word.

Just as words demand care in selection, sentences demand care in construction. The right length and lilt of a sentence will let your reader take your meaning from it, and take it with pleasure. If your sentence meanders on like a verbal train travelling the Great Plains, made up of as many boxcars as you care to click together, the reader will lose patience, wondering what the point of the sentence is. It probably should be a paragraph instead.

You should also think about whether you’re writing sentences in the active or passive voice. Scientists have a fierce passion for the passive voice. I suspect it has to do with the abject humility that they claim as a virtue of their profession. No one has the temerity to actually write, “We discovered X.” Instead, “X was discovered.”

While the ethics here may be fine, they make for terrible writing. The action of the story diffuses away into wisps of abstraction. Someone has to actually dig up a fossil. Someone has to find a supernova (or at least program the computer that finds it). Scientists use tools to do these things: hammers, telescopes. The passive voice lets you avoid thinking about who is doing what, and how. It is, like jargon, lazy. So I force students to avoid it as much as possible, so they can start to learn how to do the challenging work of building up a story.

Just as sentences are not words casually linked together, paragraphs are not just a random package of sentences. When we start a paragraph, we should know what we’re in for, and the paragraph should live up to that promise. It should not meander from subject to subject. And the link from one paragraph to another must be obvious and inescapable. While the connection from one paragraph to the next may be clear in your mind, the rest of us are not gifted with telepathy. Show us the link. In trying to do so, you may well discover that there is none. In fact, you may discover that you can delete a paragraph without disturbing the overall story at all. If that’s true, leave it out.

Finally, we come to the story as a whole. As you dive deeper and deeper into the guts of a story, it’s remarkably easy to forget the anatomy that a story needs: a beginning, a middle, and an end. The beginning has to tell us what the story will be about. Here’s what the writer of the tome I hold in the photograph above wrote recently about good leads:

They should never promise what does not follow. You read an exciting action lead about a car chase up a narrow street. Then the article turns out to be a financial analysis of debt structures in private universities. You’ve been had. The lead, like the title, should be a flashlight that shines down into the story.

A lead is a promise. It promises that the piece of writing is going to be like this. If it is not going to be so, don’t use the lead. A lead is good not because it dances, fires cannons or whistles like a train, but because it is absolute to what follows.

But in order for a lead to be absolute to what follows, I’d add, what follows must be absolute to the lead. Do not forget what you have promised; do not get seduced midway by another story. The story needs to move forward from your lead to its closing, hewing as closely as possible to chronology. Dance around the timeline, and your reader will get dizzy.

I’d love to know what McPhee has to say about ending a piece. That’s the hardest part, I find. It’s always tempting to end with a variation on, “Further research is needed.” But that’s a truism. When isn’t it needed, after all? And what scientist would willingly say, in effect, “I’m closing down my lab–my work here is done, folks!”?

An ending has to make us understand why this trip has been worthwhile–perhaps with a surprising implication that we might not have thought of before we read the article. Sometimes, though, the best way to end a story is just to bid your characters farewell as they go on with life, with a gesture or an observation. When I was starting out as a science writer at Discover, I came across an ending that I can still recall. It’s the ending of  “Between Home and the Abyss,” written by Robert Kunzig, who was a senior editor at the time. Kunzig describes an expedition of a deep-sea research ship called Atlantis II. (It won an award from the American Geophysical Union, by the way.)

The expedition, led by Rich Lutz of Rutgers, was pretty lousy, pocked with glitches and empty hauls. Kunzig did not say further research is needed. Instead, he wrote this:

Lutz’s project, this Magical Mystery Tour, had not ended well, despite all its previous successes and all the insights that would yet emerge from the material Lutz already had in his lab. Back in New Jersey the plan for the cruise had seemed straightforward. The plan was to go to known sites and collect animals that were known to be there. It should have been like going to the supermarket, not like stalking the snow leopard. But circumstances had intervened. Something usually does when you’re working in the deep sea. Nothing is ever easy.

As Lutz sat in the officers’ mess that night, picking quietly at a late dinner, the ship was steaming toward the dock in Astoria, at the mouth of the Columbia River. There it would exchange Lutz and his colleagues for the next group of researchers. Landfall came just after dawn, at a forested spit of land squeezed between the surf line and a bank of fog. The place was called Cape Disappointment.


[Update: Did I forget to say that proofreading is important too? Sorry about the typos. I hope I’ve fixed them all. Also, Kunzig link fixed]