Aaron Haspel over at God of the Machine took some good cuts at the English-Comp warhorse "The Elements of Style" the other day. He's good at invective, and the book deserves some, although arguably not as much as he had on hand. But then his post inspired another at a blog called Petrona, written by Maxine Clarke, a senior editor at Nature. Her take:
I don't have much, if any, problem with (Strunk and White). Scientists do well to follow the advice when writing up original research, because descriptions of technical concepts, methods and so on are vastly improved by brevity. In particular, the common habit among US authors of applying six or seven adjectives to a noun can be very hard to comprehend when many of the adjectives could equally well be nouns, and the whole consists of polysyllabic specialist terminology (oh, OK, then -- jargon).
Given her day job, I have to assume that she knows of what she speaks. That's especially true because Nature is one of the very few scientific journals to do real line editing - they'll take your manuscript and rework it after it's been accepted, as strange as that may seem to many people.
Scientific writing is notoriously poor. Some of the problem comes from younger scientists trying to emulate what they've already been exposed to. I remember a colleague of mine in the early years of my first job who couldn't have written a report on whether it was raining and make it in under ten pages. I remember talking with this person about their draft of an internal report, which spoke about how they'd systematically investigated the various steric and electronic factors involved by varying the substituents in the distal portion of the aromatic ring in an attempt to learn the effects of these variations on a number of parameters, including oral absorption, activity at the target, clearance, and selectivity, and. . .well, it went on like that, for quite a long time.
"What are you trying to say here", I asked. "Oh, I'm just saying that we did the SAR for the 4-position of the ring", was the reply. "Then say that" was my advice. Ruthless application would have trimmed things down by about 90%, but no, it wouldn't sound like a real report then, would it?
Some of the worst writing in the scientific journals, though, comes from people who are trying to turn out the best. I've seen several people who are overly impressed with their writing skills, and try to dress up their papers with knotty sentence structure, recondite vocabulary, and other cheap tricks. Unfortunately, many readers fall for it. If they can recognize the author's style, they figure, he must be some writer. A journal article doesn't give you much room for style, that's for sure. Having an individual voice for your publications is a real challenge, but here's the trouble: most of the ways you can do it are bad ideas. Better to have no style at all than a lousy one.