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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: derekb.lowe@gmail.com Twitter: Dereklowe

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December 13, 2006

Ars Longa, But Instructions to Authors Say "Brevis"

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Posted by Derek

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.

Comments (37) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: The Scientific Literature


COMMENTS

1. Anonymous on December 13, 2006 11:30 PM writes...

I have most of the warhorse writing guides and occasionally refer to them for obscure factoids. But the one I truly love is On Writing Well by William Zinsser.

It's a quick read, fun and enjoyable but utterly compelling, and you'll soon notice his ideas resonating in your writing.

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2. eugene on December 14, 2006 1:12 AM writes...

I just read an article in PNAS and it sounded exactly like the "bad mumbo jumbo" described in your post. It was painful to read and during the arduous process I found myself escaping to this blog and posting more and more often on the "Tinfoil hats" thread. Eventually I finished that article though. It wasn't as impressive as I had hoped for when you get down to it... It's a shame because one of the authors is one of my favorite chemists/competitors in the area. Not being scooped is bittersweet in this case.

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3. Greg Hlatky on December 14, 2006 6:23 AM writes...

Good advice from James Gould Cozzens: "By keeping carefully to the real subject... and by resisting giving himself a boost on the side, the average writer can greatly simplify his labors. As a rule he knows what he wants to say, and once he is reconciled simply to saying it without wondering how it sounds, or whether the reader is going to form a high opinion of him, he will find that he is no longer at a loss for words or tangled up in relative clauses. Plain facts practically write themselves. After he has put the plain facts down in words he is used to using... he can send them off with sober confidence. The reader, astounded to get something sensible, simple, and short, may even conclude that the writer must be quite a smart guy."

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4. Harry on December 14, 2006 7:33 AM writes...

If anyone wants to see the true virtue of brevity in a presentation, they need look no further than comparing Lincoln's Gettysburg Address to the long-winded "official" oration put on by a very professional and well-known (at the time) orator Edward Everett. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_Everett)

His two-hour oration has been totally forgotten, but Lincolns remarks still resonate over 100 years later.

MY $0.02-

Harry

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5. daen on December 14, 2006 7:52 AM writes...

"recondite vocabularly"

This comment contains no comment ;-)

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6. dearieme on December 14, 2006 8:37 AM writes...

"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": too bloody true. If only they'd use a few prepositions, all would be clear.

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7. Derek Lowe on December 14, 2006 9:16 AM writes...

Daen - aargh, typo corrected. But that doesn't get me off the hook for "recondite", I imagine. . .

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8. JSinger on December 14, 2006 10:09 AM writes...

In scientists' defense (besides the obvious point that if I had to write PNAS articles in Chinese they'd also be pretty horrible)...

One thing I've learned from MBA classes is how good scientists' presentation skills are. Even what we typically consider "not very good" comes across like Abraham Lincoln compared to random, educated professionals who haven't picked up that particular skill. Most people literally don't realize that a presentation has to have a point, and a logical ordering of information.

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9. Demosthenes by Day on December 14, 2006 10:51 AM writes...

Scientists could add to the brevity of many manuscripts by getting rid of words like "utilize". If I had a time machine I'd go back and slap the first scientist who coined "utilize" instead of the more staright-forward and much shorter "use". One thing I think we do as a scientific community is communicate poorly and our love of using longer. seemingly more impressive words over the more easily understood straight-forward common word only adds to this.

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10. Dave H on December 14, 2006 2:09 PM writes...

You're gonna love the 2006 Ig Nobels

http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/cgi-bin/abstract/112137622/ABSTRACT?CRETRY=1&SRETRY=0

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11. MeOH on December 14, 2006 2:26 PM writes...

That's why I dislike the style of KCN, Danishefsky et al. sometimes. They unnecessarily try to complicate and decorate their statements. Perhaps they want to emulate R B Woodward. But I don't think they ever came close to his style, which was elegance and economy as well as accuracy par excellence.

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12. milkshake on December 14, 2006 2:57 PM writes...

Yeah, there are some top-class synthetic chemists that write like self-indulgent bombastic fools. What is even more frustrating are not-so-top guys that write like fools because they strive for grandness. I also think that this kind of annoying writing style is infectious - it spreads by emulation.

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13. freed-all-baths on December 14, 2006 3:35 PM writes...

demosthenes by day - i agree, overcomplication makes chemistry more complicated than necessary. However, we should not ignore all the subtleties the english language allows us. For instance, the words "use" and "utilize" have slightly different meanings (utilize - to use for the purpose it was designed) so should we ignore this perfectly good word just because some people are ignorant of it's meaning? As for the seemingly infectious misunderstanding of the difference between "alternate" and "alternative"....

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14. Chemist of Sorts on December 14, 2006 3:58 PM writes...

So who are some synthetic organic chemists that write really well?

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15. Beth Halford on December 14, 2006 4:00 PM writes...

One of the best writing tips I ever got was this:

One idea per sentence.

So, how substantial is Nature's line editing?

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16. Dagger on December 14, 2006 6:01 PM writes...

During discussions of the wordy nature of journal articles, I am reminded of a fairly memorable West Wing episode.

In the episode 10,000 Airplanes, Donna runs into Toby in the hall and says this quick comment and I try and keep it in mind when writing reports in my Contract Chem Job.

The comment is as follows:
Donna: "How many words in the Gettysburg Address?"
Toby: "266"
Donna: "And the Ten Commandments?"
Toby: "173"
Donna: "So you wouldn't really think you'd need 6000 to discover how a plane ticket gets reimbursed."

I'm pretty sure this speaks volumes given Harry's (#4) comment.

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17. Anonymous 2 on December 14, 2006 6:24 PM writes...

I submit this sample without comment:

"Little did we know then how much these small guys had in store for us when we finally paid proper attention to them. That occurred in 1997when the definitive paper on the CP molecules from the Kaneko group appeared in the Journal of the American Chemical Society. Approximately two years later, the battle against the Minotaur was over with the triumphant Theseus having succeeded in the kill. Here is how Science magazine described the athlos in its News of the Week section in 1999:"


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18. Anonymous 2 on December 14, 2006 6:33 PM writes...

A brief apology is due to the upper sample. In the above paragraph, "guys" and "kill" are in quotes.

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19. TFox on December 14, 2006 6:51 PM writes...

I have a copy of this article by Gopen and Swan on my desk: it's specific to the problems of scientific writing, and claims to be based on actual research on how readers understand scientific prose.

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20. Chrispy on December 14, 2006 8:04 PM writes...


Anyone recall who the synthetic chemist was (is?) who used words of Medieval warfare in his papers -- stuff like "And the rocky fortress of the ketone was rent asunder by the slings and arrows of the hydride..."

He was/is a classic, as I recall (it's been a few years...).

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21. Srikanth on December 14, 2006 8:21 PM writes...

Hah! More American laziness! Only the man who does not want to work talks about words. Chemistry is simple: You shake (extraction), you rotovap, you watch the column (boring! But you can pray here because I know US people are religous), then rotovap again. That's it! Only old Americans care about garbage talked with 'subtle' language.
It is right angles, not poetry, and you can't make it pretier than it is! But you hurt yourself, that's O.K, we will do the jobs for you, while you talk to yourself. I am happy you are so dumb. $$$$ :)!

Permalink to Comment

22. TNC on December 14, 2006 8:22 PM writes...

One wonders about a parody article where a synthetic route was described like a romance novel. But this IS a family blog.

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23. eugene on December 14, 2006 9:18 PM writes...

I seriously doubt Srikanth is real. He is probably a wind up. None of the Indians I know are that abrasive and stupid. So don't take it out on India other posters. Just on the troll.

Permalink to Comment

24. TW Andrews on December 14, 2006 11:02 PM writes...

In my experience, the following identity generally holds:

Scientific Papers = Smart people writing badly

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25. chris on December 14, 2006 11:32 PM writes...

At least in biology, the greatest thinkers were also some of the best writers - Francis Crick and Peter Medawar coming to mind in particular. Perhaps their impact was greatest in part because they communicated effectively? Trees falling in forests, and all that.

Oh, and there's always Feynman...

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26. BCP on December 14, 2006 11:33 PM writes...

Srikanth, I'm thinking you are related to Greetings from Beijing

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27. Jim on December 15, 2006 5:13 AM writes...

I seem to recall a paper (JOC I think) written entirely in blank verse (or possibly iambic pentameter).

Either way, it made me wonder where they found the time.

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28. Anonymous BMS Researcher on December 15, 2006 8:57 AM writes...

You are correct that Nature is one of the very few scientific journals that still do real editing. A colleague who had something published there noticed they even reset all text within her figures in their preferred typefaces. I don't know of anybody else who does THAT; certainly none of the various journals in which my stuff has appeared (maybe SOME day I'll appear in Nature?) ever did.

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29. Srikanth on December 15, 2006 12:15 PM writes...

Hey Eugene! You are not the boss of Indians anymore!
You think we are all docile. We laugh at you behind your back. India is growing, while US is a dying country choking on hotdogs and lazy people. You will work for me one day.

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30. Derek Lowe on December 15, 2006 4:50 PM writes...

Srikanth, I'm probably going to regret asking this, but just where are you getting this high-powered education of yours that's going to make you everyone's boss, and how far away are you from hitting the workforce out here in the real world?

Permalink to Comment

31. eugene on December 15, 2006 7:30 PM writes...

Whatever Srikanth,

Notice that you said I'll work for you. Really, I couldn't care who I was working for as long as it was a decent wage, so I'll keep you to your word. I'll probably be a really good worker and better than most chemists educated in India.

Now, (if you are really Indian and are posting from India) let's see you elevate yourself to a position to employ Americans. As far as I figure it, you've got a harder road than me ahead of you if you want to make it happen.

Good luck! I'll be cheering you one while I go home and have my lazy beer today. Not much of a hotdog person though... I'll figure out something to stuff myself with.

P.S. For my job in India, I'm not much of a subtropical/monsoon type of person, so try to open up a job site somewhere in the North. New Delhi or higher sounds good for me.

Permalink to Comment

32. nobigtitleforme on December 15, 2006 8:01 PM writes...

Just because i had it at arm's length (my advisor having cited it as an example of what he doesn't want from me), the verse publication is Bunnett and Kearley, J Org Chem 1971 36(1) 184-186. 'Comparative mobility of halogens in reactions of dihalobenzenes with potassium amide in ammonia.'

The editors caution the reader not to try to do it again, essentially. Nothing so creative has probably been published since (a shame, if you ask me).

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33. Simon on December 16, 2006 1:09 AM writes...

Why is this Srikanth person maligning Indians and Americans in his catch-all comments?

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34. Anonymous on December 17, 2006 12:27 PM writes...

Dereke says- "Where am I getting this high powered education?"

Education finished, I am visiting US right now.
Americans have too much education in all the wrong places. I see at my friends undergraduate college they take history, art and even acting! You need a course to learn to act? Americans heads are filled with garbage and everyone wants to be a movie star! I am a humble man but I see why Americans cannot get jobs. Too much me, me, me. There is a great shortage for chemists in your country but still nonone wants to work in the right way. The managers at pharma company tell me this too. But not all your fault because your education is crazy. I read in C&E news in Novermber that pharma needs multidiscipline people. This is a total joke, since everyone knows you learn to do the column correct and anyone will hire you. I do thousands of columns for phd and now I am hired. I see few Americans at companies I vist. Maybe 90% Indian and Chinese?
Why? Because we are team players and only work here for a short time anyway so can work harder and do not think about sex sex sex and dancing and other things that slow Americans down. I will be a rich man when I return home in a few years.

You are a smart guy but can only be one big brain for fifty people so maybe you should write science books. I will buy one and support you.(you are right that chemistry is one big guess work! No thinking needed and modeling is stupid, just do till eyes bleed, get it?)

Permalink to Comment

35. Srikanth on December 17, 2006 12:28 PM writes...

Dereke says- "Where am I getting this high powered education?"

Education finished, I am visiting US right now.
Americans have too much education in all the wrong places. I see at my friends undergraduate college they take history, art and even acting! You need a course to learn to act? Americans heads are filled with garbage and everyone wants to be a movie star! I am a humble man but I see why Americans cannot get jobs. Too much me, me, me. There is a great shortage for chemists in your country but still nonone wants to work in the right way. The managers at pharma company tell me this too. But not all your fault because your education is crazy. I read in C&E news in Novermber that pharma needs multidiscipline people. This is a total joke, since everyone knows you learn to do the column correct and anyone will hire you. I do thousands of columns for phd and now I am hired. I see few Americans at companies I vist. Maybe 90% Indian and Chinese?
Why? Because we are team players and only work here for a short time anyway so can work harder and do not think about sex sex sex and dancing and other things that slow Americans down. I will be a rich man when I return home in a few years.

You are a smart guy but can only be one big brain for fifty people so maybe you should write science books. I will buy one and support you.(you are right that chemistry is one big guess work! No thinking needed and modeling is stupid, just do till eyes bleed, get it?)

Permalink to Comment

36. eugene on December 17, 2006 12:57 PM writes...

Yawn @ Srikanth

I wish I could dance. I read somewhere that it's very important to be a good dancer if you live in some primitive society where women choose their mates subconsciously since moving well has correlation with intelligence. Oh well, as they say: "that's the c'est la vie".

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37. Jim on December 19, 2006 6:08 PM writes...

The book that helped me most was "Writing with Power" by Peter Elbow. No worries: it's not a Nietschean tome. Instead it stresses that writing consists of creating, and of destroying (editing). The author's main theory is that if you try to do both at the same time, you fail.

As an engineer, I was always trying to write the optimal sentence. Problem is, optimal is context-sensitive. So I got caught up in many iterations of very small loops. It's best (according to Elbow, supported by my experience) to get everything on paper (or hard disk), THEN to consciously change to edit mode. The whole story is then told in the best fashion. Sentences hold together in context.

In fact, if I sleep on a bit of writing, and edit the next morning, my prose shrinks by about 30%. Also, the style improves.

I hope that this is useful, and wish everyone a pleasant holiday according to their choice and custom.

Jim

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