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January 24, 2014
Are There Good Writers In This Business?
Here's a question sent in by a reader that I actually have trouble answering: who would you say are the best writers of scientific papers in our field? I'm not necessarily talking about the results in those papers, as much as clear presentation and layout, written in a way that gets the point of the paper across without having to decode the thing.
It's tough, because writing a journal publication means operating under a variety of constraints. One of the biggest of those is word count (or page length). The fierce compression that this can bring on makes unpacking some papers a sentence-by-sentence excavation job, but it's not that the authors would write it like that if they weren't forced to. The opposite situation would be a disaster, too, though - there are, I'm sure, plenty of people who would just ramble on and on given unlimited page space to work with. Pascal's apology for writing such a long letter ("There was not enough time to write a shorter one") is germane. Rare is the first draft that can't be tightened up substantially, scientific publication or not.
But many journal articles are tightened up so hard that they twang when you try to read them. Maintaining clarity and flow under these conditions isn't easy, and I'd be interested to hear about people who manage to stand out enough to be noticed. And since this is a blog, and this is the internet, feel free to bring up examples from the other end of the scale - people whose papers are inevitably a chore. Nominees?
(My impression, by the way, is that well-written papers are more likely to be found in the older literature. I'm not sure if that's just selection bias, since we get to choose over a wider range of time and subject matter that way, or if journal editors were a bit looser about what they would allow back then. The original Watson and Crick DNA paper, for example, would surely never be written up that way today).
Update: here's a Curious Wavefunction post on this from a couple of years ago, with some of his own nominations.
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