Friday, September 12, 2014

Fun read of the day: On whimsy, jokes, and beauty: can scientific writing be enjoyed?

This is such a fun paper: On whimsy, jokes, and beauty: can scientific writing be enjoyed? by Stephen Heard in Ideas in Ecology and Evolution 7: 64–72, 2014  I found out about it in an email from Heard, who sent it to me because he had earlier commented on a blog post I had written: The best writing in science papers part 1: Vladimir Nabokov in Notes on Neotropical Plebejinae (Lycaenidae, Lepidoptera).

Anyway - enough about me - what about this paper?  It has so many nuggets of interest I am not sure which to highlight so I will just go through some of it.  Oh - and it is published with a Creative Commons Attribution license (yay).
Abstract: While scientists are often exhorted to write better, it isn’t entirely obvious what “better” means. It’s uncontroversial that good scientific writing is clear, with the reader’s understanding as effortless as possible. Unsettled, and largely undiscussed, is the question of whether our goal of clarity precludes us from making our writing enjoyable by incorporating touches of whimsy, humanity, humour, and beauty. I offer examples of scientific writing that offers pleasure, drawing from ecology and evolution and from other natural sciences, and I argue that enjoyable writing can help recruit readers to a paper and retain them as they read. I document resistance to this idea in the scientific community, and consider the objections (well grounded and not) that may lie behind this resistance. I close by recommending that we include touches of whimsy and beauty in our own writing, and also that we work to encourage such touches in the writing of others.
OK - the title would have drawn me in anyway but the abstract definitely had me.
If scientific writers aren’t sure how to write better, it isn’t for lack of advice. Dozens of guidebooks discuss form, style, and goals in scientific writing (e.g., Montgomery 2003, Davis 2005, Day and Gastel 2006, Katz 2006, Matthews and Matthews 2007, Rogers 2007, Harmon and Gross 2010, Hofmann 2010, Pechenik 2010, Greene 2013, Heard unpubl.).
OK - I am going to have to look at some of these.

Heard documents a bit of a spat between Sprat and Boyle from the 1660s regarding scientific writing.  I especially like the Boyle quote:
To affect needless rhetorical ornaments in setting down an experiment...were little less improper paint the eyeglasses of a which even the most delightful colours cannot so much please the eye as they would hinder the sight...And yet I approve not that dull and insipid way of writing, which is practiced by many...for though a philosopher need not be solicitous that his style should delight his reader with his floridness, yet I think he may very well be allowed to take a care that it disgust not his reader by its flatness...Though it were foolish to colour...the glasses of telescopes, yet to gild...the tubes of them may render them most acceptable to the users (Boyle 1661:11-12, spelling and punctuation modern- ized).
Heard then goes through some different aspects of good scientific writing
  • Sightings (1): Playfulness in the scientific literature
  • Sightings (2): Beauty
Also - he then doscusses pushback against the "notion that whimsy, jokes, and beauty can have a place in our scientific literature." which I have also seen in many contexts.

He ends with suggestions and I quote the whole section with some highlights:
If you write papers that are crystal clear and thus effortless to read, you’ll have achieved the primary goal of scientific writing and your work will be among the best of our literature. But if you want to reach for even more, if you agree with me that we can also offer our readers some pleasure in reading, what can you do? To begin, you can try to write with small touches of whimsy, humanity, humour, and beauty—without, of course, compromising clarity; and even knowing that sometimes, reviewers will make you take them out. I am not suggesting writing in which art shares the stage equally with content (as can be true in the lay literature). Rather, the goal that’s within our reach is clear, functional writing punctuated with occasional nuggets of playfulness or glints of beauty—to extend Boyle’s metaphor, not a telescope of solid gold but one lightly gilded. 
You can also work to encourage pleasure in what your colleagues write, in two complementary ways. First, when you review manuscripts, you can suppress the reflex telling you to question any touches of whimsy, humour, or beauty that you find; you can even (gently) suggest some be put in. Second, you can announce your admiration of writing that has given you pleasure. Announce your admiration to the writers who crafted the passage, to editors who might be considering its fate, and to students or colleagues who might read it. If we choose to, we can change our culture to deliver, and value, pleasure along with function in our writing.
This is a must read paper.  And I really wish more people would endorse the idea that scientific writing can include more than just science.  Of course, there are many who already endorse this notion but for those who do not - give it a try.

1 comment:

  1. OMG, loved this paper! Glad I checked your blog today and found out about it. This paper should be required reading for all bio faculty and students at any school.