Early in my technical-editing career I sat in a room full of geologists and watched them slowly come to grips with the terribleness of their writing. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t take some satisfaction in the experience. It validated my belief that the inscrutability of bad science writing doesn’t come from the complexity of the subject matter, but instead from the poor quality of the writing.
Bad science writing is just bad writing. Period. The “science” adjective doesn’t change that.
I was sitting in the classroom as an “official” observer for a weeklong training conference. The geologists were all experts in their fields. Great people who were far smarter than I am. They wanted to do well at their jobs, and they treated the training with seriousness and professionalism.
Partway through the second day, the instructor asked for volunteers to read some research they were currently working on. One brave soul raised his hand — eagerly, in fact. I don’t know if the eagerness was eagerness to get constructive feedback or eagerness to show off his work. I just know he seemed very eager.
The eager geologist started out reading with confidence. After a minute or so he verbally stumbled, trying to improvise fixes to his clumsy writing. Then there was a long pause as he stared down with his face screwed-up in bafflement at one of his own convoluted sentences. Speaking slowly around the serpentine confusion of his sentences, he pushed bravely on.
When the brave, eager geologist was done, he sat in silent study of his own work. The instructor asked the audience for feedback.
With surprising gentleness (for scientists), they all said basically the same thing. They were familiar with his subject matter. They were experts in it, in fact.
They still didn’t understand what the hell he’d been talking about.
The Problem is Not Arrogance but Instead Personal Experience
When confronted with overly complex writing, readers often assume that the writer must be an arrogant jerk that enjoys flaunting the complexity of his or her specialization and making everyone else look like an idiot. This is, indeed, sometimes the case. Usually it’s not.
Usually, the explanation is far less insidious or intentional than that.
Scientists and highly technical people of all stripes are accustomed to being misunderstood.
It’s been a regular part of their lives for as long as they can remember. They specialize in narrow topics that are interesting or relevant to only a small handful of other people in the world.
Their natural language isn’t the language of non-scientists. All day long they’re steeped in jargon, math, and basic conceptual assumptions that are wildly different from those of the workaday world.
When they emerge from their cocoons to engage with regular human beings, they sound like they’re speaking in tongues.
So, when confronted with the inscrutability of their writing, it’s only natural that scientists and highly technical people assume that it’s just more of the same story. Of course they’re being misunderstood. They’re always misunderstood. Their own family and friends tuned them out years ago.
They aren’t arrogant or indifferent. They’d love to be able to share their life’s work with as many people as possible. They simply assume that the communication barrier is a continuation of the natural state of their lives.
That’s perfectly understandable on their parts. It’s also incorrect, and that incorrectness can impact their careers, as well as leave the public poorer off for lack of understanding the research. There’s data everywhere today. What we need is specialists who can explain it to non-specialists. We need good technical writers and good science writers.
Good writing can be the difference maker in whether a scientist gets his or her next grant, publication, or promotion. It also will, without a doubt, directly affect the ability of the scientist’s research to positively impact the world.
Most scientists would agree with this. They understand the importance of explaining their science clearly — except for one tricky cognitive bias. It’s the bias that I illustrated earlier with the story about the roomful of geologists.
Even those specialists who happily embrace the necessity of good writing will fall back on the cop-out that they’re writing for other specialists and, therefore, are writing under a different set of standards
That’s just not true. Bad writing is just bad writing. Always and forever.
Let’s boil it down to something simpler than riverine habitat dynamics or nutrient exchange in benthic flux. Let’s talk cars.
Let’s say you’re a car guy or a car woman and you’re writing for other car guys and car women. You’re all car experts. You all read Kelley Blue Book religiously. You all know every model of car produced in American history. You all can write out a schematic of an engine in breakneck speed and in astonishing detail.
You’re writing to your fellow car people about Gremlins. You all share the same technical knowledge of cars in general, and Gremlins in particular.
You sit down to write about Gremlins. You slap down a bunch of convoluted run-on sentences, meandering caveats, and screwy punctuation. Your paragraphs have no discernable topic sentences and weave in and out of ideas which no logical or grammatical bridges between them. You start without a thesis and end without a conclusion.
When you’re done, you’ve written total gibberish.
A fellow car person can probably tease out your meaning. Eventually. They’ll have to work at it, though, and how many people in the modern age spend a great deal of time teasing out the meaning of unnecessarily complicated instructions?
Zero. That’s how many.
Zero people in the modern age spend a great deal of time teasing out the meaning of unnecessarily complicated instructions.
So, if this applies to cars, how much more does it apply to advanced science and technical subjects?
Bad writing is just bad writing. We’re fooling ourselves to pretend otherwise.
The modern world is noisy with knowledge.
We’re lost in information and dumb with data — and even that comes only after the cat videos and political memes have had their way with our cognitive budgets.
What we need now is people who can clarify things. What we need now is good writers, and the principles of good writing are always the same — no matter who the audience is.