Why Not Say It Clearly, indeed.
Why Not Say It Clearly: A Guide to Scientific Writing – Lester S. King, M.D. (1978)
As I move through life my eyes are constantly on the hunt for new reading material. I work at a medical school, and often find stacks of medical books and publications being offered as free giveaways. I will grab something if it appeals to me. This book, one of the most informative texts I have read concerning good writing and how to best achieve it, caught my eye.
Dr. Lester S. King wrote this after a long medical and educational career. He was just as frustrated by poorly written student dissertations as he was by obtusely worded journal articles. Dr. King understood that what is learned in school is often codified in practice. It then is never questioned, leading to an ossification of the written language used by scientists and science writers. This book is his attempt at pinpointing what makes a sentence or paragraph “good” or “bad” and how to best achieve good writing in one’s own work.
The title of this books sums up everything inside. The question “Why not say it clearly?” is one that helps summarize much of what Dr. King teaches in the book. He divides everything into chapters that build upon each other. He initially describes the present situation in scientific writing. How and why modern scientific writing is so stilted and unspecific is discussed. A lot of blame is given to the widely-accepted use of the passive voice, and how it defeats the scientific goals of specificity while maintaining an illusory sense of professional detachment. In much science writing the author will state something like “The results were entered by the researcher,” when they are speaking about themselves. It is much more accurate and specific to say “I entered the results.” It is active, and gets the point across without adding extra words or clumsy phrases.
Dr. Lester S. King goes on. One chapter discusses five “treacherous servants.” These are aspects of language that, while necessary, can become crutches or problems. An example is the overuse of the word “very.” While a researcher may write, “The experiment was very intense and very difficult,” nothing of value is actually lost if instead they wrote, “The experiment was intense and difficult.” Another example is the use of the word “it” where a specific noun would convey more information.
One of my favorite chapters discussed the differences between editing and revision. As Dr. King describes, Editing is the correction of the writing in someone else’s work. An Editor must try as hard as possible to keep the language in the style of the original writer. Certain corrections can be made but an Editor should never change the content or intent of the writer. Revision is the process of correcting the writing in one’s own work. Revision allows the writer to rethink his original ideas, to rewrite passages, or to edit out sections that may seem unnecessary. I have been both an editor and a writer revising his work. It is very informative.
In a chapter that had relevance to this blog, the author discusses the qualities of book reviews, and how best to write and utilize them. Dr. King spent many years as Head Editor of scientific journals. Some years they would receive over 2,000 books and manuscripts for review. His process involved winnowing out the 40-50% of works that had merit, then dividing that list up even further. The journal had a section with a listing of “New titles out this month,” a section with 20-25 unsigned notices of 60-80 words, basically a small description of the work in question. After that came the full, 500-900 word reviews, signed by the reviewer. This allowed him to disperse the knowledge that these new books existed, and to speak in-depth about the ones he felt were of real value to most of his audience.