Scientific Writing: A Story Worth Reading

When I think of science writing, I don’t often consider it to be anything riveting. Yet, I’ve seen that science itself can be interesting (just think Mythbusters). However, when science meets writing, the exciting parts of science seem to lose their appeal. Science writing has multiple negative stereotypes associated with it; it is often critiqued on the grounds that it isn’t interesting, that it is confusing, and that scientists are simply bad writers. If these beliefs are true, researchers, students, and patrons of the sciences have little hope for their writing. In 2013, Judy Swan, the Associate Director of the Princeton Writing Program, gave a TEDx talk entitled “In Praise of Technique”. Her talk highlighted many of these negative beliefs and voiced a new perspective on scientific writing. Through this post, I hope to break down some of Swan’s main points about scientific writing and apply them to students participating in scientific undergraduate research.

Seeing text from the reader’s perspective

One of Swan’s main points was the need for scientific writers to begin to change how they think about writing. She asked writers to consider the text from the perspective of readers. This is because not every reader of scientific research has a strong background in scientific thought or verbiage. The exposure of readers to science could be anywhere on the continuum of relatively small to relatively great. Therefore, scientific writing that assumes that every other reader of their work will hold the same understanding of the sciences that they do will lose a large readership. If scientists begin to see the text from the perspective of their readers, they begin to engage more deeply, explain, and passionately draw the reader into their work.

Is passive writing bad?

One of the stereotypes of scientific writing, as I said earlier, is that it is simply bad writing. Often, scientists choose to write in the passive form and are frowned upon because of this choice. Indeed, some people believe that passive writing is bad. By passive writing, I mean sentences such as: “Heart disease is considered the leading cause of death in the United States.” This sentence, far from being confusing or unclear, brings the subject forward as heart disease and leaves the researchers who discovered this out of the picture. Swan highlights these ideas in her talk, bringing up the fact that the passive voice can not only be intentional and useful, it can also bring the materials and the science being explored to the forefront. Thus, researchers and human agents fade to the background and the materials and science being studied are the subjects of the work.

Whose story is it anyways?

When thinking about scientific writing, Swan argues, one should first consider the audience, but also whose story the writing conveys. Instead of the research being about something that Dr. X has found, it is instead about the medicine for heart disease, the endangered species of the marshland, or the patterns of the milky way. Passive writing allows science to come to the forefront of the text. The story of science is conveyed to the audience. When considering science to be a story, the arguments and stereotypes against scientific writing begin to be replaced by a much more engaging narrative. This story has and will captivate an audience. Beginning to see scientific writing as more than a mere dissemination of findings can be transformative. The story of science can provide voices for cells, DNA, and other voiceless parts of the world. When scientists change their perspective and consider the story of the science they are studying, their writing not only will become better writing, it will also be more engaging for audiences.

Connecting Swan’s TEDx talk to undergraduate researchers

This TEDx talk is specifically relevant to undergraduate research because it combines two things that are often needed in scientific research: disseminating research findings and good writing. Swan’s ideas regarding thinking about audience can give research students a better focus on how to write their findings. This is deeply advantageous for students who want to present their findings to do: it can help build focus and foster creativity. Also, Swan’s talk reveals the value of writing in the passive form. Naysayers to this style don’t see the inherent value of bringing science to the forefront of the writing. However, a shift in perspective can make all the difference. Ultimately, this TEDx talk is a valuable one for both students of science and students of writing to watch. This is because it helps students in the sciences to think about their writing differently, and for students of writing to see the profound impact that scientific writing can have. Swan argues in defense of scientific writing. Scientific writing is a story worth reading.
Want to hear the talk for yourself? Check out the the video, found below: