Writing Science in Plain English

Writing Science in Plain English

by Anne E. Greene

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226026374
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 05/24/2013
Series: Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing, and Publishing Series
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 136
Sales rank: 385,172
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Anne E. Greene is a biologist by training and teaches scientific writing in the Wildlife Biology Program at The University of Montana.

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Writing Science in Plain English



Copyright © 2013 Anne E. Greene
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-02637-4



Why Write Science in Plain English?

"Do you dread reading the scientific literature?" I ask on the first day of my scientific writing class. My students, mostly honors undergraduates majoring in biology, roll their eyes and nod their heads. They all agree—reading science papers is hard. When I ask why, the responses are telling: "Reading papers puts me to sleep," or, "I have to read them three or four times before they make sense," or, "They make me feel stupid." Why should intelligent, motivated students have difficulty reading the scientific literature? The answer is because most of it is poorly written.

If you are an undergraduate student, perhaps you have the same problem with your assigned readings. If you are a graduate student, a postdoctoral fellow, or an established scientist, perhaps you have heard similar complaints from your students, or had these thoughts yourself.

The truth is, many journal editors and senior scientists believe that unclear scientific writing is a serious problem. Peter Woodford, former president of the Council of Science Editors, described the poor writing he saw in journals as "appalling." Leslie Sage, senior editor of physical sciences at Nature, wrote, "It is a sad commentary ... that many of the 'crank' papers submitted to Nature are actually better written—from a purely stylistic point of view—than many of the professional papers." Harold Heatwole, editor of Integrative and Comparative Biology, concluded, "The standard of writing in current scientific journals has reached an all-time low, in terms of both poor grammar and imprecise communication." Many senior scientists who have written on the subject agree with David Porush that scientific writing is "unnecessarily dry, difficult to read, obscure, and ambiguous." They urge scientists to write more clearly, with more directness and precision, in a style Anthony Wilson calls "plain, simple English."

Yet scientific writing, while exploding in quantity, is not improving in quality. In a survey of 22 journals on atmospheric science, a measure of clarity of the articles was either holding steady or declining. As recently as December 2011, the chief scientific editor of Science Signaling described the computational results in many manuscripts as "obscure, convoluted, jargonistic, or impenetrable."

Why does this epidemic of poor scientific writing matter? One reason is it hinders the flow of ideas across disciplines. As science becomes more specialized and the writing more complex, specialists in different fields struggle to understand one another. Poor writing also makes it more difficult to apply discoveries from one field to another, a cross-fertilization that has advanced scientific discovery in the past. One scientist recently suggested that unclear writing hinders the scientific process itself.

In addition, poor scientific writing is partly to blame for the decline in science literacy in the United States and the long-standing communication gap between scientists and the general public. If we are to solve the profound problems facing our nation and the world, decisions must be shaped by science-literate citizens and lawmakers. But in a recent poll conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 85% of scientists surveyed say public ignorance of science is a major problem. About half the Americans surveyed disagreed that human activities are causing global climate change, and almost a third don't believe in human evolution. To help close the rift, the president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), Peter Agre, urged "every scientist and engineer to make their work both beneficial and understandable" to the general public.

Younger scientists may be our best hope. In their book Unscientific America, Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum describe a crisis in communication between scientists and "everyone else" that could be improved by training "Renaissance scientists" who can communicate more effectively. Similarly, the CEO of the AAAS and executive publisher of the journal Science, Alan Leshner, believes that young scientists should be trained in "public communication," and that scientists who share their research with a broad audience should be rewarded.

But poor writing sets a bad example for young scientists. If you are a newcomer to the field, you probably imitate the writing you read in professional journals, a common enough practice in any profession, but one that guarantees that poor writing persists. Even if you are an established scientist, your writing style was probably influenced by your major professors or advisors, few of whom were trained to write clearly or to instruct others to do so. One consequence of this is the feedback most science students receive on their writing varies enormously.

The good news is you can write science in plain English by applying a relatively short list of principles developed for professional writers by Joseph Williams in his book Style: Toward Clarity and Grace. These principles are based on linguistic theory about what readers look for when they read complex, unfamiliar information. The list is surprisingly simple: readers look for a story about characters and actions; for strong verbs close to their subjects; for old information at the beginnings of sentences and new information at the ends; and for specific kinds of information in predictable places in paragraphs and documents.

Williams's principles and their linguistic history are at the heart of this book. Most other books on scientific writing focus on what scientists write; they describe how to prepare a thesis, a grant proposal, a research paper, and a review article; many include instructions on data presentation, formatting, and citation styles; some cover how to give an oral presentation and how to prepare a poster. They don't concentrate on why scientific writing is so hard to understand or how to improve it.

This book dispenses with information about what scientists write and focuses entirely on how to write clearly and comprehensibly. The principles it describes will help improve everything you write, whether it is a lab report, a grant proposal, a research paper, or a press release. At what stage in the writing process you use the principles is up to you. You might use them to revise a first draft, or once you are familiar with them, you might incorporate the principles as you write. Just remember that at some stage you must adjust your writing so that it gives your readers what they need to understand you.

Before you begin to write, you must choose your audience, register, and tone. These topics are discussed in Chapter 2. The remaining chapters describe the principles, using good and bad examples of real scientific writing. Once you understand each principle, you can practice it by doing the exercises at the end of the chapter. Then compare your results with those in the Exercise Key in Appendix 2.

Throughout the book, I use some common grammatical terms that refer to parts of speech and basic sentence structure. If you are unsure of these terms or need a quick refresher on grammar, refer to Appendix 1. It's important that you understand the terms because I use them to explain how the principles work, and they will help you apply the principles to your own writing.

Because many problems with scientific writing are common to all disciplines and at all levels, these principles will help whether you are a geologist, chemist, physicist, biologist, or social scientist, and whether you are a first- or fourth-year undergraduate, a graduate student, a postdoctoral fellow, or a professor.

Certainly, the merit of your scientific writing rests as much on content as on style. Equally important are the questions, hypotheses, experimental designs, and interpretations you describe. However, if you cannot clearly communicate these things to your readers, what is the point?


Before You Write

It's usually a good idea to plan ahead, and with writing, planning ahead can make the difference between success and failure. Before you write, decide who you are writing for, how formal you should be, and the attitude you want to project. These decisions will help determine if your writing is clear and interesting. Often, scientists reflexively favor a dry, abstract, and unvarying style, but we can do better by considering our audience, register, and tone before we write.


The most important first step is to envision your audience. Who will read your report, paper, thesis, or textbook? Your audiences could include family or friends, interested nonscientists, or other scientists who may or may not share your discipline. Most likely, some of your readers will know less about the subject than you do, so put yourself in their shoes. They are trying to understand you, but don't know what you know. Help them by making your writing as clear as possible. If you are unsure of your audience, err on the conservative side. Write for the reader who may be least informed. By doing so, you won't confuse anyone, and you will reach more readers.

As a student, you usually have an audience of one—your professor. However, in the real world, you will be writing for many different audiences, and your success will often depend on whether you communicate clearly to each of them. So when you write a paper or a lab report, envision a larger audience—one that is not as well informed as you are—and write for them. Writing about your subject clearly and simply will also show your professor that you understand the course concepts.

Writing with your audience in mind informs the principles in the rest of the book. It also determines two other qualities of your writing: your register and your tone.


Register describes where your writing falls on the continuum from informal to formal. Remember that as your writing becomes more formal, it becomes harder to understand, particularly for readers who don't know your subject. The examples below (except one) describe a similar subject—the mating habits of porcupines—but are written in four different registers used in scientific writing: informal, popular, conventional, and abstract.


Have you ever wondered, "How the heck do porcupines manage to mate with all those spines everywhere?" Well, the answer to that question is pretty hard to figure out because porcupines are hard to see at the best of times, but it's almost impossible when they're courting. It turns out that the whole affair is up to the woman. When she is ready to become pregnant, she produces a very strong odor that can drive the male porcupine crazy!

We often use the informal register with family and friends. It is conversational and often emotional. It assumes familiarity between writer and reader and can frame a good story. In the above example, phrases such as, how the heck and anthropomorphisms such as the whole affair is up to the woman, make this writing unsuitable for most scientific purposes.

However, in some situations, small doses of informal register can transmit spirit and enthusiasm. The following excerpt is from a letter to undergraduates written by the directors for the Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) Program at the University of Wisconsin– Milwaukee.

Thank you for your interest in our National Science Foundation Ocean Sciences Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) Program.... We expect about 80 applications for 9 fellowships, but don't let that put you off. All of life is like that, and you can't get it if you don't try! If you have a decent academic record and can write an intelligible and personalized statement of interest, you stand a good chance of success.

For most students, this kind of writing—a mixture of informal and more formal registers—tells them these scientists are professional but also know how to relate to their audience.


Porcupines are arboreal creatures and in the Nevada region, they live and mate in thick riparian vegetation in which it is impossible for researchers to move quietly. So, although Sweitzer has come close to catching the creatures mating, he has had to settle for stumbling upon the pairs that seem to be on the verge of reproduction—animals that provide only indirect hints about how porcupines find and pick mates. But these clues have been sufficient for Sweitzer along with fellow researcher Joel Berger of the University of Nevada, Reno, to put forward a theory that has earned them some notoriety in the select circle of experts who study this creature.

This register is typical of popular science magazines that are written for a broad audience. Written pieces using this register often tell a story, in this case about trying to find breeding porcupines. Characters that readers can visualize play important roles, such as porcupines, Sweitzer, and Berger do in this example. The writing is clear and easy to understand, with few technical terms.


I tracked the movements of North American porcupines (Erethizon dorsatum) in the Great Basin of northwestern Nevada. I related these movements to breeding activities during the late summer and fall of 1991 and 1992. Male porcupines are polygamous and defend several females, and I hypothesized that (1) competitively dominant males would have larger home ranges than both subordinate males and adult females, and (2) the size of home ranges of adult males would vary and be positively correlated with breeding success.

The conventional register is characteristic of clearly written journal articles, theses, and proposals directed at a broad scientific audience. It is more formal than the previous registers, but still clear. It tells a story with identifiable characters (I and porcupines) that do things (track, relate, defend, and hypothesize). It features many verbs in active voice. It is emotionally neutral, and it assumes the reader is familiar with some technical terms (polygamous, dominant and subordinate, hypothesized, and correlated).


The assessment of strong directional tendencies of the North American porcupine (Erethizon dorsatum) in the Great Basin of northwestern Nevada was made in relation to sex-specific behavioral heterogeneity during the late summer and fall periods of 1991 and 1992. A mate-defense polygynous mating system was exhibited, and it was hypothesized that (1) comparatively larger home ranges would be defended by competitively dominant males in comparison to the home ranges of subordinate males and females and (2) male home range size variation would be positively correlated with reproductive success.

Most of what scientists read and write every day is in the abstract register. It is unclear, wordy, pompous, and dull. The main character from the example of conventional register, I, has disappeared. The action that character did, tracked, has been converted to, the assessment, an abstract term that gives the impression of action, that apparently takes place without anyone doing it. The story element is gone. Many of the active verbs in the conventional example have been changed to passive verbs. The number of technical terms has increased, and long strings of nouns have appeared. In the previous example, the "conventional" writer describes the movements of North American porcupines, while the "abstract" writer describes strong directional tendencies of the North American porcupine; the "conventional" writer relates movements to breeding activities, while the "abstract" writer assesses them in relation to sex-specific behavioral heterogeneity; the "conventional" writer describes how the size of home ranges of adult males would vary, while the "abstract" writer describes male home size variation. The message written in conventional register is clear; why muddy the waters with abstractions and technical terms? By doing so, writers risk confusing their readers, or putting them to sleep.

Of the two registers unsuited to most scientific writing—the informal and the abstract—the abstract is far more common, and the one you should guard against most. Abstract writing disguises your message and confuses your readers, especially those who are less informed.


Tone is the writer's attitude toward himself, his subject, and his audience.

It can range from arrogant to dismissive, timid to confident, energetic to dull, cynical to optimistic. Choosing the right tone influences how the audience feels about you and your subject. In scientific writing, we try to keep our tone neutral, but since most of our writing is persuasive (we want to convince our readers to accept a particular view or hypothesis), we should adopt a tone that projects confidence rather than doubt. Nowhere is this more important than in proposal writing, where self-assurance and enthusiasm are crucial. Consider the differences between the following two passages, one of which was excerpted from a successful grant proposal to the National Science Foundation. Can you tell from the tone which one it is?

Excerpted from Writing Science in Plain English by ANNE E. GREENE. Copyright © 2013 by Anne E. Greene. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


1 Why Write Science in Plain English?

2  Before You Write

3  Tell a Story
     Make Characters Subjects and Their Actions Verbs
     Use Strong Verbs
     Place Subjects and Verbs Close Together

4  Favor the Active Voice
     Benefits of Active Voice
     Proper Uses of Passive Voice

5  Choose Your Words with Care
     Use Short Words Instead of Long Ones
     Keep Terms the Same
     Break Up Noun Strings
     Rethink Technical Terms

6  Omit Needless Words
     Metadiscourse and Transition Words
     Affirmatives and Negatives

7  Old Information and New Information
     Put Old Information at Beginnings of Sentences
     Put New Information at Ends of Sentences

8  Make Lists Parallel

9  Vary the Length of Your Sentences

10  Design Your Paragraphs

11  Arrange Your Paragraphs
     Chronological Order
     General to Specific
     Least Important to Most Important
     Problem to Solution
     Compare and Contrast
     Transition Words Revisited

Appendix 1  Basic Writing Concepts
Appendix 2  Exercise Key


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Writing Science in Plain English 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
MontanaBKP More than 1 year ago
I highly recommend Anne Greene’s book. She devotes each of her very short chapters to one or two key elements, and those elements lead to very clear, concise writing in any field. When writing about science, especially journal articles, authors tend to write in the third person and use passive verbs and abstract terminology. She tells her readers how to overcome these and many more problems. Although most of the principles are simple, they are unfamiliar to many students and professionals I’ve encountered. She also presents the reader with exercises to build skills in their implementation. I am teaching an undergraduate scientific technical writing course; this book does more in less time to improve writing than anything I’ve encountered to date. Whether you are teaching such a course or want a quick way to improve your own writing, you should buy this book. Your students won't believe that it is possible to buy a textbook so cheaply. An added benefit is that you can read it online or with regular e-book applications and are not constrained to reading it in the applications that many publishers require for textbooks.This enables students to read it on campus computers that don't allow the installation of applications.