Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Science Writing

One of the better, but least appreciated, science writers is Mark Ptashne. Ptashne is the author of the finest molecular biology text I have had the pleasure to read: A Genetic Switch. This book explains a difficult subject (the lysis/lysogeny "decision" in phage lambda) in extraordinarily lucid English. I especially like how the book is recursive, and at each repetition, the story becomes more detailed.

Anyway, I raise the subject of Ptashne and science writing because he has just published an essay on science writing at Current Biology (sadly, not open access, but I summarize for those lacking access).

Ptashne begins by opining the state of scientific writing, "I learn from Bill Bryson in his fine “A Short History of Everything” that obscure scientific writing has a well-established history. Newton wrote impenetrably to keep tourists out; the geologist Hutton, with profound things to say, wrote obscurely, and to his detriment, because he was incapable of writing a coherent English sentence."

Fortunately for Ptashne, he had good teachers.

"Watson [yes, that Watson] applied the following method (at least to me): my finely honed draft was sailed back across the table accompanied by an eyebrow-push-up-grimace and the word: 'Unreadable'."

"Max [Delbruck] returned a manuscript, torn to pieces, along with a note that said: 'Please switch fields.'"

"Al Hershey didn't bother to tear up my manuscript. I wrote a 20 page paper for him and got it back with most lines crossed out and the occasional phrase circled and marked 'Good'. So I rewrote and rewrote and it came back with not a mark on the first page! Not a mark on the second! Then the third page: a line through the middle, a penciled-in 'START HERE', and then most lines thereafter crossed out."

So how does one write well when one has to write about technically complex material?

Ptashne serves up the usual advice, "There are some rules that help, I suppose: short sentences, the active voice, as few technical and compound words as possible, and so on. I used to write by hand, read (out loud) into a tape recorder, re-read the typed outcome, throw away, read a page of Nietzsche, and start again."

But this is just a starting point.

"When I am struggling over yet another of my obscurely written drafts I sometimes recall: amateurs play music ‘in general’; professionals play each note. And so I present to a tough-minded friend one paragraph — just one — and when that is reported to be transparent I go on to the rest. But even if I have followed the rules I mentioned above, and even if that first paragraph seemed fine at the time, now, in view of what else I have written, that first paragraph might have to go, or be seriously recast. Each paragraph is an experiment — you might not know for some time whether it is any good."

The point is good writing takes serious effort. It is a process of vision and revision and revision. Giving your piece to others to read provides the proper distance and forgetfulness required to view a piece anew. With a fresh perspective, phrases to be simplified, redundancies to be eliminated, and tangled knots of language to be unwound suddenly appear from the forest of words.


  1. "...read (out loud) into a tape recorder"

    I do the modern equivalent of this. I use reading software to record my writing as a .wav file. Hearing it does make it easer to identify awkward writing and extraneous words.

  2. And then there's E.O. Wilson who gets everything right in the first draft. Allegedly.

  3. And then there was Stephen Jay Gould who not only got everything right in the first draft but also did not allow any revisions or comments from the editor. Allegedly.

  4. After 50 published papers it hasn't gotten easier, exactly, but I've learned to enjoy the process of writing and revision. Usually.