What George Orwell can teach scientists about writing

Author: Dr Russell Huby

I still remember that rising sense of panic as I prepared to write my first scientific paper. It was as though a hundred scientists were peering over my shoulder, shaking their heads sadly, as I struggled to string so many English words together to create the One True scientific description of my work.

For every sentence I wrote, there was a better one, unwritten. In search of that perfect sentence, I would add interesting words, ensure I used the passive voice, include the most technical jargon possible, and generally tart up my writing to make it look ‘professional’. My job was to stuff all that information onto the page in the ‘correct’ scientific manner. Unpacking it was the reader’s problem. Pleasure on either side didn’t enter into the equation.

Over time, I have come to appreciate that there is no single, perfect manuscript waiting for me to discover it, like Michelangelo’s David crouched inside a block of marble. Yes, scientific writing does require a certain discipline to ensure it is clear and accurate, but it also needs to engage the reader who is, after all, a busy person who could probably be doing something other than reading your paper if it doesn’t interest them.

One of the most influential guides to better writing I’ve come across was written by the novelist and essayist George Orwell. Although he probably wasn’t thinking about scientific papers as he wrote these rules, they have a universal relevance that all scientists should heed. His guide takes the form of six simple rules, which are:

1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

Although such constructions are relatively rare in scientific writing, this rule serves as a reminder not to fall back on stock phrases and concepts when writing. There is a tendency, particularly in introductions, for writers to regurgitate the same concepts every time, and to ‘borrow’ paragraphs from each other. The outcome may look fine to the writer, but will quickly cause the reader to glaze over if they’ve already read pretty much the same thing ten times already.

2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.

Yes, this does apply to scientists. Sometimes there is no substitute for a long technical word, and that’s fine. But don’t try to impress your readership with your superior knowledge of the English language. No one likes a show-off, and all you’ll do is annoy them. If they know the word, they will also know the simpler word you could’ve used. If they don’t know the word, they will have to guess from the context, or just skip over it. So you might as well have put *&£^! instead, for all the value the word has added.

It’s also possible you might not be using the long (or rare) word quite correctly. It happens – and it’s a sure way to distract readers from what you are trying to say and to lose credibility.

Finally, remember some of your readers may not have English as their first language.

Do everyone a favour and keep it simple.

3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.

This is the contentious one. A good proportion of scientists consider the passive voice to be the only way to write ‘scientifically’. I’m not one of them. Note that Orwell doesn’t say never to use the passive voice. So consider the alternative, and whether your writing can be improved by use of the active voice.

5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

Think about your audience. If they are all specialists in the field, then anything other than the scientific word or jargon may actually slow their reading and comprehension, as they struggle to understand why you haven’t used the familiar term. If you’re expecting a wider readership, then make sure you introduce each scientific phrase clearly as it arises.

6. Break any of these rules sooner than saying anything outright barbarous.

Most writing rules can be broken – if you know what you’re doing and there’s a good reason for it. But most of the time, rules one to five will go a long way in themselves towards keeping you well on the right side of barbarous.

 

Think you’ll struggle to keep all this in mind when you’re in the process of writing?

You don’t have to.

Simply write a first draft then go back over it, applying each rule in turn, to create a better second draft. If you apply these rules even partly, your writing will become more engaging and memorable, and so your work will have more impact. You might even enjoy the process!