Scientific writing

In which style tips are given for the projection of status through nominal phrases and passive voice


Is there a recommended style guide for theses? Not formatting, but linguistic style? I’m presuming there must be one, or they would not generally be written so horribly. I would like to know where this gaggingly awful style is elucidated so that I may ape it and thereby adhere to the expectations of this noble institution that is the thesis, and also maybe work out what small freedoms I may have to write comprehensibly, interesting etc.

Scientific writing style is frequently terrible. In my undergraduate days I was enrolled in a linguistics program. The psycholinguistics section was all about stuff like quantifying how hard e.g. subordinate clauses are to process. We would doing that by e.g. measuring how people had to pause to understand it, or failed to remember it. And of course, the essays on these themes had to be written with subordinate clauses, and passive voice and various other things that we knew made our essay measurably harder to understand. Possibly because writing is just plain hard, harder in your second language (and scientists tend not to be writing in their mother language), and possibly because a shadowy conspiracy of lecturers aims to create demand for remunerated means of education delivery, such as lectures, where they explain well in person what they obfuscated in book. The academic elites would be, that is, in the pocket of Big Talk.

Or maybe possibly because your graduate committee feels they need to give you some feedback and if they do not understand the content of your writing then at least they might feel you could benefit from being told to talk more defensively pretentious. Can I do better (ie.e. more beautiful, more comprehensible) while still using enough appropriately roccoco status signifiers to get my work published? I am especially interested in good mathematical style, but academic style in general could be good to know.

It might be good to distinguish two possible style of writing that I might like to be good at:

  • Journal-style prose, which has a particular cloistered academic style (passive voice etc) which is necessarily hamstrung, but can be done better and worse within its constraints
  • Public science communication, where I can use certain forbidden words (e.g. “I”) but also must presume less specialist knowledge from my audience.

Conflating these will lead to confusion since it it organisationally impossible to do them both at the same time in the current world we live in (although we could, nonetheless, bring them closer together and all be a little bit better off, I feel.)

Inger Mewburn hates conventional academic style and makes some clear arguments about it so that I do not have to.

Academic writing, as a genre, is ritualised, peculiar, archaic and does almost as much to hide knowledge as it does to share it. Mastering academic writing is just as much about signalling you are the member of an ‘in-group’ as it is about conveying ideas.

Don’t believe me? Look at how we use commas.

Commas help you create longer sentences that still make sense. Without commas, you have Parataxis. Parataxis is Plain English. Just one sentence. Followed by another sentence. Parataxis is direct. Your sentences are short.

Perhaps too short?

When you have too many commas you create hypotaxis: the use of clause after subordinate clause, which creates sentences of deeply satisfying complexity, that, even while you might get lost a little between the commas, reassure the reader that an academic of sober-minded, careful, disposition is tapping away at the keyboard crafting very, very polite sentences which, because of those glorious clauses and subordinate clauses, will make you feel like you’re eating dry toast. You’re on safe ground with all that hypotactic fun, believe me, because it’s impossible to be too enthusiastic, or too rude, about anything when you write this way. It’s no wonder, since academics love being passive aggressive (which, by the way, is the avoidance of directly saying what they think) that most ‘serious’ writing is full of it.

Thomas Basbøll counters Mewburn’s arguent about in-group signalling by extolling the virtues of a productive in-group:

This, then, is my advice to doctoral students and early career researchers. Spend some time looking for a group of people you like writing for and just go ahead and enjoy it for a few hours every week. (I recommend at least two and a half hours and at most fifteen.) This will all be happening within you, in your heart and mind, so you are in control of the moment. Keep the mood warm and collegial. Don’t spend a lot of time writing for readers you don’t like, or readers you fear, or don’t respect, or feel humiliated by. Spend most of your writing time among your peers. Enjoy their company.

One could take away from both these a need for awareness of context.

J.S. Milne, tips for authors.

If you write clearly, then your readers may understand your mathematics and conclude that it isn’t profound. Worse, a referee may find your errors. Here are some tips for avoiding these awful possibilities.

Cosma Shalizi, Practical peer review:

  • The quality of peer review is generally abysmal.
  • Peer reviewers are better readers of your work than almost anyone else.

Henning Shulzrinne, Writing technical articles

A good research paper has a clear statement of the problem the paper is addressing, the proposed solution(s), and results achieved. It describes clearly what has been done before on the problem, and what is new.

The goal of a paper is to describe novel technical results. […] A paper should focus on

  • describing the results in sufficient details to establish their validity;
  • identifying the novel aspects of the results, i.e., what new knowledge is reported and what makes it non-obvious;
  • identifying the significance of the results: what improvements and impact do they suggest.

He also quotes Craig Partridge

One goal of the paper is to ensure that the next person who designs a system like yours doesn't make the same mistakes and takes advantage of some of your best solutions. So make sure that the hard problems (and their solutions) are discussed and the non-obvious mistakes (and how to avoid them) are discussed.

Just imagine if that happened on a regular basis.

Rob Hyndman’s Writing seminar also has some bullet points on weathering reviews.

Dan Robitzski, This Grad Student Used a Neural Network to Write His Papers (although the student in question credits the poor standards of business school as the secret here rather than the amazing powers of GPT-2).

Van Savage & Pamela Yeh, Cormac McCarthy’s tips on how to write a great science paper:

  • Use minimalism to achieve clarity. While you are writing, ask yourself: is it possible to preserve my original message without that punctuation mark, that word, that sentence, that paragraph or that section? Remove extra words or commas whenever you can.
  • Decide on your paper’s theme and two or three points you want every reader to remember. This theme and these points form the single thread that runs through your piece. The words, sentences, paragraphs and sections are the needlework that holds it together. If something isn’t needed to help the reader to understand the main theme, omit it.
  • Limit each paragraph to a single message. A single sentence can be a paragraph. Each paragraph should explore that message by first asking a question and then progressing to an idea, and sometimes to an answer. It’s also perfectly fine to raise questions in a paragraph and leave them unanswered.

E.T. Jaynes channelled though Tom Leinster on the generous reading of mathematics. Some generosity of patience will be needed to weather his verbose style.

If you differentiate a function \(f(x)\) without first having stated that it is differentiable, you are accused of lack of rigor. If you note that your function \(f(x)\) has some special property natural to the application, you are accused of lack of generality. In other words, every statement you make will receive the discourteous interpretation.…

fanatical insistence on one particular form of precision and generality can be carried so far that it defeats its own purpose; 20th century mathematics often degenerates into an idle adversary game instead of a communication process.

The fanatic is not trying to understand your substantive message at all, but only trying to find fault with your style of presentation. He will strive to read nonsense into what you are saying, if he can possibly find any way of doing so. In self-defense, writers are obliged to concentrate their attention on every tiny, irrelevant, nit-picking detail of how things are said rather than on what is said. The length grows; the content shrinks.

Mathematical communication would be much more efficient and pleasant if we adopted a different attitude. For one who makes the courteous interpretation of what others write, the fact that \(x\) is introduced as a variable already implies that there is some set \(X\) of possible values. Why should it be necessary to repeat that incantation every time a variable is introduced, thus using up two symbols where one would do? (Indeed, the range of values is usually indicated more clearly at the point where it matters, by adding conditions such as \((0 <x < 1)\) after an equation.)

For a courteous reader, the fact that a writer differentiates \(f(x)\) twice already implies that he considers it twice differentiable; why should he be required to say everything twice?

Shaun Lehmann, the vagueness problem in academic writing:

[It is] likely that your writing was suffering from ‘vagueness’ — a constant problem in English. English-speaking readers (especially in an academic context) will only do a very small amount of work to figure out what you mean before they respond with confusion. […] A useful technique is to learn to read your work through the eyes of a kind of caricature of the low-context communication mode. You need to imagine a reader who is highly intelligent and logical, but who has no common sense and will fail to interpret any multiple meaning in the way you had intended.

I call my version of this the Commander Data Meditation […]

Nick Higham, Handbook of writing for the mathematical science has style and typographical tips.

Higham, Nicholas J. 2020. Handbook of Writing for the Mathematical Sciences. Third edition. Other Titles in Applied Mathematics 167. Philadelphia: Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics.

Keshav, S. 2007. “How to Read a Paper.” ACM SIGCOMM Computer Communication Review 37 (3): 83–84. https://doi.org/10.1145/1273445.1273458.

Knuth, Donald E., Tracy L. Larrabee, and Paul M. Roberts. 1989. Mathematical Writing. [Washington, D.C.]: Mathematical Association of America. http://carmenere.ucsd.edu/drichert/reference_docs/Mathematical_Writing-Knuth.pdf.

Lamport, Leslie. 1995. “How to Write a Proof.” The American Mathematical Monthly 102 (7): 600–608. https://doi.org/10.2307/2974556.

———. 2012. “How to Write a 21st Century Proof.” Journal of Fixed Point Theory and Applications 11 (1): 43–63. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11784-012-0071-6.

Mensh, Brett, and Konrad Kording. 2016. “Ten Simple Rules for Structuring Papers.” Preprint. Scientific Communication and Education. https://doi.org/10.1101/088278.

Roscoe, Timothy. n.d. “Writing Reviews for Systems Conferences,” 6.

Sand-Jensen, Kaj. 2007. “How to Write Consistently Boring Scientific Literature.” Oikos 116: 723–27.

Savage, Van, and Pamela Yeh. 2019. “Novelist Cormac McCarthy’s Tips on How to Write a Great Science Paper.” Nature, September. https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-019-02918-5.

Whitesides, G. M. 2004. “Whitesides’ Group: Writing a Paper.” Advanced Materials 16 (15): 1375–7. https://doi.org/10.1002/adma.200400767.

Zimmer, Carl. 2020. “How You Should Read Coronavirus Studies, or Any Science Paper.” The New York Times: Science, June 1, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/article/how-to-read-a-science-study-coronavirus.html.