Author Anne E. Greene talks about plain English and science writing

Anne E. GreeneClear, strong writing is a goal that tops many writers’ and editors’ lists. But when the words must convey important information to an audience, such as the results of new research or the terms of a credit card agreement, unclear writing can be a serious problem. In the sciences, poor writing is a continuing problem, and it’s one Anne E. Greene, a biologist and author of Writing Science in Plain English, is working to fix.

What exactly is plain English?

For centuries, readers have complained about the unclear writing in professional documents—prose that is so poorly written that they have difficulty understanding it. Statements such as “We will effectuate strategic thrusts for technology transfer growth and increase the inventor base and number of new invention disclosures” are the rule rather than the exception. What does it mean? It’s so poorly written that it’s hard to tell! Many people justifiably feel they deserve to understand written documents that make a difference in their lives. For this reason, in the early 1970s, the Plain English Movement was born, initially as an effort to convince lawyers to write in a language that everyone could understand. Since then, the idea of writing in plain English has spread to other institutions and disciplines.

Can you talk about the Plain Writing Act?

The federal government has been concerned about clear language in its documents since the 1940s. For example, citizens should be able to understand the tax code, Social Security documents, and other laws and regulations. The most recent effort is the Plain Writing Act of 2010. Signed by President Obama, it requires all federal agencies to communicate in plain language that readers can easily understand.

So what does this mean for scientific writers? Is this something they should worry about?

In the past, many great scientists wrote so that educated people could understand them. For instance, Charles Darwin wrote On the Origin of Species so it could be understood by a wide audience. It became an instant best-seller, and most educated people of his time read it with great interest. Since then, unfortunately, scientific writing has become harder and harder for the interested lay person and even other scientists to understand. This is partly because science has become so complex, but it’s partly because of poor writing. Why is this a problem? Well, some academics believe the scientific questions that are left to be answered will be incredibly difficult, and to answer them, many individuals will have to collaborate from many different disciplines. That kind of collaboration will be hard unless scientists can communicate better. Also, poor scientific communication is partly to blame for the long-standing gap in understanding between scientists and the general public. To help solve our national and global problems, we need citizens and politicians who understand and value science. And yet, in a recent poll taken by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, about half of the Americans surveyed disagreed that human activities were causing global climate change, and almost a third didn’t believe in human evolution. While we’re starting to communicate science to a wider audience, and students are taking more technical writing classes, we still have a long way to go.

What problems do you see in people’s scientific writing? What do you usually recommend to fix them?

All readers need certain things from writers in order to understand them. They need concrete subjects, active verbs, thoughtful sentence structure, and well-designed paragraphs. Few scientists are trained to think about these things, so one of the problems is a lack of knowledge about what readers need and how to fulfill those needs. One consequence is a lot of scientific writing doesn’t tell a story. By “story,” I mean concrete characters doing things. Our brains are wired to recognize stories with concrete characters and their actions, and writing that includes them becomes memorable and engaging. The stories scientists have to tell are fascinating: how dark matter behaves in the universe, how nucleic acids in our DNA orchestrate our development, or how humans are changing Earth’s climate. But instead of writing about these amazing concrete things, scientists tend to write about abstractions—things like “manifestations,” “interpretations,” “observations,” “assumptions,” or “predictions.” Abstract characters like these aren’t interesting to most readers. That’s one of the reasons scientific writing is so dull. Once scientific writers understand how important stories are for readers, it’s easy to write about concrete things and make scientific writing more interesting.

Is there a line between writing in plain English and “dumbing down” science? How should writers walk this line?

When I teach plain English in my classes, students often accuse me of “dumbing down” science. I tell them when my colleagues can’t understand papers in their own field because they are so poorly written, we have a problem. I prefer to say it’s time we started writing about science simply and clearly. “Why do we do science?” Certainly, we make amazing discoveries about how the world works, but a big part of science is communicating this new knowledge to others. When our communications can be understood by only ten other people in the world, we are failing at some level. Is the way we write partly to blame? I think it is. Ironically, one of the unfortunate consequences of poor scientific writing is it makes the reader feel dumb. Many students think that if they can’t understand a journal paper, it’s their fault—if they were smarter they would be able to understand what the writer was saying. In fact, there is nothing wrong with their intelligence; they can’t understand the paper because it’s so poorly written. One student said to me, “I never feel dumb when I read clear scientific writing.” To write clearly is the opposite of what “dumbing down” implies. Clear writing is an acquired skill that takes knowledge about what readers need and the ability to fulfill those needs.  It takes time and practice to get it right. I don’t think there is any danger of scientific writers crossing an imaginary line and becoming too clear. But if there were a line between simple and clear and “dumbing it down,” I think it would involve accuracy. Scientists above all want to be accurate, and so accuracy would define how simple and clear their writing was.

Care to share some real-life bad examples?

One example I use in my classes comes from an undergraduate poster, which shows how early poor writing habits take hold. The student wrote, “Inhalation of vapor phase particulate matter chemical contaminants from biomass combustion in domestic settings is a significant contributor to local disease burden.” You can rewrite this simply and clearly as, “Household wood smoke causes local health problems.” A lot shorter and easier to understand, don’t you think?

Do you have some favorite examples of clear, audience-friendly scientific writing?

Anne: Michael L. Rosenzweig, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Arizona wrote a book in the mid-’90s called Species Diversity in Space and Time. It’s my favorite example of clear, concise scientific writing. In his preface, he tells readers that he taught himself to write “in simple prose.” He deliberately changed his style from his previous papers because, as he says, “This book presents enough difficulties. I did not want to make it even harder to understand by using standard, 19th century, scientific, Prusso-Victorian prose. You would not have been amused.”

Anne E. Greene is a biologist by training and teaches scientific writing in the Wildlife Biology Program at the University of Montana. She is the author of Writing Science in Plain English.

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