If I described some writing as ‘like a science paper,’ what would you assume about it?

For most people, I’m fairly sure the assumption would be ‘its dense and mind-numbingly boring.’ The sad fact is that most technical writing does meet that description, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

I’ve had to write about science in one form or another – lab reports, science fair projects, research competitions and technical papers – since at least fifth grade. And in the more than a decade between fifth grade and graduate school, nobody ever said “look, just because you’re writing about science, doesn’t mean it has to be drier than the chemical desiccator you’re writing about.”

If anything, we’re taught rules that encourage horrific writing like “always write in the passive voice.” Nor do teachers work to dispel implicit assumptions about how technical writing is ‘supposed’ to work – use the biggest words possible and the fewest periods you can get away with.

I chalk these assumptions and poor teaching up to a vicious cycle started many moons ago by the fact that writing well is hard. Thus, there are many poorly written papers from preeminent researchers who see their job as doing research, not writing about it.  Their writing is read by the next generation of scientists and teachers who think ‘well, if this is how those at the top of the field do it, it must be how it should be done.’ They then teach that to their students or become the preeminent contributors to their fields.  The institutionalization of bad writing combined with the original fact that it takes a lot of effort to write well locks technical writing into a vicious cycle of unreadability.

I say its time to break that cycle. Don’t fear retribution for being the outlier with the engrossing paper. Take points off for lab reports that are technically sound, but filled with more pretentious words than a Caltech freshman. Teach someone that the only ‘rule’ should be readability. Dare to admit that in science, communication really is key.

In closing, I’d direct you to George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language.” Although it is primarily about political writing in the 40’s, I would argue that all the problems he describes apply to science writing of the 2010’s as well.

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