Good Style
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Good Style

Writing for Science and Technology

John Kirkman

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eBook - ePub

Good Style

Writing for Science and Technology

John Kirkman

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Über dieses Buch

Good Style explains the tactics that can be used to write technical material in a coherent, readable style. It discusses in detail the choices of vocabulary, phrasing and sentence structure andeach piece of advice isbased on evidence of the styles prefered by technical readers andsupported by many examples of writing from a variety of technical contexts.

John Kirkman draws from his many years of experience lecturing on communication studies in Europe, the USA, the Middle East and Hong Kong, both in academic programmes and in courses for large companies, research centres and government departments.

Good Style has become a standard reference book on the shelf of students of science, technology and computing and is an essential aid to all professionals whose work involves writing of reports, papers, guides, manuals or on-screen texts. This new edition also includes information on writing for the web and additional examples of how to express medical and life-science information.

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Style as choice

Style in writing is concerned with choice. Every writer has available the enormous resources of a whole language. English presents a particularly large range of choices of individual words, and of combinations of words into small and large ‘structures’— idioms, phrases, clauses, sentences, paragraphs, sections, chapters. The choices we make create the ‘style’, which is a term covering balance, emphasis and tone.
There is no such thing as the ‘correct’ way of expressing any idea, fact or opinion. Each writer selects the arrangement of words that he or she thinks will best express the intended meaning; each writer selects the arrangement that he or she thinks will give the best balance, emphasis and tone to produce the desired response from readers.
For example, it is possible to contend that the following sentences convey roughly the same information—the wish of the writer to warn readers not to open Valve X before it has cooled, because of the possibility of a dangerous explosion:
Valve X is not to be opened before cooling to 18°C because of the possibility of flash-back.
Do not open Valve X before it has cooled to 18°C; there is a danger of flashback.
Owing to the danger of flash-back, Valve X must not be opened before it has cooled to 18°C.
On no account should you open Valve X before it cools to 18°C or you may well cause flash-back.
If you open Valve X before it cools to 18°C, there will be an almighty flashback.
Danger of flash-back: do not open Valve X before it cools to 18°C.
The linguistic choices made here alter the emphasis and tone of the statements, though the meaning stays the same. The factors that make one or other of the versions more effective as written communication are not matters of accuracy or clarity of technical content, nor are they matters of grammar: they are bound up with the relationship between the writer and the reader(s), and with the context in which the exchange takes place.
In other words, in judging effectiveness of communication and suitability of style, we must take into account both the accuracy and the propriety of the language chosen. If this book is to offer advice on the best style for scientific writing, I must begin by defining the types of writing I have in mind, and by defining the writing and reading contexts in which the exchanges are to take place. Only then will it be possible to discuss the tactical choices that will best convey the desired meaning with the accuracy, balance, emphasis, and tone required.
Broadly, I am concerned with the types of writing that are used for passing scientific, technical, and medical information between professional staff in academic, industrial, research, and service organizations; that is, between groups whose intellectual capacities are approximately equal but whose specialist backgrounds may be very different. I am concerned, therefore, with scientific and technical reports, medical reports, journal articles, proposals, professional correspondence and memoranda, operating instructions and procedures, specifications, user’s guides, reference manuals, and support documentation for equipment.
I am not suggesting tactics for explaining complex scientific and technical ideas to the general public. Mass communication poses special problems of selection and presentation that are not the concern of the average scientist. Nor am I suggesting tactics for advertising and commercial writing. Though all communication is in a sense an attempt to sell someone else our ideas, there is a difference in degree between the tactics needed to advocate a change from one detergent to another, and those needed to present new scientific ideas to professional colleagues. I am concerned with the main writing tasks that confront professional scientists in their day-to-day work.
Success in fulfilling these tasks is not solely a matter of choosing a suitable style. I have suggested already the importance of the relationship between writer and reader(s), of the total context of the exchange. In judging effectiveness of communication, it is necessary to take into account not only the language chosen but also some or all of the following:
‱  reader’s familiarity with the subject;
‱  reader’s attitude to the subject, to the writer, to the organization or research centre concerned, and to the journal carrying the text;
‱  reader’s physical and mental state at the time of reading;
‱  reader’s motivation;
‱  reader’s expectations about style, organization, and layout;
‱  writer’s organization of material;
‱  writer’s decisions about amount of detail and placing of emphasis;
‱  physical appearance of the text: layout, typesize, and typeface used.
In particular, the nature of the writing task must be taken into account in any judgement of suitability of style. The style of a sports report, an accident report, a chemical research paper, or a lyrical description of an emotional experience must be tailored to suit three elements: the subject matter, the audience, and the context. This book does not suggest which is the best style for all writing: it suggests which is the best style for scientific reports and papers, and for support documentation, whether presented on paper or ‘on line’.
Roughly, the choices open to a writer as he or she searches the resources of language can be shown as a set of oppositions:
sentences:short vs longsimple vs complex
vocabulary:short vs longordinary vs grandiosefamiliar vs unfamiliarnon-technical vs technicalconcrete vs abstractphrasing: normal, comfortable idiomatic expression vs specialstiff scientific idiomsdirect, incisive phrasing vs roundabout, verbose phrasing
verb forms:active vs passivepersonal vs impersonal
paragraphing:use vs non-use
punctuation:careful use vs casual, random use
It would be a mistake to think that good writing will be produced by consistent choice from just one side of these oppositions. Examine the best writing, and you will find variety and flexibility. Variety and flexibility are key words in our discussion. My theme is going to be that too many writers try to restrict their choices to formal, third-person, passive, impersonal constructions. The cumulative effect of this is a sense of monotonous, roundabout clumsiness. To produce comfortable, digestible writing, we should choose a variety of structures and vocabulary, as we do instinctively in careful conversation and description.

Sentence length and complexity

To be easy to digest, sentence structure must be reasonably short and not too complex. The reasons for this are not grammatical: they are connected with the number of items of information the reader can absorb in a single unit or ‘thought’.
One of the basic conventions of written English is that words written as sentences, or marked off by the major punctuation marks, the colon and semicolon, represent complete units of information or thought: the reader is to assume that the writer wants him or her to take in the information—main statement and qualifications—as single units. The number of items of information we can absorb within a unit depends on our familiarity with the subject-matter, but no matter how familiar we are with the subject, if there are too many items of information, we are overwhelmed. It is vital, therefore, not to pack too much information into each sentence. Consider these examples:
According to the chemiosmotic hypothesis of oxidative and photo synthetic phosphorylation proposed by Mitchell (refs 1–4), the linkage between electron transport and phosphorylation occurs not because of hypothetical energy-rich chemical intermediaries as in the orthodox view, but because oxido-reduction and adenosine triphosphate (ATP) hydrolysis are each separately associated with the net translocation of a certain number of electrons in one direction and the net translocation of the same number of hydrogen atoms in the opposite direction across a relatively ion-, acid-, and base-impermeable coupling membrane (see also ref. 5).
As a result of a critical comparison of the two standard procedures for assessing the inhibiting effect of chemicals on conidial germination, namely (a) the addition of spores in aqueous suspension to a previously dried deposit of chemical, and (b) the mixing of spore suspension and chemical followed by application of aliquots to slides, it was found, using conidia of Venturia inaequalis (Cke) Wint., that variability between replicates was largely eliminated by the second procedure (A.N.Author, unpub.).
The rate of seepage of water through the sea bed into the suction anchor drains will depend on the nature of the soil and indicate conditions that where pores or fissures permit steady seepage it may be necessary to reduce the flow rate by pouring grout down pipes, to be discharged round the anchor skirt and sucked into the pores or fissures.
Readers who are not expert in the subject-matter of these examples may think that their main difficulty stems from the unfamiliarity of the vocabulary. Of course, if we do not know what the words mean, it is difficult to make reasonable judgements of the readability of texts. But even expert readers find that sentences like these leave them desperately struggling to relate all the subsidiary information to the main statement at one reading. The extracts would have been much easier to assimilate if they had been presented as several units. Even ‘inexpert’ readers may be surprised to find how much more manageable the statements become, even though the subject-matter remains obscure:
The orthodox explanation of the link between electron transport and phosphorylation is that it is caused by hypothetical energy-rich chemical intermediaries. Mitchell, however, explains both oxidative and photosynthetic phosphorylation with a chemiosmotic hypothesis.1–4 He suggests that oxido-reduction and the hydrolysis of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) are each separately associated with the net translocation of electrons and hydrogen atoms: a certain number of electrons move in one direction and the same number of hydrogen atoms move in the opposite direction across a coupling membrane that is relatively impermeable to ions, acids and bases. (See also ref. 5.)
A.N.Author compared the two standard procedures for assessing how chemicals inhibit conidial germination. The procedures are:
(a) adding spores suspended in water to a dried deposit of chemical;
(b) mixing spore suspension and chemical, and then putting aliquots on slides.
He used these on conidia of Venturia inaequalis (Cke) Wint. The second procedure largely eliminated variation between replicates.
The rate at which water seeps through the sea bed into the suction anchor drains depends on the type of soil. If the rate indicates that pores or fissures are allowing steady seepage, it may be necessary to reduce the seepage by grouting. Grout can be poured through pipes, discharged round the anchor skirt, and sucked into the pores or fissures.

Compound sentence structures

A common feature of scientific writing is the joining together of strings of ideas of approximately equal weight, to form long ‘compound’ sentences:
This stringing is usually done with the praiseworthy aim of ‘getting a good flow’ in the writing. Unfortunately, it often has the opposite effect: it produces unmanageable chunks that readers cannot absorb comfortably:
The degree of dependence of this pattern on bed structure and/or on production of wetted paths through the packing by randomly moving particles of the initial liquid is of interest, as in any specified packing arrangement, complete bed overload by high liquid flowrate (preflooding) might be expected to result in alteration of a flow pattern, dependent on which paths through the packing were wetted, while changes in bed structure might result from re-packing or ‘stirring’ the bed.
In comparison, much better readability is produced by the use of comparatively simple sentences, of varying lengths, and consisting of a main statement plus at most one or two qualifications:
We thought it would be interesting to know to what extent this flow pattern...