Monday, November 19, 2007

Flowerly Language

I read a lot of research papers. Like, a lot. This I do for my writing over at UT, and admittedly, for my own pleasure on occasion. Most people would cringe at this statement. "Why would you want to read such dry, boring writing?" they would say.

Well, sometimes it is dry and boring, and I hate that. It is rare and beautiful when researchers studying pioneering subjects in physics and astronomy can whip out a phrase that is both accurate and poetic.

What sparked this post is this, from Mike's blog.

November 11, 2004:
discussion: the quality of writing in scientific and technical writing


M: Scientific and technical writing is poorly written and therefore boring. The writing should have more active verbs and less passive and linking verbs.

K: Scientific writing is meant for its audience; it should be concise and flowerly language would distract from the meaning. The personal should be avoided.

I find myself now agreeing more with K: scientific writing is about the audience, and conciseness is pretty important. I'd add, though, that the use of passive voice has made for some pretty awful sentences in some scientific writing, like the one a friend of mine read to me last night. But over all, I'm less snobby about scientific writing now and understand it more rhetorically.

I disagree with both Mike and K. Saying that it is meant for an audience of people who like sentences purely in the passive without the use of personal pronouns really misses the fact that the people who read these articles are human beings. It also sets up the false dichotomy that something can either be concise and descriptive, or poetic and beautiful, but not both. So, I present Exhibit A from a paper I just read on cratering on the surface of Triton (no link because you have to pay to see the paper in an online science journal):

Comets are notorious for falling apart or evaporating in the face of bright sunlight. Many, but not all, are weakly welded worlds that would fall apart in the evening breeze.

This quote is sandwiched in a descriptive section between two sections of the paper that are mostly equations. The author uses alliteration, "weakly welded worlds" and has a somewhat pastoral reference when talking about the "evening breeze". Not only is this a concise, accurate picture of the composition of a comet, it's very poetic.

I would not say that it is "flowery". Surely it could be stated in a less poetic manner, but why do so when stating it thusly would provide no more accuracy in describing the subject, and leave out the grandeur and mystery of comets?

And now I present Exhibit B:

...for some perverse reason that I have never understood, editors of scientific journals have adopted several conventions that stifle good prose, albeit unintentionally – particularly the unrelenting passive voice required in descriptive sections, and often used throughout. The desired goals are, presumably, modesty, brevity, and objectivity; but why don't these editors understand that the passive voice, a pretty barbarous literary mode in most cases, but especially in this unrelenting and listless form, offers no such guarantee? A person can be just as immodest thereby ("the discovery that was made will prove to be the greatest..."); moreover, the passive voice usually requires more words ("the work that was done showed...") than the far more eloquent direct statement ("I showed that"). – Stephen Jay Gould in the introduction to Henri PoincarĂ©'s "The Value of Science"

Gould goes on to essentially say that if you write your research for the science community, it will only be read by the science community. He gives the example of Darwin's "On the Origin of Species," which was written to the level of the intelligent layperson. Evolution is arguably one of the most important revelations of humankind, and he chose to present it in a manner that was accessible to everyone.

I agree wholeheartedly. It does no damage to introduce language into science writing that is both descriptive and artistic. Sure, statements like, "We discovered such and such and it was totally AWESOME!!" have little meaning, and are definitely to be avoided. But the more accessible something is, the better chance it has of being understood by the general public, which always benefits from increased knowledge and understanding.

Indeed, it is the purpose of science to reveal the secrets of nature to us, and it is the right of every person to have access to these revelations. The audience for these ideas is ultimately humanity itself, which has little patience for crappy writing, and rightly so.

Exhibit C is not so much a quote but a general example: Scientific American. This magazine is rigorously scientific, and is directed at both the scientific community and the layperson. As such, they take the editorial stance that the passive voice is to be avoided, and authors of articles in the paper explaining their research are to credit themselves with a personal pronoun. You never see writing such as, "it was discovered by the researchers..." when an author is talking about a research team that he/she was part of. Instead, the much more effective, "we discovered" is used.

In addition to being simpler, it also gives weight to the credibility of the researcher. Instead of distancing herself from the research that she has spent so much time on, the researcher gets to take credit, and the reader is assured that this article is written by someone who has participated in active research on the subject, so should know their stuff.

Again, scientific knowledge is the property of humanity, and as such should be presented in a manner that is broadly accessible to everyone without "dumbing down" the subject matter. People need to be invigorated and awestruck by the wonder of science, not bored silly by it; to do so is a disservice both to your audience and to the absolute magnificence of science itself.


Michael Faris said...

I agree with you in part, but I also disagree in part. Where I agree is in writing that is meant for a more general audience, like the Scientific American articles: of course this writing is more accessible and it's more allowable to use first person.

Gould is largely correct in regards to brevity and modesty, but, at least in this excerpt, he seems to not discuss objectivity. For some stupid reason, scientists set up a code amongst themselves to pretend objectivity, and thus removed "I" and "we" from much discourse.

What I meant in my revision (the italics stuff) is that I agree that writing is always for an audience and that poetics isn't what's important. I see nothing wrong with writing a science journal article for just scientists. Certainly, the information should be made accessible at some point, but not necessarily in original article. There are certain discourses and conventions that discourse communities use to communicate with each other.

If we look at my field, terms like pedagogy, subjectivity, interpellation, perlocuationary speech act, etc., are very important terms that have a very strong and loaded history in the field. The knowledge of the field (or a similar term) is necessary to understand the terms. While I think people in my field should be writing for a general audience as well (that's why I blog, write letters to the editor, help with a newsletter on campus, etc.), we should also be writing amongst ourselves to help to develop knowledge.

So I see nothing wrong with scientists and engineers writing for an audience of scientists and engineers.

My example I referred to in the italics in the original post is actually this sentence:

"So concludes a group of prominent women scientists and administrators, including chancellors and provosts, in an analysis in the Aug. 19 issue of Science magainze." (source unknown)

Which is just awful: it subordinates the authorship, it uses the tags "prominent," "chancellors and provosts" to give the "women" more authority. Not only is the sentence awful because it's dry, but it's (most importantly) awful because of what it says about gender in the sciences.

I have to completely disagree with your belief that: Saying that it is meant for an audience of people who like sentences purely in the passive without the use of personal pronouns really misses the fact that the people who read these articles are human beings.

This is because it actually captures the fact that they're human beings. They're situated in a discourse that came before them. The conventions that have been built up over time generally call for passive voice because that is what these communities of scholars created. Using active or passive voice and understanding audience expectations doesn't have much do with viewing the audience as human or not. Audience expectations are built over time, related to genre, discourse community, and historical conventions.

I completely agree with you here that there is a false dichotomy that something can either be concise and descriptive, or poetic and beautiful, but not both.

I think I was a bit rambly here. Hope some of it's coherent.

K said...

A few comments:

1. First, an apology for misspelling "flowery"

2. Remember, I was arguing with Michael, and probably took the polar opposite point just ... because.

3. I, too, dislike passive voice and dry writing. But in a quick report (or even a longer one), concise language does NOT mean dry. E.B. White and Joan Didion are masters of the concise, perfect sentence, but nobody would accuse them of being less than literary.

4. We grow. That post was from 2004.

Michael Faris said...

Hahaha, I didn't even notice the misspelling. :)

And yes, we do grow.