Resources About Science Writing
"I notice that you use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English—it is the modern way and the best way. Stick to it; don't let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in.”
Mark Twain, in a letter to D. W. Bowser, 3/20/1880
Clear and Simple As the Truth: Writing Classic Prose, by Francis-Noël Thomas and Mark Turner. Princeton University Press.
This wonderful book provides an in-depth analysis of the process of clear and simple language—what the authors call “classic style.” The model of classic style, the authors explain, is that of one person talking to another. It is efficient but unhurried, clear but not burdened by unnecessary detail, “energetic but not anxious.” The book is organized into a section explaining the principles of classic style, a section providing many examples of classic style, and a section filled with exercises for the reader. Thomas and Turner's book concludes with suggestions for further reading in classic style. "Classic guidebooks," they write, "are a natural place to begin."
Here is an example of classic style, from Peterson First Guides—Clouds and Weather, by John Day and Vincent Schaefer. Houghton Mifflin.
“Fair weather cumulus clouds are low-level clouds that usually appear in late morning or early afternoon in settled weather. Surface air comes in contact with the sun-warmed earth, and the warmer “bubbles” of air rise into the atmosphere, where the vapor in them eventually condenses. If moisture is evenly distributed horizontally through the air mass, the individual cloud bases are found at the same level, usually about 1500–4000 ft. (.5–1.5 km) in altitude.”
Notice how easy this is to read, and yet how many concepts it conveys. The style is that of one person talking to another, but talking in an efficient, carefully optimized way that does not waste any words.
"The Science of Scientific Writing,” by George Gopen and Judith Swan. American Scientist, Nov–Dec. 1990.
This article examines what readers expect from a sentence and how, by placing information in a location in a sentence where readers expect to see it, a writer can increase clarity and readability. Their suggestions include “follow a grammatical subject as soon as possible with its verb,” place background information at the beginning of the sentence, and place the new information being emphasized at the end of the sentence.
A Field Guide for Science Writers: The Official Guide of the National Association of Science Writers, 2nd Edition, Edited by Deborah Blum, Mary Knudson, and Robin Marantz Henig. Oxford University Press.
The Science Writers' Handbook: Everything You Need to Know to Pitch, Publish, and Prosper in the Digital Age,Edited by Thomas Hayden and Michelle Nijhuis. Da Capo Press.
These edited volumes provide useful introductions to many of the issues of current science and science writing.
This paper supplies suggestions for how writers of science can avoid “verbiage, obscurity, and imprecision”. Mack addresses several important topics, including using correct syntax, avoiding superfluous words, and clearly stating the purpose of paragraphs and sentences.
"Everything You Need to Know About Writing Successfully—in Ten Minutes”, by Stephen King. (Reprinted in The Writer's Handbook, Edited by Sylvia K. Burack. Boston, MA: Writer, Inc., 1988:3-9).
King provides a fun and insightful summary of elements of good writing.
Franklin's book leads readers on an introduction to the different levels of good writing, from the polish level of words and sentences, to the level of structure—paragraphs and transitions, to the level of outline—of identifying the key overarching framework of the piece and the key points the piece is trying to convey, and then making those points clear.
"The time to begin writing an article is when you have finished it to your satisfaction. By that time you begin to clearly and logically perceive what it is you really want to say.”