I did my postdoc with a Brit. She was marvelous (although she did say “I have never experienced sexism”. Ha). I had changed fields (PhD in paleontology, this was physiology). I learned a lot. She left me alone, in a good way. I gave her my first joint paper to critique (re-analysis of unpublished old data). We sat down to talk about it (this was the days before word processors, my lovely snowflakes) and it was a bit of a shock to my young (and arrogant) self.
“You write like Hemingway. The cat walked in the room. The cat sat on the mat. The mat was green. The walls were yellow. Whatever happened to the semi-colon? the comma?”
I just nodded. I thought she was kidding. Hemingway had been held up to me as a model of scientific writing. She wasn’t.
A while ago there was an article in the NYTimes about short sentences. The money quote (as they say) is from Tom Wolfe:
“Now, I must give him credit for this,” said Mr. Wolfe. “If you ever have a preposterous statement to make … say it in five words or less, because we’re always used to five-word sentences as being the gospel truth.”
The article talks not just about short sentences being gospel truth, but about the pacing of writing. Why and how to intersperse long and short sentences. A group of short sentences slows down the reader and makes them thing. A short sentence after a couple of long ones draw attention. These guys may be talking about journalism, but it all applies to scientific writing. I’ve read a lot about science writing. Heck, I’m even friends with an editor at Science (drinking buddy, the best kind of friend on some days). I’ve taken a class. I’ve published some stuff under My Real Name. I do that because its fun, but it has ALL improved my science writing.
When young turks tell me that the writing is the hardest part of the doing science, I cringe. If the writing is a fluid part of the process, it is more enjoyable. If you are telling your story, if you are being clear and not worrying about big words, or sounding important, it is much easier. Here are two books that I’ve found helpful: