Writing Science in Plain English (Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing, and Publishing).

Greene, Anne E.

University of Chicago Press.

ISBN 978-0-226-02637-4 (paper) — ISBN 978-0-226-02640-4 (e-book)

The advice in this concise and inexpensive book is similar to that you’ll find in other books on scientific writing, but it is written in a breezy, engaging style in plain English; the author practices what she preaches. Copious in-text examples are provided to explain the key points of each chapter. Readers can also test themselves with the practice exercises at the end of each chapter, and answers are helpfully provided with commentary in an appendix.

Greene has based this book on the principles developed by Joseph Williams in his book Style: Toward Clarity and Grace, focusing on his prescription for what readers look for when they encounter complex, unfamiliar information: “readers look for a story about characters and actions; for strong verbs close to their subjects; for old information at the beginnings of sentences and new information at the ends; and for specific kinds of information in predictable places in paragraphs and documents.”

Here’s an example of a poorly-written sentence I’ve put together with a revision that incorporates some of Greene’s advice.

Original: The therapeutic responses to treatment of the ocular manifestations of diabetes mellitus have been shown to vary between the sexes in adult male and female humans.

Revised: Men and women respond differently to treatment of the eye symptoms of diabetes mellitus.

The problems in the original sentence can be revised according to under the following categories discussed by Greene:

  • Make characters subjects and their actions verbs: Use the concrete nouns “men and women” as the subject of the sentence, rather than the abstract noun “responses”. Transforming our subject into a familiar one makes the sentence more interesting
  • Redundancy: Adult male and female humans are better described as “men and women”; “therapeutic responses to treatment” is also redundant.
  • Rethink technical terms: “Ocular manifestations” is a needlessly difficult way of saying “eye symptoms”
  • Metadiscourse: Do we really need to say: “have been shown”? By who? Does it matter? And if it does, then perhaps we should either name the researcher or use a footnote.

Greene includes chapters on telling a story, writing in the active or passive voice, choosing words carefully (for example, using short words instead of long ones, breaking up noun strings, and keeping terms the same), omitting needless words (redundancy, metadiscourse and transition words, and affirmatives and negatives), where to place old and new information, making lists parallel, varying sentence length, and designing paragraphs.

Who will benefit from this book? Anyone involved in science communication, including writers and translators.

Advance notice: Dreyer's English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style will be published on January 29, 2019. I pre-ordered a copy last year and will be excited to receive it some time in the next couple of weeks. Keep an eye out for my review of what promises to be an irreverent and brilliant read, if his Twitter feed is anything to go by.

Tony Atkinson