How to improve scholarly writing

I would not be surprised if the title of this blog – or some variation – has appeared on many books, websites, videos, and the like. Assuming I am right, you could reasonably ask, why another?

My answer is that I see far too many papers being written for publication in scientific journals that are remarkably badly written. That may mean that the advice from my predecessors was not good enough, or, more likely, that it was not read or followed. I am sufficiently humble to know that I will not be able to remedy most writing problems in a single blog, but I want to try.

In fact, I could accomplish much of what is needed simply by filling the rest of this blog with one word: REVISE! If authors were to do nothing more than read their work repeatedly, correct errors, and simplify their text, the result would surely be better. Revisions need not be endless, although it may sometimes feel as if they are. Good writers persist until they reach a point when they simply cannot tolerate one more revision, even when they accept that each one is an improvement. They don’t stop revising being they are satisfied they have achieved perfection.

Many elements of a text are bound to change when revising. The goal is always utmost clarity. This is especially critical in scholarly writing because misunderstandings can be dangerous. There are so many ways seemingly simple ideas can get muddled. Every element of writing can cause confusion: a poor choice of words, badly constructed sentences, the neglect or misuse of punctuation, careless typos, and even some misspellings. If that seems intimidating it may help if writers think of themselves as drivers in Montreal, surrounded by hundreds of potholes. These must first be spotted, then avoided. 

One way to help identify parts that need to be improved is to read the entire text aloud. When you do, you are almost certain to uncover previously hidden problems. If you have co-authors, ask them to read it to themselves and then to you. After all, they are obliged (in several different ways) to approve the final draft before it is submitted. Many journals stipulate that co-authors must be able to support the findings to qualify as authors.  If you don’t have co-authors, however, find a good friend willing to read your paper. But, don’t choose someone who wants to please you; you need someone who will be reasonably tough.

In the last few years there has been much debate about whether the traditional rules of writing still apply. Personally, I am somewhat torn. I understand the appeal of being lax about the rules but when pressed I am inclined to follow the tried (and ? true) line. Either way, before you choose, for example, to not bother to understand the proper meaning of words like ‘literally’ you must know and understand the rule. In this case it comes down to a choice between the word’s correct meaning i.e., literally as meaning what is actually so, as opposed to the popular current distortion i.e., what is only so metaphorically. The same applies to all the other old guidelines; know what they are and why they came into being before you opt to treat them lightly.

For those who write for scholarly journals that may require some form of peer review, there is another dimension to this controversy. Even reviewers who are not wedded to the rules draw the line somewhere. Because you cannot be certain, even if you know the identity of a reviewer, where that line is, I advise that you play it safe and choose convention, not whatever is now fashionable.   

Finally, I urge you find the time to read one of the many excellent books about writing.  It is not good enough to have an old copy of Strunk and White on your shelf. My current favourite is not only wise but funny: ‘Dreyer’s English: An Absolutely Correct Guide to Clarity and Style’. The author, Ben Dreyer, was the chief copy editor at Random House and has seen it all. His footnotes alone are worth the price of this book. It bursts with wisdom and strikes a comfortable balance between the old and new fashions. When he chooses either, he offers persuasive reasons.  

I have not yet read another recently published book that has received mostly enthusiastic reviews, “Don’t Believe A Word: The Surprising Truth About Language”. The author, David Shariatmadari, took a leaf out of his own book in an essay appearing in the Guardian with the provocative title, “Language wars: the 19 greatest linguistic spats of all time.”  Some examples of these spats are ‘Apostrophe catastrophe’, ‘Are you really disinterested?’, ‘Shipshape and patriarchal’, ‘Nucular war’, and ‘Trumped by language’. The last of these includes reference to ‘covfefe’ among other ‘multisyllabic manglings’. In case you missed it, both the last two spats are contributions from presidents of the United States. 

“Don’t Believe A Word” is reviewed in an August issue of The Guardian by Joe Moran. In an entirely laudatory review, Moran describes Shariatmadari’s approach to language as ‘pro-diversity and anti-pedantry’. A web post for a lecture to be given by the author states, “most of us know as much about language today as we did about physics before Galileo, and the little we know is still largely based on folklore, instinct or hearsay.” It adds, “‘Don’t Believe A Word’ takes us on a mind-boggling journey through the science of language, urging us to abandon our prejudices in a bid to uncover the (far more interesting) truth about what we do with words.” Other reviews assert, “David Shariatmadari is an energetic guide to the beauty and quirkiness of humanity’s greatest achievement.”

I never before thought that writing was ‘humanity’s greatest achievement’, but I now struggle to find a reason to disagree.

PS… For the record, I do try to practise what I preach: this blog was revised at least 10 times and was critiqued by a colleague who is a writer and translator. 

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