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The Science of Scientific Writing

If the reader is to grasp what the writer means, the writer must understand what the reader needs

George Gopen, Judith Swan

Writing and the Scientific Process

We began this article by arguing that complex thoughts expressed in impenetrable prose can be rendered accessible and clear without minimizing any of their complexity. Our examples of scientific writing have ranged from the merely cloudy to the virtually opaque; yet all of them could be made significantly more comprehensible by observing the following structural principles:

1. Follow a grammatical subject as soon as possible with its verb.
2. Place in the stress position the "new information" you want the reader to emphasize.
3. Place the person or thing whose "story" a sentence is telling at the beginning of the sentence, in the topic position.
4. Place appropriate "old information" (material already stated in the discourse) in the topic position for linkage backward and contextualization forward.
5. Articulate the action of every clause or sentence in its verb.
6. In general, provide context for your reader before asking that reader to consider anything new.
7. In general, try to ensure that the relative emphases of the substance coincide with the relative expectations for emphasis raised by the structure.

It may seem obvious that a scientific document is incomplete without the interpretation of the writer; it may not be so obvious that the document cannot "exist" without the interpretation of each reader.

None of these reader-expectation principles should be considered "rules." Slavish adherence to them will succeed no better than has slavish adherence to avoiding split infinitives or to using the active voice instead of the passive. There can be no fixed algorithm for good writing, for two reasons. First, too many reader expectations are functioning at any given moment for structural decisions to remain clear and easily activated. Second, any reader expectation can be violated to good effect. Our best stylists turn out to be our most skillful violators; but in order to carry this off, they must fulfill expectations most of the time, causing the violations to be perceived as exceptional moments, worthy of note.

A writer's personal style is the sum of all the structural choices that person tends to make when facing the challenges of creating discourse. Writers who fail to put new information in the stress position of many sentences in one document are likely to repeat that unhelpful structural pattern in all other documents. But for the very reason that writers tend to be consistent in making such choices, they can learn to improve their writing style; they can permanently reverse those habitual structural decisions that mislead or burden readers.

We have argued that the substance of thought and the expression of thought are so inextricably intertwined that changes in either will affect the quality of the other. Note that only the first of our examples (the paragraph about URF's) could be revised on the basis of the methodology to reveal a nearly finished passage. In all the other examples, revision revealed existing conceptual gaps and other problems that had been submerged in the originals by dysfunctional structures. Filling the gaps required the addition of extra material. In revising each of these examples, we arrived at a point where we could proceed no further without either supplying connections between ideas or eliminating some existing material altogether. (Writers who use reader-expectation principles on their own prose will not have to conjecture or infer; they know what the prose is intended to convey.) Having begun by analyzing the structure of the prose, we were led eventually to reinvestigate the substance of the science.

The substance of science comprises more than the discovery and recording of data; it extends crucially to include the act of interpretation. It may seem obvious that a scientific document is incomplete without the interpretation of the writer; it may not be so obvious that the document cannot "exist" without the interpretation of each reader. In other words, writers cannot "merely" record data, even if they try. In any recording or articulation, no matter how haphazard or confused, each word resides in one or more distinct structural locations. The resulting structure, even more than the meanings of individual words, significantly influences the reader during the act of interpretation. The question then becomes whether the structure created by the writer (intentionally or not) helps or hinders the reader in the process of interpreting the scientific writing.

The writing principles we have suggested here make conscious for the writer some of the interpretive clues readers derive from structures. Armed with this awareness, the writer can achieve far greater control (although never complete control) of the reader's interpretive process. As a concomitant function, the principles simultaneously offer the writer a fresh re-entry to the thought process that produced the science. In real and important ways, the structure of the prose becomes the structure of the scientific argument. Improving either one will improve the other.

The methodology described in this article originated in the linguistic work of Joseph M. Williams of the University of Chicago,Gregory G. Colomb of the Georgia Institute of Technology and George D. Gopen. Some of the materials presented here were discussed and developed in faculty writing workshops held at the Duke University Medical School.


  • Colomb, Gregory G., and Joseph M. Williams. 1985. Perceiving structure in professional prose: a multiply determined experience. In Writing in Non-Academic Settings, eds. Lee Odell and Dixie Goswami. Guilford Press, pp. 87-128.
  • Gopen, George D. 1987. Let the buyer in ordinary course of business beware: suggestions for revising the language of the Uniform Commercial Code. University of Chicago Law Review 54:1178-1214.
  • Gopen, George D. 1990. The Common Sense of Writing: Teaching Writing from the Reader's Perspective.
  • Williams, Joseph M. 1988. Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace. Scott, Foresman, & Co.

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