Friday, September 13, 2013

Plain Words

Plain Words, by Sir Ernest Gowers, superimposed on Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology.
Plain Words,
by Sir Ernest Gowers.
When I arrived at graduate school, the main goal given to me by my advisor John Wikswo was to write scientific papers. Of course, I had to write a PhD dissertation, but that was in the distant future. The immediate job was to publish journal articles. John is a good writer, and he insists his students write well. So he recommended that I read the book Plain Words, by Sir Ernest Gowers. (I can’t recall if he made this suggestion before or after reading my first draft of a paper!) I dutifully read the book, which I have come to love. I believe I read the 1973 revision by Bruce Fraser although I am not sure; I borrowed Wikswo’s copy.

Gowers is an advocate for writing simply and clearly. He states in the introduction
Here we come to the most important part of our subject. Correctness is not enough. The words used may all be words approved by the dictionary and used in their right senses; the grammar may be faultless and the idiom above reproach. Yet what is written may still fail to convey a ready and precise meaning to the reader. That it does so fail is the charge brought against much of what is written nowadays, including much of what is written by officials. In the first chapter I quoted a saying of Matthew Arnold that the secret of style was to have something to say and to say it as clearly as you can. The basic fault of present-day writing is a tendency to say what one has to say in as complicated a way as possible. Instead of being simple, terse and direct, it is stilted, long-winded and circumlocutory; instead of choosing the simple word it prefers the unusual.
I have become a strong advocate for using plain language in scientific writing. Over the last three decades I have reviewed hundreds of papers for scientific journals, and I can attest that many scientists should read Plain Words. I have tried to use plain, clear language in the 4th edition of Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology (although Russ Hobbie’s writing was quite good in earlier editions of IPMB, which I had nothing to do with, so the book didn’t need much editing by me). Below, Gowers describes three rules for writing, which apply as well to scientific writing as to the official government writing that he focused on.
What we are concerned with is not a quest for a literary style as an end in itself, but to study how best to convey our meaning without ambiguity and without giving unnecessary trouble to our readers. This being our aim, the essence of the advice of both these authorities [mentioned earlier] may be expressed in the following three rules, and the rest of what I have to say in the domain of the vocabulary will be little more than an elaboration of them.
- Use no more words than are necessary to express your meaning. For if you use more you are likely to obscure it and to tire your reader. In particular do not use superfluous adjectives and adverbs and do not use roundabout phrases where single words would serve.
- Use familiar words rather than the far-fetched, for the familiar are more likely to be readily understood.
- Use words with a precise meaning rather than those that are vague, for they will obviously serve better to make your meaning clear; and in particular prefer concrete words to abstract, for they are more likely to have a precise meaning.
For me, the chore of writing is made easier because I like to write. Really, why else would I write this blog each week if I didn’t enjoy the craft of writing (certainly increased book sales can’t justify the time and effort). When my children were young, I once became secretary of their elementary school’s Parent-Teacher Association mainly because my primary duty would be writing the minutes of the PTA meetings. If you were to ask my graduate students, I think they would complain that I make too many changes to drafts of their papers, and we tend to go through too many iterations before submission to a journal. I can usually tell when we are close to a finished paper, because I find myself putting in commas in one draft, and then taking them out in the next. One trick Wikswo taught me is to read the text out loud, listening to the cadence and tone. I find this helpful, and I don’t care what people think when they walk by and hear me reading to myself in my office.

Most Americans have an advantage in the world of science. Modern science is primarily performed and published in the English language, which is our native tongue. I feel sorry for those who must submit articles written in an unfamiliar language—it really is unfair—but that has not stopped me from criticizing their English mercilessly in anonymous reviews. For any young scientist who may be reading this blog (and I do hope there are some of you out there), my advice is: learn to write. As a scientist, you will be judged on your written documents: your papers, your reports, and above all your grant proposals. You simply cannot afford to have these poorly written.

I believe role models are important in writing. One of mine is Isaac Asimov. While I enjoy his fiction, I use his science writing as an example of how to explain difficult concepts clearly. I was very lucky to have encountered his books when in high school. A second role model is not a science writer at all. I have read Winston Churchill’s books, especially his history of the second world war, and I find his writing both clear and elegant. A third model is physicist David Mermin. His textbook Solid State Physics is quite well written, and you can read his essay on writing physics here. You will find learning to write scientific papers difficult if all you read are other scientific papers, because the majority are not well written. If you pattern your own writing after them you will be aiming at the wrong target. Please, learn to write well.

You can read Plain Words online (and for free) here.

This week’s blog entry seems rather long and rambling. Let me conclude with a paraphrase of Mark Twain’s famous quip about letter writing: If I had more time, I would have written a shorter blog entry.


  1. David's Mermin's "Writing Physics" is good reading Brad Roth; however, beware of Friday the 13th.

  2. If you like Mermin, you might enjoy Boojums all the Way Through (

  3. Just received your recommended Boojums from Amazon. Very nice, thanks. Awaiting your online IPMB, I have enrolled in a course adopting Thomas Nordlund's book. Intro to Biophysics. Looks like a nice complement to IPMB. Have you reviewed it?

  4. I like high school physics. The experiements are really enjoyable and fun. It's nice to incorporate learning with the applications. It could be tough but with more practice, it would become better.