Clear thinking: A review of Writing in the Sciences

‘Clear thinking becomes clear writing,’ William Zinsser wrote. ‘One can’t exist without the other.’ Clarity is a core component of good writing, and therefore of scientific writing. Improving this skill is the goal of Writing in the Sciences, an eight-week course taught by Kristin Sainani from Stanford University (available on Stanford Online and Coursera).

The course presents the building blocks of general and scientific writing, but it also deals with common misconceptions and fears. This is vital because writing is an unavoidable part of a researcher’s work. It’s the final step: making it public. The approach is indicative of Dr. Sainani’s resumé — sprinkled with Excellence in Teaching Awards and science columns she authors ‘for a range of audiences’, — making her an ideal fit for the class.

Good writing comes with revision, Sainani says, so the first draft is about clarity, not style:

Good writing is beautiful, it’s elegant and stylish. I think what happens when a lot of people sit down to write is they’re worried about this second element. They’re worried about sounding a certain way, about sounding smarter or elegant. And they spend so much time focusing on this that they forget about just trying to get their ideas across clearly and effectively.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a student sitting in my office [to whom] I’ll say, “I was confused by what you meant in this paragraph. What is it you were trying to say?” And they kind of look at me and go, “Well, I’m not really sure what I was trying to say in that paragraph.” They don’t know, and that’s why it’s a confusing paragraph … So figure out first what it is that you’re trying to say.

Sainani also fits scientific writing in the larger scheme of things at a time when science is communicated to the public amid propaganda, fake news, and information overload. For example, replacing the overused passive with the active voice ‘emphasizes author responsibility, improves readability, and reduces ambiguity. … It’s more transparent that these decisions involved human judgement and thus might be fallible.’ She offers the example Cigarette ads were designed to appeal especially to children:

They were just designed that way. It wasn’t intentional. Nobody’s responsible. … contrast that passive voice sentence to the active voice version which would be something like “we designed the cigarette ads to appeal especially to children”. You can see that when you turn things to the active voice it forces you to call out the responsible party.

Sainani dedicates the final week of the course to communication with broader audiences, at a time when researchers are discouraged from writing for the general public because of a broken university system that demands they focus on getting tenure. ‘As a scientist,’ Sainani says, ‘you have a responsibility to communicate your science clearly and effectively and to as broad an audience as possible. We live in an era of science denial. … We have to do a better job of communicating science in a clear, accessible and engaging way.’