The Science of Scientific Writing

The Science of Scientific Writing by George D. Gopen and Judith A. Swan.

From the paper:

Science is often hard to read. Most people assume that its difficulties are born out of necessity, out of the extreme complexity of scientific concepts, data and analysis. We argue here that complexity of thought need not lead to impenetrability of expression; we demonstrate a number of rhetorical principles that can produce clarity in communication without oversimplifying scientific issues. The results are substantive, not merely cosmetic: Improving the quality of writing actually improves the quality of thought.

The fundamental purpose of scientific discourse is not the mere presentation of information and thought, but rather its actual communication. It does not matter how pleased an author might be to have converted all the right data into sentences and paragraphs; it matters only whether a large majority of the reading audience accurately perceives what the author had in mind. Therefore, in order to understand how best to improve writing, we would do well to understand better how readers go about reading. Such an understanding has recently become available through work done in the fields of rhetoric, linguistics and cognitive psychology. It has helped to produce a methodology based on the concept of reader expectations.

What? Evidence-based authoring? Isn’t that like evidence-based interface design?

Trying to communicate with readers on their own terms and not forcing them to tough it out?

Next thing you know, Gopen will be saying that failures to communicate in writing, are the author’s fault!

Wait!

He does:


On first reading, however, many of us arrive at the paragraph’s end without a clear sense of where we have been or where we are going. When that happens, we tend to berate ourselves for not having paid close enough attention. In reality, the fault lies not with us, but with the author. (page 9 of the pdf)

“The Science of Scientific Writing” is a great authoring by example guide.

Spending time with it can only make you a better writer.

You will be disappointed if you try to find this item from the bibliography:

Gopen, George D. 1990. The Common Sense of Writing: Teaching Writing from the Reader’s Perspective. To be published.

Worldcat.org reports one (1) copy of The Common Sense of Writing: Teaching Writing from the Reader’s Perspective is held by the Seattle University
Law Library. Good luck!

I located an interview with Dr. Gopen, which identifies these two very similar volumes:

Expectations: Teaching Writing from the Reader’s Perspective by George D. Gopen, ISBN-13: 978-0205296170, at 416 pages, 2004. (The complete story.)

The Sense of Structure: Writing from the Reader’s Perspective by George D. Gopen, ISBN-13: 978-0205296323, at 256 pages, 2004. (A textbook based on “Expectations….”)

Neither volume is cheap but when I do order, I’m going for Expectations: Teaching Writing from the Reader’s Perspective.

In the mean time, there’s enough poor writing on the Internet to keep me practicing the lessons of The Science of Scientific Writing for the foreseeable future.

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