What if scientific English took famous authors as its style template?
At school we’re generally taught to write good prose by reading the classics and absorbing their style. Scientific writing is generally also learned in this same osmotic way – we read (supposedly) well-written papers, and then use them as templates. But what if scientific English instead took as its inspiration the work of various famous authors? And how many of these styles have you encountered already?
Author: Ernest Hemingway
Style: terse, tough, concise
Example? “The protein was expressed in bacteria and purified to homogeneity. The purified protein was monodisperse and clean and of high yield. The protein was mixed with the other components of the complex and they came together and held together and the bonds were strong and firm and good. It was a stable complex. It was mixed with substrate and it swiftly and strongly broke down the substrate into the reaction products.”
Verdict: We’ve noted before that of all the great writers in the English language, it’s Hemingway who most obviously provides a template for good scientific English. Eschewing complex sentences, his prose is founded on short, punchy sentences with simple adjectives and adverbs, whose power comes from their collected weight.
Author: King James Bible
Style: repetitive (in parts)
Example? “The EGF bound to a receptor on the cell surface, and its name was EGFR. And the activated EGFR lived for one hundred and thirty milliseconds, and begat a phosphate onto its cytoplasmic domain, in its own likeness and after its image. And the phosphorylated EGFR begat GRB2. And all the time that the activated EGFR lived were nine hundred and thirty milliseconds. And then it went out. And the GRB2 lived an hundred and five milliseconds, and begat SOS. And the activated GRB2-SOS complex lived eight hundred and seven milliseconds, and begat Ras activation. And activated Ras bound RAF and begat many son and daughter molecules. And Raf begat MEK, which begat MAPK…”
Verdict: Highlights a perennial problem in science writing, which is how to convey the steps in a cascade without devolving into highly repetitive sentences which easily disorientate the reader (and make them switch off). The book of Leviticus offers a similarly-toned template for Materials & Methods sections.
Author: Jane Austen
Style: elegant, fluent, and not always accessible
Example? “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single gene, in possession of a good promoter, must be in want of a polymerase. However little known the circumstances or prospects of such a gene on its first entering a chromatin domain, this truth is so well fixed in the constitutions of the surrounding enhancers, that it is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their sequences.”
Verdict: Undeniably lyrical and pleasing, but a style written by and usually unconsciously for other native-speakers. Complex vocabulary, elliptical sentences, and eloquent phrasing may please those for whom English comes easily, but it’s a style that can easily create barriers to comprehension. Oscar Wilde’s prose has the same shortcomings, being delightful for those who can appreciate the wordplay but rather confusing for those lacking familiarity with some of the more esoteric words and phrases of English.
Author: Franz Kafka
Style: enigmatic, unsettling…and with sentences that sometimes span an entire page
Example? “The gene, which had been identified in the transcriptome of the cells, that is, those cells which had upregulated their iron homeostasis pathways in response to the exogenous stress, and which when faced with the multitude of stimuli had reacted as expected, was expressed; thus our hypothesis, which was that gene expression changes underlie the differentiated phenotype, was supported.”
Verdict: A slightly unfair template perhaps, given that Kafka’s style is so intrinsically wedded to the German language that satisfactory translations into English are virtually impossible to come by. Nonetheless, what works so well with “The Trial” and “The Metamorphosis” definitely doesn’t work as a model for scientific communication, where clarity and unambiguity are key. Unfortunately, there are some papers out there where obfuscation rather than clarity is the goal, for example presenting an overly convoluted hypothesis-testing scenario. James Joyce’s stream-of-consciousness style is similarly challenging and – in the context of science writing, at least – to be avoided.
Author: Bret Easton Ellis
Style: crisp, accomplished, but far too fixated on details
Example? “Jones & Roth recently showed that FH3 is activated in response to FAK, but this was challenged by Fisher et al. in 2019, who saw instead a Jak-sensitive pathway. The early work on Arp2 and new WAVE was undeniably impressive, but when the Sports et al. paper came out in 1983, the field really came into its own, both scientifically and commercially.”
Verdict: The bane of review articles, this kind of style is undeniably fluent but has the effect of losing the reader amidst a welter of facts, while the main themes get lost in the chatter of names, events, and dates. David Foster Wallace’s love of lengthy footnotes was a similar way of displaying immense erudition while frequently confounding the reader’s grasp of the narrative. It’s not all bad though, as there’s a stylistic kinship with Hemingway in some ways (think of this as like Hemingway late at night at Harry’s Bar, with some endless story about the embroidery on a matador’s cape), and with good editing this can be really polished to a fine finish.
Author: J K Rowling
Style: simple, compelling,
Example? “We wanted to find out what the binding partners of the protein Voldemort were, so we did a proximity labelling screen. We tagged the protein with the TurboID module and expressed it in vivo, and purified biotinylated proteins from cell lysates. We got a lot of hits, and we localised the 15 top-ranked candidates. They were designated Death Eaters 1-15 (DE1-15).”
Verdict: English literature purists love to scorn Rowling as a writer, but they overlook the fact that she creates clear, compelling narratives with protagonists that you care about, and which are founded on a simple and accessible vocabulary. This is actually a very good template to follow, and it’s a great reminder that good scientific English prioritises clarity of expression over textual complexity. Very few readers of a scientific paper will speak English as a first language, so a simple style has the most accessibility to international audiences.
Some other examples…
Author: Stephen King
Style: gripping…up until the end
Verdict: King’s novel are characterised by intriguing premises and an often gripping narrative arc, until the end when things just kind of explode…everywhere…and it’s so preposterous that you find yourself wondering if your alarm bells should have been ringing earlier. In science writing, the equivalent form is a paper that’s been really interesting and compelling until the authors throw in a ton of stuff right at the very end but try to sell the entire paper on the basis of the final panel in the final figure (with n=2).
Author: John Grisham/Robert Ludlum/Clive Cussler/Tom Clancy
Style: endless variations on the same theme
Everybody knows these kind of papers – they’re usually yet another protein that’s been linked to yet another cancer and featuring yet another small molecule, or a similar variation on the same kind of theme. Very profitable, but kind of repetitive after a while.
Author: Jilly Cooper
Style: breathless and explicit
A profusion of “remarkably”, “surprisingly”, “astonishingly” in narratives that get increasingly (ahem) engorged as they build to a climax of indecent proportions. Usually bursting with sexy things like liquid-liquid phase separation (which sounds almost like a description of sex act in itself), autophagy (why do all these terms suddenly sound kind of erotic?), and the authors’ extra-long noncoding RNAs.
Joking aside, People forget that scientific English is a dialect, and one that continues to evolve. It’s not easy to learn, and many native English-speakers assume that just because they’re fluent in English they can automatically write good scientific English (which, alas, is not true). Good scientific English should be succinct, simple, unambiguous, and accessible to non-native-speakers. If you’re interested in a few tips, our “How To” posting on writing scientific English can be found here.
Acknowledgements: This posting conceived in collaboration with Thiago Carvalho, who also provided feedback. Other authors we would have loved to include: Philip Roth (navel-gazing self-regard), Joseph Conrad & Vladimir Nabokov (two non-native English-speakers who outstripped just about everybody in their mastery of the language), Graham Greene (a natural wordsmith), George Eliot (a presiding genius), William Faulkner (impenetrable even to native-speakers), Herman Melville (brilliant, but jumping around all over the place), Jack Kerouac (jazz age), William Burroughs (cut/paste eclecticism)…