The life-changing science of scientific writing

As a working scientist and scholar, I am, in many ways, a professional writer. I enjoy writing and hope to get better doing it. Heck, that’s one reason I started making these posts.

Unfortunately, I also started writing here because I’ve struggled with peer review of some of my papers. Now, let me be fair: there are many excellent reviewers, and I value the improvements they’ve helped me bring to my papers. But I seem to get more careless and just plain bad reviews than ever, especially recently. It’s been challenging to cope.

Sharpening the saw

Attempting to mitigate these poor reviews, I began intentionally studying scientific and technical writing in the hopes of writing more clear and focused papers, and I learned a ton! Of course, writing is something best studied as a grad student, not as a tenure-track faculty with dozens of papers already under his belt, but I’m trying my best.

Now that I have a whole bookshelf on writing, I can see the bigger picture a bit, and point out what’s standard advice that all writers give on scientific writing. I may be able to provide some advice on where to get started if you find yourself struggling as I did (and still do) with writing.

And what I found, and want to share, is a genuinely magical article. The ideas posed in this article are the central tenets of many entire books dedicated to scientific writing. I can say, without exaggeration, that this article changed my life:

Gopen, George D., and Judith A. Swan. “The science of scientific writing.” American Scientist (1990).

This brief article, only 9 two-columns journal pages in its original printing, contains as much useful information as entire books on the subject.

So you can just stop right now and dive into Gopen and Swan. In terms of effort to reward, this could be the best possible bang for your buck!

Still here?

Despite being redundant when you can read the original article, I’d like to discuss a point they make that I find hugely useful to think about. It’s about getting a text to flow so that the reader glides through the information.

Stress Position / Topic Position

In their article, Gopen and Swan ground their piece by discussing how readers react to a text, what they call reader expectations, and how good writing should account for these expectations. One such expectation to consider is what readers tend to expect from information that appears in different positions of a text. Two positions are worth considering. The first Gopen and Swan dub the stress position:

It is a linguistic commonplace that readers naturally emphasize the material that arrives at the end of a sentence. We refer to that location as a “stress position.” If a writer is consciously aware of this tendency, she can arrange for the emphatic information to appear at the moment the reader is naturally exerting the greatest reading emphasis. As a result, the chances greatly increase that reader and writer will perceive the same material as being worthy of primary emphasis. The very structure of the sentence thus helps persuade the reader of the relative values of the sentence’s contents.

The topic position, in contrast, appears at the beginning:

The information that begins a sentence establishes for the reader a perspective for viewing the sentence as a unit: Readers expect a unit of discourse to be a story about whoever shows up first. “Bees disperse pollen” and “Pollen is dispersed by bees” are two different but equally respectable sentences about the same facts. The first tells us something about bees; the second tells us something about pollen. The passivity of the second sentence does not by itself impair its quality; in fact, “Pollen is dispersed by bees” is the superior sentence if it appears in a paragraph that intends to tell us a continuing story about pollen. Pollen’s story at that moment is a passive one.

Readers also expect the material occupying the topic position to provide them with linkage (looking backward) and context (looking forward). The information in the topic position prepares the reader for upcoming material by connecting it backward to the previous discussion.

Here Gopen and Swan are talking about sentences, but these ideas work across text scales. Paragraphs have topic and stress sentences, sections have topic and stress paragraphs, and so on.

Understanding and controlling the contents of these positions gives the writer leverage over the reader. Tuning what’s in the topic position makes sure the reader is primed for what’s coming. Tuning the stress position’s contents improves the odds that the big takeaway of the text is received. Further, linking the stress position of the preceding text with the subsequent text’s topic position helps ensure flow.

Structural principles of scientific writing:

Stress and topic positions are not the only guidance Gopen and Swan provide. They cover seven writing principles in total:

  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.

That’s a great cheat sheet, but if you have any interest in this, I cannot stress enough 1 how much you should read the whole article.

Gopen and Swan also make clear that these as “principles” not “rules”:

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.

(I’m sometimes guilty of treating the topic and stress position principles as rules…)

Perhaps the notion of topic and stress positions is obvious to you. For me, I had only a kind of vague, implicit understanding of it before reading Gopen and Swan’s article. I could tell when the flow was lacking but couldn’t always put my finger on the exact problem. By making these issues precise and explicit, Gopen and Swan have helped me be a better, more efficient writer.

Gopen and Swan: Thank you!

If you’re still hungry for more on this, the next place I recommend you go is Schimel’s Writing Science (2011) [Google Books]. A great book!

  1. See what I did there? ↩︎

Jim Bagrow
Jim Bagrow
Associate Professor of Mathematics & Statistics

My research interests include complex networks, computational social science, and data science.