How to Make Our Ideas Clear — to Others

by Cosma Shalizi on July 26, 2006

In the comments to my post on Onsager, Maynard Handley explains why he finds himself somewhat unsympathetic, as Onsager apparently did not expend the effort necessary to make himself understood by others.

You, the author of the paper, have a responsibility to make your ideas comprehensible. If the first method you choose to explain them fails, then you listen to what people say about where they lost all track of understanding and write a new paper—- with NEW explanations, not the same explanations that failed last time only renumbered. … [This is] not something that is drilled into young scientists; that it is YOUR responsibility to make your ideas clear to others, not their responsibility to try to figure out what you are talking about. As science grows ever larger and ever more complex, I think it is time for all scientists to be much more explicit and much more ruthless on this point.

Whether this is really a fair criticism of Onsager, I couldn’t say, but the general point is true, important, and a perfect hook for the next thing I wanted to post about.

Science is a social, collaborative process, so part of being a good scientist is effective communication. Scientific communication is overwhelmingly written communication (scientific disciplines are, in a sense, literary communities), so part of being a good scientist is being a good writer. Unfortunately, scientists get little training in writing, and much of that consists of being advised to follow the rules found in horrid little compendia. Fortunately, there is some actual research on effective written communication, that is, on how to arrange your words so that their readers tend to acquire clear notions of your ideas. The best practical guide here, I’ve found, is Joseph William’s Style: Towards Clarity and Grace. However, I have just discovered (via Paradise Blogged) a fine essay by George Gopen and Judith Swan, “The Science of Scientific Writing“, which gives a clear yet concise presentation of the work. (Gopen and Williams are collaborators.) Here is their own summary of how to be clear:

  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.

If these rules, and the notions behind them, are valid, they should apply to more than just
scientific writing; in particular, they should hold for other kinds of academic prose. Looking at their examples of revising scientific writing, expressing the same complicated and precise ideas in more easily grasped ways, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the humanistic “bad writing” controversy, where the case for the defense often seems to rest on complexity, and the example of scientific jargon. The examples of Gopen and Swan, Williams, etc., show that those defenses do not hold. Scholars of the humanities may have reasons for being unclear which don’t apply to scientists, but I can’t think of any good ones.



Scott Martens 07.26.06 at 2:08 am

Physics envy is indeed insidious when other disciplines use crappy science writing to justify their own unreadable texts. It is true that young science students sometimes express contempt for the humanities and then pay the price themselves when they haven’t learned to write.

But, I think that if science papers are poorly written, the most important cause for it is that the vast majority of scientists write in a language other than their native one. Certainly this is the case in computational linguistics, where most folks have studied enough humanities that they ought to produce good texts, but end up reproducing what may be good style in their own languages in English, and sounding awful.

For example, in most Germanic languages, the passive is a preferred sentence structure, but not in English. Francophones tend heavily to mistranslate their own Latinate constructions using false friends in English, and tend to produce the kinds of long, multi-clause sentences that are stylistically favoured in French, but nearly incomprehensible in English. And the less said about the English Chinese speakers produce, the better.

I’m not sure to what degree that holds true in the humanities. I’m convinced that one of the reasons Derrida is so often the target of criticism in English, but not in French, is because he writes in an acceptable French style that violates a lot of basic notions of English composition.


Alex Gregory 07.26.06 at 2:21 am

“Scholars of the humanities may have reasons for being unclear which don’t apply to scientists, but I can’t think of any good ones.”

My 2 cents is that humanities scholars have just as much reason for writing clearly. As part of my philosophy masters course this year we were forced to read “Improving Academic Writing”, by Jonathan Bennett and Samuel Gorovitz, which contains numerous obvious but important gems for writing clearly, and which has helped my writing immensely.


Shai 07.26.06 at 3:40 am

In first year I was determined to become a good writer and I collected about 50 different handouts from all the university writing centers and made notes from various books – and at the end of all the exercises and reading I was just as confused and my writing just as ugly, if not worse.

So I took this concern to a professor who is a wonderful writer and asked “how can I improve my writing?”, Williams “Style: Towards Clarity and Grace” in hand. Flipping through it his first comment was that it was all higher order rule following about the structures of sentences and the flow of paragraphs, which is all good in a way, but that the corrected examples were all mediocre at best – his contention was that most examples of truly good writing wouldn’t conform to the rules (certainly not his writing) and that the author was good intentioned but far too presumptuous.

His advice in lieu of illusory rules was that I should start reading good writers in literature, in science, whatever (input) and then start writing to find my own voice (output). Write and rewrite, throw it out, start again, show it to someone (he offered), and so on, and eventually I would not only see patterns but they would come naturally unlike rules that would kind of, maybe apply. I didn’t take him up on it and got lost in the sciences so needless to say I’m still terrible =]


David Moles 07.26.06 at 4:38 am

But, I think that if science papers are poorly written, the most important cause for it is that the vast majority of scientists write in a language other than their native one.

I don’t know; I think the fact that in US universities the requirement that you take introductory expository writing can often be deferred till the last semester of your senior year has to be a factor.


a 07.26.06 at 5:53 am

“I’m convinced that one of the reasons Derrida is so often the target of criticism in English, but not in French…”

My impression is that the French are bemused by the attention that Derrida attracts in the English-speaking world. He attracts less cricitism in France perhaps because he attracts less attention…


Matt 07.26.06 at 7:22 am

For what it’s worth– some random Lars Onsager notes:
–He was a famously bad collaborator– if he got interested in a graduate student’s project, he’d just take it over.
–He was, in person, generally incomprehensible. Disconnected mumblings in a unique English-Norwegian creole.
–A chemist friend of mine had the signal honor of dinner at the Onsager’s– he mentioned afterwards that Mrs. Onsager behaved ‘like no one had listened to her for 30 years’.
–There was a story that he showed up at Yale without a Ph.D, so some department had to give him a degree before he could be hired.
–Retirement at Yale used to be mandatory at age 65, so when Onsager reached that age he went south to a somewhat notorious “Old Physicist’s Home” scientific establishment in Florida. When he died, the press release from said establishment neglected to mention his 30 year career at Yale.


Patrick 07.26.06 at 8:34 am

To continue with the Onsager anecdotes, I recall hearing that he was fired (or at least not promoted) by Johns Hopkins due to his inability to teach undergraduate chemistry courses. The students just had no idea what he was talking about.


Bro. Bartleby 07.26.06 at 8:56 am

Put a copy of Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” on your desk and use it whenever you need to recall how to communicate with a good and true and simple sentence.


John Emerson 07.26.06 at 9:56 am

Some bad writing in lit departments comes from the attempt to write literature about literature, following euphuistic or Gongorist literary models. Some (especially anyone following Lacan) comes from scientistic mystificationism.


dearieme 07.26.06 at 10:01 am

I recommend “The Complete Plain Words” by Gowers. Plenty of dry humour and comprehensible whatever your discipline.


John Emerson 07.26.06 at 10:06 am

How communicative was Kurt Goedel, even during his pre-insane years? I still suspect that the topic of Onsager’s research (turbulence) had something to do with his neglect.


Matt Kuzma 07.26.06 at 11:21 am

I would also like to point out that when we instead talk about how scientists and scholars deal with the rest of the world, there’s another problem at play.

Within the scientific community ideas stand on their own. Scientists are encouraged to present their ideas clearly and honestly and to let the readers determine the worth of those ideas as independently as possible. In short, there is no salesmanship in scientific publication, or at least it is discouraged.

Likewise when reading published articles, scientists are encouraged to take ideas at face value. The ramifications regarding prestige, money, or anything else are to take a back seat to the validity of the idea and its ability to explain observable phenomena.

As a result, scientists are perhaps the only community of intellectuals left on Earth who believe that ideas speak for themselves.

It broke my heart to see scientists simply refusing to acknowledge the various hearings on Intelligent Design, and refusing in turn to participate in any way with them. The hearings are preposterous when viewed from the perspective of scientists who use evolutionary theory every day, and see it verified every day. But those scientists let claims like “science has not been able to provide a coherent theory as to how life could have arisen from natural processes” go unanswered, when in fact such a coherent theory exists and is well undersood by experts in the field. But those experts refused to speak up because they believe that simply being right is enough.

I recognize that this is an over-simplified view of the scientific community as a whole, and that there are always exceptions both in individuals (some are more aware of the need to sell ideas than others), and in certain classes of writing (such as grant proposals, which require some small measure of persuasion). But when it comes to the issue of scientists relating to the world at large, I believe that no amount of writing for clarity will do the job – scientists need to learn and accept the value of rhetoric.


John Emerson 07.26.06 at 11:28 am

I think that scientists have participated in the various debates and trials relating to ID and evolution. SJ Gould took time off to testify in Kansas, IIRC.

There’s something out there about how effective Darwin’s writing and persuasive rhetoric were. He can be read as literature.


Steve LaBonne 07.26.06 at 1:34 pm

It broke my heart to see scientists simply refusing to acknowledge the various hearings on Intelligent Design, and refusing in turn to participate in any way with them.

This is very misguided. What biologists, quite rightly, have refused to lend their credibility to are unwinnable rigged “debates” with creationist liars, and kangaroo trials like the Kansas “hearings” (where the cause of rationality was very ably defended by a brilliant lawyer, Pedro Irrigaray- a good lawyer, unlike almost any scientist, knows how to cope with the shyster tactics on display in such a travesty.) Many scientists have made their voices heard in fora where they have a fair chance to be heard. And by the way, there are some really brilliant recent popular books on evolutionary biology written by distinguished biologists rather than science writers- probably the best contribution that scientists can make to public understanding. My vote for the best of the bunch goes to Sean Carroll’s (note, not the blogging cosmologist S.C.), Endless Forms Most Beautiful.


Shelby 07.26.06 at 2:25 pm

Coming from a legal background, I’ve noted that much bad writing stems from a lack of worthwhile content. Few people can write clearly about a bad idea, but many believe they can hide it in a pile of bad writing. Sometimes good ideas also suffer from this, so I can’t dismiss something out of hand based on its lack of clarity. It is a useful rule of thumb, though.


Megami 07.26.06 at 7:07 pm

I have edited a few academic papers now, and I agree that many written by people from non-English speaking backgrounds can end up as bizarre as bad, due to the fact they use grammar/sentence construction from their native language when trying to express an idea in English.
As for how to learn to write better – I find that trying to rely on style guides/writing guides/university handouts will only go so far. You have to somehow absorb the ability – and I believe that the way to do it is read, read, read as much good and clear writing as you can, and try to think through “Why is this good?” It takes more than a skip through a style guide to improve a piece of rubbish writing.
And don’t forget – hire an editor :)


agm 07.27.06 at 4:01 am

Mr. Kuzma,

that’s because the good writing should be reserved for the grant proposals, no? Conservation of compositional ability…


Randolph Fritz 07.27.06 at 10:14 am

Lectures on style are perhaps not to the point here; the people you are trying to reach have to first be persuaded that writing style is important, and you have years of bad teaching to get past. People don’t become scientists (except some specialities) because they’re interested in *people*. Communication simply isn’t high on the priority list for many of the best; they don’t learn how, the primary “education” system discourages most of them, and some of them have actual psychological disabilities in this area (oh the humanity!)


bob 07.27.06 at 11:50 am

For Onsager’s biographical background see the article on Onsager, by H. C. Longuet-Higgins and Michael Fisher, Biographical Memoirs of the National Academy of Sciences vol. 60 (1991), pp. 183-232. Onsager was sometimes mischievous in communicating his discoveries, as with his work on the Ising model, when he announced his results at meetings long before publishing; I suspect this was partly to see if anyone else could derive it. His Ising model work was very difficult for people (even people like Yang) to understand because the maths were not a sort previously used in statistical physics, although the work was immediately appreciated as a tour de force. He didn’t plan to use obscure maths, it was just the direction that his work happened to take. It was only when his assistant Bruria Kaufman (who also worked with Einstein) applied more standard physicist’s mathematics that others could follow it. Onsager wasn’t deliberately obscure in his publications, but he sometimes didn’t realize his audience’s limitations.

Perhaps a difference in the appreciation of the work of Swiss mathematical physicist E. C. G. Stueckelberg, vs. the appreciation of Feynman, whose early QED work was also misunderstood or not understood, was that Feynman had the good fortune to have brilliant “interpreters” such as Dyson.


Bill Tozier 07.27.06 at 11:54 am

I still refer to Adios, Strunk and White often. In many settings.

Sure, it’s counter-prescriptive. Sure, it promotes everybody-is-right-and-we-all-winnism. But it has some good advice, presented well enough that it suffices to be first advice to new writers.


Torbjörn Larsson 07.29.06 at 10:30 am

“But those scientists let claims like “science has not been able to provide a coherent theory as to how life could have arisen from natural processes” go unanswered, when in fact such a coherent theory exists and is well undersood by experts in the field.”

But this is a claim besides the facts, which is the only answer to give to it. Evolution describes how life evolves after abiogenesis. It is the creationists who falsely insists both that evolution must describe this (it must not, evolution works on existing life) and that “we don’t know yet” is unacceptable in science. (There are of course quite a few hypothesis on abiogenesis, but no proven theory.)

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