The “Science” of Science Writing: Reader Expectations

This post is part of a series on the “science” of good writing. You can read the first post here if you’d like, but you can also just dive right in!

How do you determine if writing is good?

Depending on who you ask, the answer will be more or less nuanced–good writing is clear and concise; good writing is engaging or persuasive. Some would argue that writing can’t be good unless its content is based on sound ethical principals. Others might say that any writing is good as long as it gets its message across.

George Gopen and Judith Swan, in their piece The Science of Scientific Writing, foreground the audience as a determining factor in what makes a piece of writing good. This isn’t necessarily a new idea; audience-centered communication has been taught at least as far back as Aristotle’s Rhetoric.

But Gopen and Swan specifically talk about centering audience expectations. When an audience reads a sentence or a paragraph, what do they expect?

Gif of a short clip from the Monty Python sketch, "No one expects the Spanish Inquisition." Three red-robed gentlemen burst into a modern-day living room, and a caption appears, saying "Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!"
False! No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!

Turns out, readers general expectations are pretty easy to predict. And understanding and meet those expectations are core components of Gopen and Swan’s idea of good writing.

Purple giraffes fly over the moon.

See what I mean? You’re probably thinking, “Wait, what about purple giraffes?” I threw completely new information–a new topic, even–at you completely out of the blue. I didn’t even lead into it with the question, “What happens when you don’t meet audience expectations” because I wanted the sentence to feel as out of place as possible.

It pulls you out of the text and might have made the paragraph after it a bit more difficult to read, even though the sentence “Purple giraffes fly over the moon” clocks in at about a fourth-grade reading level.

So what are audience expectations? And how do I meet them to help make my writing better?

We’ll get into that next time. And speaking of next time, here’s a list of all the posts in this series. As each piece comes out, I’ll edit in the links here, so bookmark this page or follow the blog if you want to stay up to date!

  • November 8: The “Science” of Good Writing
  • November 15: This post!
  • November 22: The Structure of Reader Expectations
  • November 29: What’s the Missing Piece?
  • December 6: Taking Action

Thanks for reading–see you next time!

The “Science” of Good Writing

I don’t know if you know this, but writing is hard. And writing good–ahem, writing well–is even harder.

Sometimes, though, writers hide behind the complexity of their subject matter to excuse–or even brag about–their bad writing. Writing in certain academic fields, like science or philosophy, has a reputation for being just completely incomprehensible. And some academics are proud of this. They preen about the difficulty of their work and say things like, “It’s not my fault other people can’t understand my brilliance.”

Okay, okay. I’ve never heard an academic say anything quite like that (I don’t think), but the attitude does exist.

But this attitude butts up against the attitudes of other scholars who think that a core part of academia’s mission is service to the public good. And if the public can’t read and engage with your work, then what are you even doing?

Sometimes, from deep within these debates, advice emerges on how to make your writing better–advice like George Gopen and Judith Swan’s The Science of Scientific Writing, originally published in the 1990 November-December issue of American Scientist.

This piece speaks directly to scientists, who are particularly known among academics for their nigh indecipherable prose. It’s not a listicle, but it ultimately breaks down several strategies for improving scientific writing that are actually backed by research from my field–because it’s co-written by someone from that field.

And it’s kind of great, but it’s also kind of long. And the examples are directly lifted from scientific papers that can be difficult get through for field outsiders like me. So I’m going to do a little mini-series of posts breaking down their recommendations one by one into bite-sized pieces that are slightly easier to digest.

Here’s a preview of coming attractions. As each piece comes out, I’ll edit in the links here, so bookmark this page or follow the blog if you want to stay up to date!

  • November 15: Reader Expectations
  • November 22: The Structure of Reader Expectations
  • November 29: What’s the Missing Piece?
  • December 6: Taking Action

Thanks for reading–and stay tuned!

Writing… IN SPACE!

What comes to mind when you think about the words writing and space? Maybe you think of the place where you typically write, be it an office, a kitchen table, a coffee shop, or even during an hour-long commute on public transit. Maybe you think of that 100,000-word Q/Picard slash fic you wrote but never posted.

Neither of those things is what I’m going to be talking about today (sorry, shippers). Rather, I’m talking about how writing itself is inherently spatial, and what that means for writing practices.

Image of the W40 nebula from the GPA Photo Archive. It kind of looks like a red butterfly in space.
Space–the final writing frontier??

Language Made Material

In her 1996 book Writing Technologies, researcher Christina Haas wrote that “…writing is language made material” (p. 3). Material in this context just means that it takes up space in the world. If you write something down, it exists in the world in a concrete way, even if you write it on a screen. The words I’m writing now in this draft in Microsoft word currently take up a roughly 2-inch by 5-inch space on my laptop screen. To put it in slightly fancier terms, researchers Thierry Olive and Jean-Paul Passerault called this material existence a visuo-spatial trace.

The trace is different on a laptop screen than it is on other surfaces. Northanger Abbey, my favorite Jane Austen novel, looks different on my Kindle app than it does on my paperback copy. Hell, it looks different on my Kindle app depending on whether I’m using the iPad app or my Android phone app, and my Oxford University Press World Classics paperback edition looks different from the version printed in one of those giant Barnes and Noble Complete Works Of editions. The way the text takes up space in the world differs according to its material components.

Image of paperback copy of Northanger Abbey and iPad Kindle copy of Northanger Abbey, open to the same chapter. The text is displayed differently on each interface.
Jane Austen, Queen of Snark in print or on screen!

2D vs. 3D Writing

There are a number of differences between reading and writing on a screen and reading and writing on paper. The one that interests me the most is the dimensionality of screens vs. paper. Screens present two dimensions—vertical and horizontal—and require scrolling if you surpass whatever the limits of those two dimensions are. On the other hand, printed works essentially exist in three dimensions, not because paper is especially t h i c c, but because it stacks rather than scrolls. Here’s an illustration from a job talk I gave back in 2018.

Diagram illustrating 2d vs 3d texts: an illustration of a desktop monitor is marked with a horizontal and vertical arrow illustrating 2d space, while an illustration of a stack of papers is marked with a horizontal, vertical, and lateral arrow, illustrating 3d space.
2D vs 3D Texts

Now, I’m not here to tell you all about how screens are ruining reading and writing practices and gripe about the kids these days and to holler at you to get off my lawn. Absolutely not.

First of all, relationships between writing and technologies are more complex than that. And second of all, complaining about the kids these days with their newfangled reading and writing tech is about as old as writing is. If you think you’re mad about new writing tech, go read some Plato. In the Gorgias, he writes his mentor Socrates as the OG Chronicle of Higher Ed columnist here to complain about new writing tech—except he’s complaining about writing itself.

ANYWAY. [Steps down from soap box.] Why should you care? Well, because while technology isn’t all-powerful, it’s not transparent either. It can and does impact writing practices.

Text Sense and 3D Writing Spaces

Take for example a study from Writing Technology. In the study—which was conducted before 1996, mind you—writers were asked about the tools they used for their writing, and many of them reported that they did all of their writing on computers. Except, when it came time to review and revise their manuscripts, many of these same writers printed out their manuscripts for this stage of the writing process.

When asked about why they printed out their manuscripts to revise, many of them reported having a better “sense of the text,” or text sense, as Christina Haas came to call it, with the printed version. Haas explains that “text sense is a mental representation of the structure and meaning of a writer’s own text,” (p. 118). In a way, the writers found that they could know their own writing better when it was printed in three dimensions rather than when they were scrolling through it in two.

Now, this study was discussed in a book published in 1996, which means that the study itself was likely conducted in the late 80s or early 90s. Many writing technologies look vastly different now than they did then. But—I, too, like these writers, often print out drafts of my writing when it comes time to revise, especially writing that is longer or that deals with more abstract concepts. When I’m writing longer fiction, I’ll sometimes print out to revise; when I’m writing academic articles, I always print out to revise. Even in 2019.

Get Off My Lawn! Just Kidding

Again, I’m not here to yell at the kids for using their mobile phones to read and write. I think it’s pretty great, actually. I’m just trying to spread the good word about what writing researchers know about how writing works. For one, I just think it’s cool stuff. And for two, the more you know about what you do, the more tools you have to try different things when you get stuck.

So what are your processes like? Do you write everything on the computer? …Do you? Do you write first drafts by hand? Did you write that 100,000-word Q/Picard fic on your phone? Let me know in the comments!

Sources and Resources

Interested in this topic? Check out the pieces I cited in the post!