The Science of Good Writing: What’s the Missing Piece?

This post is part of a series on the “science” of good writing, based on the article “The Science of Scientific Writing” by Gopen and Swan. Want to start at the beginning of the series? That’s cool. Otherwise, keep on reading!

There’s this Youtube series from food magazine Bon Appetit called Gourmet Makes. In it, Claire Saffitz, a pastry chef, attempts to make gourmet versions of pre-packaged, shelf-stable treats–everything from Pop Rocks to Pringles. Through trial and error, Claire comes up with a recipe and procedure for that week’s gourmet treat. It’s a wonderful series and you should go watch it–after you finish reading this post, of course.

But why am I talking about Gourmet Makes on a writing blog? Because the whole crux of that show is Claire’s ability to guess her way into creating a recipe. She has this uncanny ability to try something, taste it, and then say, “It still needs X.”

In my last post, I wrote about how you can meet reader expectations by putting certain information in certain places–you put old information in the topic position and new information in the stress position, and you keep your subjects and verbs close together.

But sometimes, writing isn’t confusing because of how we arrange the sentences, it’s confusing because of what’s not in them. It still needs… something, but how do we know what it needs?

Take this sentence, for example:

I needed to go to the grocery store, but it was the day after Halloween.

Depending on your particular cultural context, your first thought may have been, “So what?” What about this sentence, though:

I needed to go to the grocery store, but it was Christmas Day.

If you’re from a country like the United States, where most stores are closed on Christmas Day, you immediately understood the problem of the second sentence. But if you’re from the United States, you may not have understood why it would be a problem to go to the store the day after Halloween.

In the United States, where I’m from, it typically wouldn’t be a problem to go to the grocery store on the day after Halloween. But in Luxembourg, where I currently live, it is. Luxembourg is a majority Catholic country, and November 1st, All Saint’s Day, is a federally recognized holiday. And most businesses, not just grocery stores, are closed on federal holidays. To fully understand the first example sentence above, you have to know all three of those things: that I live in Luxembourg, that the day after Halloween is a federal holiday, and that stores are closed on federal holidays.

When you write for an audience, there will always be some things your audience already knows that you don’t need to tell them. But it can be hard to know precisely what they do know and what they don’t know, especially if you’re an expert writing about a topic.

Luckily, sometimes we can figure out when something is missing–just like our hero, Claire–just by using the strategy we learned in the previous blog post. If we make sure that old information comes at the beginning of a sentence, in the topic position, and new information comes at the end of a sentence, in the stress position, we can figure out what information is missing.

Let’s take a revised version of the paragraph above, where I explained about November 1st, and see if we can figure out what’s missing. I’ll put old information in italics and new information in bold.

I currently live in Luxembourg. Luxembourg is a majority Catholic country, and November 1st, All Saint’s Day, is a federally recognized holiday. I can’t go to the store on All Saint’s Day.

Can you spot what’s missing? In each sentence, I used old information in the topic position and new information in the subject position, but that last sentence can still be confusing if you don’t fill out the missing logical leap–that most stores are closed on federally recognized holidays, unlike most holidays in the States.

These logical leaps can be confusing, and they can also be hard to spot! One way to find them is to look at all pieces of new information in your paragraph and to ask yourself, have I given enough context, enough old information, so that the new information will make sense to the reader?

Unfortunately, sometimes you can do all of these steps and still not spot a logical gap. And that’s why it’s important to have other people read your work when you can. But that’s a blog post for another day.

So, what do you think of the strategies from The Science of Scientific Writing so far? Have they helped you in any way? Let me know in the comments, and maybe share this post as well! Or maybe check out the other posts in the series:

Enjoy, and happy writing!

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!