domingo, 22 de outubro de 2017


PRINCIPLES OF GOOD WRITING. Fredric M. Menger, Emory University, USA

It is sometimes forgotten that carrying out useful experiments is only half the challenge facing a scientist. The other half is communicating the results so that others can also profit from them. Accordingly, I remind students who plan to submit their research for publication: “Write clearly and interestingly. This way everyone can understand and enjoy what you are trying to say.” In the following essay I have space to express only a couple of points on how to improve your writing. In so doing I will use, as a backdrop, the writing of William Faukner, a Nobel Prize-winning author of novels. His work allows me to illustrate poor writing practices of the type you should avoid in your technical papers.

Consider Faukner’s book The Sound and the Fury. In the first ten pages one encounters, in order of appearance: Luster, Caddy, Uncle Maury, Benjamin (Benjy), Versh,Mother, Caroline, Dilsey, Candace, Jason, T. P., Roskus, Miss Cahline, and Quentin. Prince, Queenie, and Fancy (horses, one gathers); Mr. and Mrs. Patterson; and Frony make their appearances soon thereafter. We are not told the exact family relationships among this horde of people nor their sex, age, or race. From my point of view as a chemist (and not an English professor), this is poor writing. Why? Because Faukner failed to make me care, positively or negatively, about his characters. Consequently, their activities, such as they were, bored me, and I stopped reading the book. A lesson can be learned here for scientific writers like ourselves: Keep your writing simple, clear, and understandable while (and this is important) making the reader want to read what you have to say.

To illustrate: Few would be enticed to read a paper that begins with: “In this Part IV of our study, we continue to determine the properties of liquid crystals.” Or how about this one: “There have been many publications on the role of metals in the action of trypsin.” Compare these lines with the first line taken from one of our past publications: “In Reston, VA, 1980, a gathering of American chemists was challenged to devise methods for destroying some of the most noxious compounds known to man, compounds a saner world would never produce.”1 Or this: “One cannot help but marvel at the planning and execution evident throughout the vast literature in synthetic organic chemistry, sometimes encompassing twenty or more steps.”2, 3 See the difference?

Instead of writing what will seem to be an abstract of a laboratory notebook, attempt to tell a story. Let the main conclusion of the study be the climax of your story. Since humans have evolved side-by-side with story-telling for millennia, and everyone today enjoys a good story, use this device to reach out to your desired audience.

There are other helpful rules for good writing.
For example:
( 1 ) Pay attention to variety. Vary the first word of your sentences, i.e. do not have every sentence begin with “The”.
( 2 ) Minimize the use of the verb “to be” (e.g. am, is, will be, was), and replace them with strong active verbs (reinstate, attenuate, delay, furnish etc.).
( 3 ) Vary sentence length; follow a long sentence with a short one.
( 4 ) Limit the number of prepositions (e.g. of, with, from, by) in a sentence.
( 5 ) Mix up simple, compound, and complex sentences.
( 6 ) Try to end sentences with an important word or phrase. And after you have written your first draft, read the paper aloud, and see if you can do this smoothly without stumbling.

Consider this dreadful >500-word sentence from The Sound and the Fury:

>150 initial words followed by…” not suffered enough I see now that I must pay for your sins as well as mine what have you done what sins have your high and mighty people visited upon me but you’ll take up for them you always have found excuses for your own blood only Jason can do wrong because he is more” ...ending with another >350 words.

Faukner was, perhaps, trying to be cute, which is permissible in literature but not in scientific expositions. Don’t be cute.

I end with the two short opening paragraphs of Faukner’s novel Intruder in the Dust. Read them carefully.

“It was just noon that Sunday morning when the sheriff reached the jail with Lucas Beauchamp though the whole town ...had known since the night before that Lucas had killed a white man.”

“He was there, waiting. He was the first one, standing lounging trying to look occupied or at least innocent, under the shed in front of the closed blacksmith’s shop across the street from the jail where his uncle would be less likely to see him if or rather when he crossed the Square toward the post-office for the eleven oclock mail.”

Now answer the following question without looking back on the text: Who was the person that crossed the Square? Was it the white man, the sheriff, Lucas, or his uncle? The point here is that science is difficult enough without complicating a text with confused writing, such as we have just seen with Intruder. So it is worth taking the time necessary to make your paper clear and enjoyable.

References 1) F. M. Menger, H. B. Kaiserman, Decarboxylation of isatoic anhydride in the crystalline state, The Journal of Organic Chemistry, vol. 52, no. 2, pp. 315-316, 1987.
2) F. M. Menger, L. Shi, S. A. A. Rizvi, Self-assembling systems: Mining a rich vein, Journal of Colloid and Interface Science, vol. 344, no. 2, pp. 241-246, 2010.
3) An Essay on Scientific Writing, Fred M. Menger, Syed A. A. Rizvi, Education 2013; 3(2): 130-133, doi:10.5923/

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