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Science in plain English: An impossible dream?

University of Chicago Press Journals

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IMAGE: Author and biologist Anne E. Greene studies zebra stripe patterns in Botswana. view more

Credit: Erick Greene

Bad science writing is a serious problem. It can confuse readers, muddle results, and turn potential audiences away from reading scientific literature. With an increasingly skeptical public and a recent Pew Research Center poll showing that 85 percent of scientists believe public ignorance of science is a serious problem, clear scientific writing is more important than ever.

"Certainly, the merit of your scientific writing rests as much on content as on style," said Anne E. Greene, a biologist and teacher of scientific writing at the University of Montana. "However, if you cannot clearly communicate these things to your readers, what is the point?"

Greene takes on the science writing problem in her new book, Writing Science in Plain English. In it, she shows that writers from all scientific disciplines can make their prose clearer and more concise by mastering a few simple principles. These principles are based on linguistic theories about what readers look for when they read complex information.

"The list is surprisingly simple: readers look for a story about characters and actions; for strong verbs close to their subjects; for old information at the beginnings of sentences and new information at the ends; and for specific kinds of information in predictable places in paragraphs and documents," she explains.

Each chapter of Writing Science in Plain English tackles a writing principle and includes real-life writing examples, both good and bad. Exercises throughout allow readers to immediately apply the advice. The book is meant to help improve all forms of scientific writing, including grant proposals, lab reports, research papers, and more.

Greene was inspired by the principles of Joseph Williams's Style: Toward Clarity and Grace and the brevity of Strunk and White's The Elements of Style. With these classic guides as models, Writing Science in Plain English is a short, focused book infused with practical science advice.

Writing Science in Plain English by Anne E. Greene is now available from University of Chicago Press, 136 pages, $13.00 (£9.00). Visit bit.ly/WritingScience for more information.

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