Watson and Crick Show How It's Done
In MEDICAL WRITING – A PRESCRIPTION FOR CLARITY, Goodman and Edwards cite a letter from Watson and Crick to Nature as an example of clear scientific writing. The letter contains fewer than 900 words.
About Watson and Crick's letter, they write "...many of the principles of clear writing are well illustrated by their opening paragraph."
Look at that. Passive voice. I'd write, "Their opening paragraph illustrates many of the principles of clear writing." I'll edit anybody.
Here's the first paragraph from Watson and Crick:
We wish to suggest a structure for the salt of deoxyribose nucleic acid (D.N.A.). This structure has novel features which are of considerable biological interest.
Goodman and Edwards then explain why it's a good example. Here's their reasoning, and I honestly don't remember how much is quoted and how much is paraphrased.
- It's direct. "We wish to suggest..." not In this communication is made a suggestion....
- It comes straight to the point. They could have started with a general statement about DNA: Deoxyribose nucleic acid is a nucleotide that has been isolated from many species. We wish to suggest.... To write this would have reduced the impact.
- They make two simple statements in two short sentences. They could have linked the sentences: We wish to suggest a structure for the salt of DNA that has novel features that are of considerable biological interest. This version is more clumsy and also ambiguous: it is not clear now whether it is the suggested structure, or the salt of DNA itself, that has the novel features.
- They are not afraid of using the same word, structure, twice. Many writers would have started the second sentence with a pronoun, such as It..., or used a synonym, such as This configuration...; neither device would have been as effective as repeating structure.
- Every word is necessary: "We wish to suggest a structure for the salt..." not We propose a possible structural hypothesis concerning the salt.... They even avoid molecular structure, there being no other type of structure to which they could be referring. And, while most writers would probably write We would like to..., they use the elegant "We wish to...".
- Every word is the correct word, particularly novel (of new kind or nature, strange, hitherto unknown). They write "features which are of considerable biological interest" not features associated with considerable biological interest.
One note from me, Michael, in late 2010. "Novel" is an excellent word. So excellent, in fact, that I see it in almost every paper I edit. And also in most papers that I don't edit. I'll guess Watson and Crick used it first, but now that I've mentioned it, look for it. You'll see it everywhere except in a novel.
Updated May 26, 2017
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