teaching, tips, and other sundry things I've learned along the way
My PhD mentor was a great guy, but like most of us he wasn’t perfect. What was his flaw? He liked to use big words. Depending on the audience, airing out the “big words” might be appropriate, but for the most part big words make for cumbersome and confusing writing. William Zinsser, author of “On Writing Well”, advises that we not use a long word when a shorter one will do. He had a lot to say about adverbs and passive verbs as well, but that’s a topic for another day.
What difference does it make? Big words, little words, “just right” words, who cares? You do – if you are writing to be understood. Words are the foundation of your manuscript, grant, blog post, or even email. A shaky foundation makes for shaky writing. John Wooden, one of the most successful basketball coaches of all time, taught about foundations. He recruited the best basketball players in the country to his program at UCLA, yet the beginning of the first practice of the year was always the same. He taught the players how to put on their socks and shoes. Why? Because socks with wrinkles cause blisters, blisters cause sore feet, and sore feet put good players on the bench.
The words you choose, or as importantly don’t choose, are the key to clarity. When you choose your words with intent, you write a powerful piece. Words are a tool you must use, but if you write with intention you will get much more out of them. It’s like the remote for your TV. You have to use it to turn the TV on (well I do because I’m lazy), but if you only use it for the power button you’re missing out on all the other features like record, search, etc.
Now that I’ve stated my case for the importance of words, I’ll step down from my soap box and get back to the topic at hand. Big words. Why do we use big words when smaller words have the same meaning? Scientists are supposed to be smart, so we want to sound smart. When we use longer words when a shorter one will do, however, who are we writing for? Are we writing for ourselves or the reader? Stringing together unnecessarily long, complex words can slow down, confuse, and/or frustrate the reader, perhaps to the point of giving up (think legal brief). Let’s look at a couple examples:
The inebriated stripling inadvertently micturated in the corner.
You might breeze right through this, or a couple of the above words might make you pause for a second. The short word translation, of course, is:
The drunk teen accidentally peed in the corner.
If you haven’t heard the word micturate before, you probably got it from the context of the sentence. You don’t want your reader to guess, though, because he/she is unlikely to take the time to look it up and their contextual definition might not be correct.
Let’s look at another sentence.
As the dour dowager stepped outside, the petrichor in the air elicited a glower.
In this case understanding the unknown words from context is a bit trickier. You probably know dour and dowager, especially if you’re a fan of BBC shows like Downton Abbey. What is petrichor? If you already know, you have an extraordinary vocabulary so you have to be particularly careful about “big words”. For everyone else, what do you think it means? Is it a smell, like pollution or manure? Is visible, like haze or dust? The context implies that it is something negative. The short word translation is:
As the crabby old woman stepped outside, the smell of fresh rain made her frown.
Why would anyone frown at the smell of fresh rain? Who knows, maybe she didn’t want to get her feet wet or her grass needed mowed. We’ll never know. The point is, that you/your reader can’t always figure out the meaning of words through their context. Of course, as with everything in life there is a balance. I’m not suggesting you write in crayon with only 3 letter words. The key benchmark, as mentioned above, is whether the larger word is necessary.
My intent is not for you to think about every word, as if you’re cleaning out your closet with Marie Kondo. I’m just suggesting a little awareness. However, I pledge that if you don’t divagate from your bourne of scribing with intent, the resolution of your writing will be meliorated.
In today’s class, we’re going to talk about the scientist’s adverb. I bet you didn’t know that scientists have an adverb all their own, so you’re no doubt thrilled that you stumbled upon this post.
Before I get too far, I sense some of you are struggling to remember the specifics of adverbs. In fact, some of you might be getting sweaty palms just thinking about grammar worksheets and identifying parts of sentences. Take a deep breath, you’re not in middle school - this is just for fun. To refresh your memory, adverbs modify verbs. If a word ends in “ly” then it’s a probably an adverb. Before the big reveal, I should mention that writers (i.e. real writers like Stephen King) hate adverbs. King has a famous quote, that starts “I believe the road to hell is paved with dandelions..”Need I say more?
I can sense you’re getting impatient, so here it is. The scientist’s adverb is “strikingly”. I’ll be calmly reading an article and then, yep, there is again, strikingly. Most often strikingly comes at the beginning of the sentence. Strikingly, when incubated for 24h with Equine Growth Factor, the bacteria E. secretariatum tripled in size and grew into the shape of a horse. I assume the writer uses the word “strikingly” to wake up the reader. Perhaps it’s meant to be a neon sign, flashing and pointing to the rest of the sentence, saying “Hey, this is the important part, pay attention!”. Ok, I get that. I’ve been known to slip an adverb into the beginning of a sentence as a bit of a “pick me up” for the reader. However, I’m more of a “surprisingly” gal. Maybe this relates to some deep borne insecurity as a child. Sounds like a good topic for my next therapy session.
Although childhood trauma could be part of my aversion, another part is just the feeling the word gives me. Strikingly makes me think of Clark Kent ripping open his plain white shirt to reveal a bulging chest with the letter S emblazoned in the middle of his super suit. “Ta da, here I am, ready to vanquish my foes!” By contrast, the word surprise conjures images of unexpected delight – flowers, a small gift, an empty dishwasher – you get the point.
I started this post by saying that strikingly is the scientist’s adverb, implying that strikingly is used less frequently in non-science writing. Being a scientist at heart, I thought I’d put my “money where my mouth is” and see if there’s any truth to this rumor. First, I searched PubMed for the word strikingly, and compared this to my preferred adverb, surprisingly. Let’s face it, surprisingly is a more common word, and it got 90,155 hits as opposed to the challenger, coming in at 33,645 or about a 3-fold difference. I chose the New York Times as a non-science comparator. One unexpected problem (like in a grant) was that when I searched the NYT archives for the “ly” version of either word I also got all “ing” versions plus the “ly”. For both words, the “ing” version was used much more often than the “ly”. I guess writers published in the NYT agree with Stephen King. Anyway, to address this unexpected pitfall, I only looked at article titles. I then counted 239 titles that contained “surprising” and 239 that contained “striking” or the adverb form of each. Why 239? That’s when I got tired. Of 239 titles with the word surprising or surprisingly, 29/239 or 12% had the adverb form. Strikingly, on the other hand, was only used twice in 239 titles (0.008%). Therefore, in the scientific literature, surprisingly was used only 3x more often than strikingly, but in the non-scientific literature, surprisingly beat strikingly by over 14 fold. Ah ha!! Case closed. Quod erat demonstrandum. All done, bye bye.
Ok, quell your righteous indignation. I realize my experimental design lacked rigor, but that’s ok I’m not trying to cure cancer, just doing a little sleuthing for fun. Another fun fact? According to the Oxford Dictionary, the use of strikingly peaked in the 1850’s, but it’s still on the rise in PubMed…..Last, but not least, according to PubMed the word strikingly was first used in the title of a paper by S Theobold in 1894, “The Ophthalmoscope Does Not Always Reveal Latent Hypermetropia, With Notes Of A Case Strikingly Illustrative Of This Fact”published in Transactions of the American Ophthalmological Society.
One might surmise that my social isolation has gotten the better of me and has reduced me to searching adverbs in PubMed. Alternatively (note adverb slip), one might hypothesize that I like words. No doubt there’s an element of truth to both.