Over the years that I’ve written pieces here at Scientific American I’ve only very occasionally talked about the process of writing about science, since there have been so many interesting things to write about rather than worry about the writing itself. Readers may have not appreciated that focus on subject above craft, but hey, you get what you pay for.
But there is an aspect of science writing that I’ve realized I have always encountered – and continue to encounter. It happens in writing research articles for journals, and it definitely happens in the process of turning research into more accessible prose or expressing not-quite-research-ready ideas to a broader audience (via books, film, or audio).
I doubt this phenomenon is uncommon, and there is probably a far better and well-established phrase to describe it, but I’ve ended up calling it ‘the itch’.
In a research article the itch tends to manifest itself in a number of ways. For example, a line or two of text will creep in that attempts to satisfy one or more of the following desires:
(a) I really need to mention this quirk in my data, even though I’d rather not draw the referee’s attention to something that could very likely prolong the process of getting this paper published, will be painful, and will probably not change anything (or at least can be explained away with the phrase ‘does not alter our primary conclusions’).
(b) I’ve noticed this slight inconsistency between my hypothesis for what’s happening in my data/model and something else I’ve banged on about elsewhere in this paper, so I’d better suggest that I’m not a dummy and I’ve spotted it, but I beg mercy that the referee (and my colleagues) will just kind of skip over this.
(c) In writing this paper I’ve had an idea that is much more interesting than the rest of the paper, but I haven’t got around to doing the work to flesh it out, so I’ll mention it here in order to claim ‘first dibs’ and hopefully the referee won’t ask for a more complete explanation but will instead think I’m rather brilliant and be my friend.
(d) I’ve realized that it’s possible all of this paper is useless nonsense, and I want the reader to know that I know, but I honestly need to just get this off my desk, published, and added to my resume so that it doesn’t look like I did nothing this year.
These are itches – the kind of things you want to scratch properly. That scratching could provide blessed relief and make the world all better, but it could also make things worse and involve an embarrassing trip to the doctor.
The interesting thing is that an analogous phenomenon also happens (for me at least) when writing for a broader, non-specialist audience. But in that latter case I’d argue that the itch definitely always needs scratching.
A simple, trivial example is on a page where one sentence doesn’t neatly flow into the next. But a more challenging and important example is when an idea doesn’t neatly flow into the next. I think what that usually means is that you’ve avoided doing a proper unpacking. Of course, it could also mean that the idea, or the one after it, is plainly dismal or utterly incompatible. In all cases the klaxons should be sounding for you to rethink the text.
This can be far from easy. These itches are like those loose threads on your clothes. Sometimes when you pull on them it all unravels and you realize why this item was on sale. I think that specter can be paralyzing, and like in a scientific article and points (a) through (d) above, there’s a real temptation to leave things alone and hope it all works in the end.
But of course, just like in science, that’s precisely what you should try to not do (and I’m sure that all professional writers are scoffing at my naivety in ever thinking otherwise, but hey, I’m a slow learner and a scientist and I’ll hide behind those facts). In fact, I think the stakes are arguably much higher in science writing than they often are in research writing. Good science writing can transcend the prohibitive thought silos of traditional disciplines, and by informing and intriguing all of us who don’t work directly in science every day, it literally helps make us a better species.
And those itchy points in a text are precisely where you stand to win or lose with a reader. Either by confounding their efforts to understand, or managing to build the right bridge to stunning ideas and insights that their innate sense of logic and order (and most of us do have that, buried somewhere) will latch onto with joy.
That doesn’t mean it’s always easy to recognize an itch in the text. I try to step away from a passage, come back fresh and monitor my mind to see whether a re-reading triggers too many questions leading away from what I’m reading. I think that can be a sign of an itch that needs more unpacking. The worst itches are spread across pages; something in the structure of your composition that feels a bit off, not quite elegant or too chewy – too hard to connect the ideas, a bit awkward. It’s not easy to sense those situations, especially because you usually just want to be done with the writing. But self-reflection is a critical skill.
Luckily for all us scientists attempting to write about science the world has good editors who have honed their Zen-antennae for spotting these itches. But what I’ve found is that by trying to hone my own itch-sensors I can bring them to bear on my professional research papers, and at very least be aware of which of (a), (b), (c), or (d) I’m torturing my peers with, and hopefully end up doing a better scientific job.
Finally, I am well aware of all the itches in this piece. But it's lunchtime here and I'm hoping you'll understand if I move on.