One of Shakespeare’s First Folios was recently on loan from the Folger Library to Seattle, and my wife and I went to view it. You don’t have to be a theatre-lover to feel awestruck peering at the page opened at: “To be or not to be…” in a printing from Shakespeare’s troupe made shortly after his death. Without the First Folio, no surviving Comedy of Errors, no Taming of the Shrew, no Tempest; half of the plays would have been lost. Seeing the First Folio got me wondering why we biologists today don’t write our papers as if we expect them to still be read in 400 years.
Spoiler alert: we’re not literary geniuses and we write within a highly circumscribed formalism that doesn’t readily allow plot twists and existential musings. And our papers achieve prominence for the discoveries they report rather than the artistry with which they are reported. Furthermore, we operate within a milieu in which priority is everything. If the genetic equivalent of Hamlet is Origin of Species, had Darwin not written it, a different version might well have been penned by someone else (Alfred Russel Wallace, for instance). Once you know the major story line – evolution by natural selection – you may not be excited to experience the entire 502-page performance, even if Kenneth Branagh is doing the reading. But I fear there are other, less compelling, reasons for why we don’t write well.
For one, writing well is difficult, and many grad students and postdocs are not trained effectively in what makes even a good sentence or a good paragraph, let alone a good paper. For another, we’re often under intense time pressure to make a deadline that requires us to submit a manuscript prior to a grant application or before the publication of similar work by a competitor. For a third, a lot of randomly useless advice is out there: use passive voice, dangling participles are fine, vary your word choice (in consequence, confusing your reader because the same phenomenon or process is discussed under multiple names), choose an acronym to save text (even if no one remembers what it stands for), throw in fashionable terminology (even if it’s dense jargon that will mean little to anyone).
It’s not hard to poke fun at our style. Who can forget the grant application that began: A network analysis of the systems biology of cancer should both illuminate the integrative connectivity of the transcriptional and epigenetic patterns that underlie the transformed state as well as analyze the underlying connections that systemically pattern the integration of transcription and epigenetic transformations of the cancer biology network.
Or the paper that began: Many recent publications have shown that total calorie consumption has the capability to affect the rate of aging (ROA) of many organismal phenotypes. Because the volume of food intake (VFI) by a single, given animal is directly related to the timing of its senescence, it is presently uncertain whether interventions that antagonize metabolism will successfully stave off the death of somatic cells. Total calorie consumption = volume of food intake? = metabolism? Aging = senescence? = death of somatic cells? Do phenotypes age? And what is senescing anyway, a single, given animal or a volume of food?
It’s often said that until you prepare the manuscript describing your results, you don’t fully understand them. Just as Shakespeare must have taken enormous satisfaction in devising and resolving a complex plot twist, so too we should glory in our ability to provide a clear exposition of how our data illuminate a biological complexity. But if our exposition is so dense that no reader can penetrate it, then maybe we too don’t comprehend our findings.
Suggestions to fix the problem are all too common and all too commonly ignored. Let’s make writing well a critical part of the education of every undergraduate, grad student and postdoc. Let’s ensure that each manuscript or grant application goes through sufficient rounds of revision until its meaning is clear. Let’s remember that English has many sensible rules and we violate them at our own peril.
But let’s also remember Shakespeare. We should write our papers as if they, too, might be around a long time – classics that perhaps will be taught or torn apart in classes. We should have fun with language, write with style and enjoy the process of crafting our thoughts. Shakespeare is credited with having created hundreds of words; the few words that we might create in our publishing careers are often cringe-worthy or merely acronymical. Next time you submit a manuscript or funding application, step once more into the breach, summon your sound and fury, and lay it on with a trowel.
Disclaimer: No real grant application request for funding or published journal article that appeared in print was used in the writing of this post.