At this point, the course begins to examine writing at the sentence and paragraph levels. Rather than advocate rules for language, this course advocates goals. The main reason for doing so is that coming up with rules that hold for all types of scientific content and audiences is nearly impossible. Goals, however, allow for more flexibility. In scientific writing, the two most important goals are to be precise and to be clear. Perhaps Einstein said it best, "In scientific writing, keep things as simple as possible, yet no simpler." The first film discusses being precise, and the remaining three discuss one aspect of being being clear--that is, to avoid needless complexity.
Balancing Precision with Clarity (Part 1): This film focuses on making your language precise.
Balancing Precision with Clarity (Part 2): This film focuses on making your language clear by avoiding needless complexity at the word level.
Balancing Precision with Clarity (Part 3): This film focuses on making your language clear by avoiding needless complexity at the word level.
Balancing Precision with Clarity (Part 4): This film focuses on making your language clear by avoiding needless complexity at the sentence level.
Exercises and Quizzes
One equation for measuring the complexity index for a piece of writing is the Gunning Fog Index, which is discussed on pages 28-29 and 288 in The Craft of Scientific Writing, 4th edition.For this index, a good score would be between 10 and 13. Such a score would mean that you are choosing words and sentences of an appropriate length for an adult audience, but not so long that the audience has to focus on your style, rather than your content. Note that Newsweek has an index of 10, The Wall Street Journal has an index of 11, and Scientific American has an index of 12.
Calculate the Gunning Fog Index for the following two paragraphs. The first was written by the Niels Bohr, while the second was written by Albert Einstein.
So far as the principles of the quantum theory are concerned, the point which has been emphasized hitherto is the radical departure from our usual conceptions of mechanical and electrodynamical phenomena. As I have attempted to show in recent years, it appears possible, however, to adopt a point of view which suggests that the quantum theory may, nevertheless, be regarded as a rational generalization of ordinary conceptions. As may be seen from the postulates of the quantum theory, and particularly the frequency relation, a direct connection between the spectra and the motion of the kind required by the classical dynamics is excluded, but at the same time the form of these postulates leads us to another relation of a remarkable nature.
I stand at the window of a railway carriage which is traveling uniformly, and drop a stone on the embankment, without throwing it. Then, disregarding the influence of air resistance, I see the stone descend in a straight line. A pedestrian who observes the misdeed from the footpath notices that the stone falls to earth in a parabolic curve. I now ask: Do the “positions” traversed by the stone lie “in reality” on a straight line or on a parabola?
After calculating these indices, check your answers on page 29 of The Craft of Scientific Writing. Once you are confident that you can calculate the index, then calculate the index for a typical paragraph in your own writing. Note that a score of 13 or below would be good for scientific writing. If your score is significantly above 13, then you should think about how to write shorter sentences and, when possible, use shorter words.