Writing as Metaphor for Life in the Sciences
Carol Nacy, a scientist with over 160 published papers, shares her best tips for strong writing.
When asked recently what book had the most profound impact on me professionally, one that I use routinely in my work, it was no contest: The Elements of Style, by W. Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White.
Everybody who uses this book, from reporters to editors to scientists, just calls it ‘Strunk&White.’ Mr. White wrote the introduction for this compact and comprehensive book on grammar and sentence construction. He shared that it was Will Strunk’s “attempt to cut the vast tangle of English rhetoric down to size and write its rules and principles on the head of a pin.” It is a guide to writing clearly and concisely, traits that have been invaluable throughout my life as a scientist, science manager, and company executive. We can all recognize that excellent writing skills are essential in our business of science.
This book, Strunk&White, teaches how to construct a simple declarative sentence, one without frills. What are the essential ‘elements’ of such a sentence? There are many tricks of the trade, but my favorites are:
- Avoid compound verbs and gerunds (-ing words) and write in the active tense. Instead of writing “we have been developing new antibiotics,” say “we develop new antibiotics.” It is very difficult to use gerunds correctly, so it’s better to just avoid them whenever possible.
- Eliminate articles, most are unnecessary. And edit extraneous words to simplify a sentence. For example, one might change “Thanks to everyone for getting all of the information together that we needed to assemble this proposal and tell the story in a compelling way for the reviewers to consider for funding” (this is an actual sentence in a recent email) to “Thanks to everyone who assembled the information that created such a compelling story for the reviewers of this proposal.” Thirty-two words cut to nineteen, with no loss of meaning. Crisp.
- The proper way to structure a sentence that begins with “To” is not “To remove the fluids, the tube was centrifuged at 4C for 5 minutes,” but is “To remove the fluids, we centrifuged the tube at 4C for 5 minutes.” A “To” introductory clause is always followed by the actor of the process, not the subject of the action.
I buy Strunk&White in bulk and give a copy to each of my Ph.D. students, post docs, and scientists. As I edit manuscripts and grants with them, these three points are clearly in the top ten text corrections. I know that clear and crisp writing is valued by reviewers, as I am one myself: and a reviewer who enjoys reading your grant or paper is going to evaluate your data for its intrinsic value, not through a lens of irritation at a sloppy writing style.
For grants funded at a 7–10% rate, we need every advantage we can get. But clear writing is absolutely critical in the competitive environment of scientific funding, whether we’re talking grants or venture investment. If you don’t convey your science clearly, without jargon or acronyms, no one will read your papers or your business plans, and no one will care about your potentially life-changing scientific finding.
Writing clearly is not rocket science. But it does take practice. And it is immensely helpful to have a clear and comprehensive guide by your side. Strunk&White was my guide for 40 years of writing that includes over 160 scientific journal articles, many successful grant applications (and nearly as many unsuccessful ones in this highly competitive environment), business plans, private placement memoranda, and countless other business documents. Try it. It will transform your writing. I hope these tips help your writing as much as they’ve helped mine!
Dr. Carol Nacy co-founded Sequella in 1997 and has served as the CEO and Chairman of the Board since 1999. Prior to Sequella, Dr. Nacy served during 1997 and 1998 as Chief Scientific Officer for Anergen, Inc., a California company acquired by Corixa Corporation in December 1998. From 1993 through 1997, Dr. Nacy was Executive Vice President and CSO at EntreMed, Inc. and participated in its successful initial public offering in June 1996. Previously, Dr. Nacy was a Career Scientist (GS-15) at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, Washington, DC. Dr. Nacy currently serves on board of directors of companies and non-profit agencies and is proud to be a Springboard alumna.