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When Judith Swan was a PhD student in molecular and cell biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), her research on specialized microtubules in chicken cells went pretty smoothly. But despite expert guidance and advice from her advisor, “when it came time to write, nobody had very much to say,” Swan recalls. Swan was essentially told to write up her research, then was edited, critiqued, and told to try again. “We teach writing by stochastic processes—the random walk,” she says.
After finishing her PhD at MIT, Swan made her way to Duke University, where she attended a workshop on improving scientific writing presented by the linguist George Gopen. “Oh my goodness,” Swan recalls thinking, impressed by how Gopen and his colleagues talked about effective writing in science. “This is an amazing language.” She was soon engrossed in an “informal postdoc” with Gopen to pick up on his perspective.
She realized that the entrenched paucity of guidance in scientific writing has led to a body of scientific literature that is often poorly written and opaque. Now an assistant director for scientific and technical writing in Princeton University’s writing program (open to scientists and nonscientists), Swan aims to change that. Success in science, she says, “takes as much skill with language as it does working in a laboratory.”
The cardinal rule of writing, says Swan, is to focus on the reader, which doesn’t mean dumbing down manuscripts. “The real readers that matter are the peer reviewers,” she notes. “Peer reviewers are specialists and for them to get excited, you’re going to be speaking a language that is not necessarily accessible to the average reader.” The trick is to write manuscripts that answer very specific technical questions while presenting the information in a palatable and fluid way. This involves creating a delicate balance between providing too much and not enough contextual information, Swan says. “It’s hard to find the right balance,” she says, “people are working in a very complex environment with very few guidelines.”