The Science of Scientific Writing

Selected quotes from
George D. Gopen and Judith A. Swan.
The Science of Scientific Writing.
Appeared in American Scientist 78(6):550-558 (Nov-Dec 1990). [ Full article ]

compiled by Tom Verhoeff (emphasis is mine).

Reading these quotes is no substitute for reading the article. In fact, I hope that these quotes will make you more interested in the material.

"If the reader is to grasp what the writer means, the writer must understand what the reader needs"

Writing with the Reader in Mind: Expectation and Context
"Information is interpreted more easily and more uniformly if it is placed where most readers expect to find it. ... Readers have relatively fixed expectations about where in the structure of prose they will encounter particular items of its substance. If writers can become consciously aware of these locations, they can better control the degrees of recognition and emphasis a reader will give to the various pieces of information being presented."

"This underlying concept of reader expectation is perhaps most immediately evident at the level of the largest units of discourse. (A unit of discourse is defined as anything with a beginning and an end: a clause, a sentence, a section, an article, etc.) A research article, for example, is generally divided into recognizable sections, sometimes labeled Introduction, Experimental Methods, Results and Discussion. When the sections are confused--when too much experimental detail is found in the Results section, or when discussion and results intermingle--readers are often equally confused. In smaller units of discourse the functional divisions are not so explicitly labeled, but readers have definite expectations all the same, and they search for certain information in particular places. If these structural expectations are continually violated, readers are forced to divert energy from understanding the content of a passage to unraveling its structure. As the complexity of the context increases moderately, the possibility of misinterpretation or noninterpretation increases dramatically."

Subject-Verb Separation
"Readers expect a grammatical subject to be followed immediately by the verb. Anything of length that intervenes between subject and verb is read as an interruption, and therefore as something of lesser importance."

Reader Expectations for the Structure of Prose
"The readers expectation stems from a pressing need for syntactic resolution, fulfilled only by the arrival of the verb. Without the verb, we do not know what the subject is doing, or what the sentence is all about. As a result, the reader focuses attention on the arrival of the verb and resists recognizing anything in the interrupting material as being of primary importance."

"[This] lead[s] us to a second set of reader expectations. Each unit of discourse, no matter what the size, is expected to serve a single function, to make a single point. In the case of a sentence, the point is expected to appear in a specific place reserved for emphasis."

The Stress Position
"It is a linguistic commonplace that readers naturally emphasize the material that arrives at the end of a sentence. We refer to that location as a "stress position." If a writer is consciously aware of this tendency, she can arrange for the emphatic information to appear at the moment the reader is naturally exerting the greatest reading emphasis."

"When the writer puts the emphatic material of a sentence in any place other than the stress position, one of two things can happen; both are bad.
First, the reader might find the stress position occupied by material that clearly is not worthy of emphasis. In this case, the reader must discern, without any additional structural clue, what else in the sentence may be the most likely candidate for emphasis. ...
The second possibility is even worse: The reader may find the stress position occupied by something that does appear capable of receiving emphasis, even though the writer did not intend to give it any stress."

"Within a sentence, secondary stress positions can be formed by the appearance of a properly used colon or semicolon; by grammatical convention, the material preceding these punctuation marks must be able to stand by itself as a complete sentence."

"We now have three rhetorical principles based on reader expectations:
First, grammatical subjects should be followed as soon as possible by their verbs;
second, every unit of discourse, no matter the size, should serve a single function or make a single point; and,
third, information intended to be emphasized should appear at points of syntactic closure."


"We cannot succeed in making even a single sentence mean one and only one thing; we can only increase the odds that a large majority of readers will tend to interpret our discourse according to our intentions."

"A sentence is too long when it has more viable candidates for stress positions than there are stress positions available."

The Topic Position
"To summarize the principles connected with the stress position, we have the proverbial wisdom, "Save the best for last." To summarize the principles connected with the other end of the sentence, which we will call the topic position, we have its proverbial contradiction, "First things first."
In the stress position the reader needs and expects closure and fulfillment;
in the topic position the reader needs and expects perspective and context."

"The information that begins a sentence establishes for the reader a perspective for viewing the sentence as a unit: Readers expect a unit of discourse to be a story about whoever shows up first."

"Readers also expect the material occupying the topic position to provide them with linkage (looking backward) and context (looking forward). The information in the topic position prepares the reader for upcoming material by connecting it backward to the previous discussion. Although linkage and context can derive from several sources, they stem primarily from material that the reader has already encountered within this particular piece of discourse. We refer to this familiar, previously introduced material as "old information." Conversely, material making its first appearance in a discourse is "new information." When new information is important enough to receive emphasis, it functions best in the stress position."

"When old information consistently arrives in the topic position, it helps readers to construct the logical flow of the argument: It focuses attention on one particular strand of the discussion, both harkening backward and leaning forward. In contrast, if the topic position is constantly occupied by material that fails to establish linkage and context, readers will have difficulty perceiving both the connection to the previous sentence and the projected role of the new sentence in the development of the paragraph as a whole."

"Put in the topic position the old information that links backward; put in the stress position the new information you want the reader to emphasize."

Perceiving Logical Gaps
"When old information does not appear at all in a sentence, whether in the topic position or elsewhere, readers are left to construct the logical linkage by themselves. Often this happens when the connections are so clear in the writers mind that they seem unnecessary to state; at those moments, writers underestimate the difficulties and ambiguities inherent in the reading process."

Locating the Action
"... yet another important reader expectation: Readers expect the action of a sentence to be articulated by the verb. "

Writing and the Scientific Process
"... scientific writing ... could be made significantly more comprehensible by observing the following structural principles:
  1. Follow a grammatical subject as soon as possible with its verb.
  2. Place in the stress position the "new information" you want the reader to emphasize.
  3. Place the person or thing whose "story" a sentence is telling at the beginning of the sentence, in the topic position.
  4. Place appropriate "old information" (material already stated in the discourse) in the topic position for linkage backward and contextualization forward.
  5. Articulate the action of every clause or sentence in its verb.
  6. In general, provide context for your reader before asking that reader to consider anything new.
  7. In general, try to ensure that the relative emphases of the substance coincide with the relative expectations for emphasis raised by the structure.
None of these reader-expectation principles should be considered "rules." ...
There can be no fixed algorithm for good writing, for two reasons.
First, too many reader expectations are functioning at any given moment for structural decisions to remain clear and easily activated.
Second, any reader expectation can be violated to good effect."

"The writing principles we have suggested here make conscious for the writer some of the interpretive clues readers derive from structures. Armed with this awareness, the writer can achieve far greater control (although never complete control) of the readers interpretive process. As a concomitant function, the principles simultaneously offer the writer a fresh re-entry to the thought process that produced the science. In real and important ways, the structure of the prose becomes the structure of the scientific argument. Improving either one will improve the other."