On brevity

As another of my new endeavours for the year, I plan to teach a short course on writing. I have been researching the subject, looking for advice, examples and counter-examples. Some of my favourites come from the archives, where I expected to find only dusty obfuscation, written in the tortuous prose many people associate with science. Instead, I came across some tiny but glittering gems. Today: Orwell, and Watson & Crick. 

George Orwell

George Orwell had advice for writersOrwell's short essay, Politics and the English Language, is partly about politics, but mostly about language. A little on the dusty side perhaps, at least to my taste, but it has two highlights. First, Orwell quotes some perverse paragraphs from the more pompous writers of the day, like this unreadable piffle from one scholar:

Above all, we cannot play ducks and drakes with a native battery of idioms which prescribes egregious collocations of vocables as the Basic put up with for tolerate, or put at a loss for bewilder.

Second, Orwell offers six rules to improve our writing:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Watson and Crick

One of the most famous scientific papers of all timeOne of the most important and widely recognized scientific publications of the last century turns out to be nothing more than a one-page letter. As well as being brief, it even reads like a letter, with plain language and plenty of opinion and informed speculation. Although the results were published in full elsewhere, doubtless in more technical language, and although letters are still used in some journals, I love the unselfconscious ease with which this seismic discovery was announced. If anyone is up for the challenge, it would be fun to parody a modern press-release for this discovery.

Click the thumbnail for the full paper →

Tomorrow, I offer two more short pieces to rev up your writing. Meanwhile... do you have any favourites from the archives of science writing? Please share them! Unless they're in Latin.