We all have our writing mannerisms. One of mine is the three-item list:
“…attend meetings, email, and brainstorm…”
“…mode of locomotion, sensing ability, and the extent of robot automation…”
“…visual sensing, complex AI, and dynamic body control…”
“…planning, sensing, and motor control…”
“…SPEC for general purpose computing, PARSEC for multithreaded applications, and Whetstone for floating-point-intensive applications…”
“…the use of the computer, the needs of the user or organization who owns the computer, and the overall size of the represented problem…”
All of these halting, heavy-handed structures came from the small collection of writing I penned for Academic Writing.
In recent years, I’ve striven to write concisely. Writing for coursework asks me to hit key points in brief answers, and writing for work demands summarizing remarks to bullet points fit for emails or PowerPoint. This drive to increase the information density in every sentence has caused me to rely on long formal words and unnatural sentence structures to deliver detail.
The snippets I listed are the worst examples. In peer editing sessions, I paid attention to where I lose my reader in each piece of writing. Usually I succeed in my great escape the moment I invoke the three-item list, those dreaded chains of noun phrases that so strain the reader’s attention. Instead of packing in detail, I should have expanded on them. Every noun phrase deserves an animated verb—each link should have had the freedom to tell a story, fleshing out its meaning and relevance.
Clear and friendly writing uses short words. It should pack the same amount of content that can be absorbed at the speed of reading the text out loud. Smooth writing should also send the reader down to the full stop without stumbling or having to double back to pick up missed words or phrases. Somewhere in the journey of having to read more and write more every day, I have forgotten the joy of reading slowly and out loud. Surely, doing so would have called attention to the three-item lists and compelled me to iron out them out.
In writing, telling the story comes first. Compelling science writing is like telling a good story to a friend: it should be chronological, and it should set up scenes and characters only as needed to move the plot. If the science necessitates a definition or a reference to prior work, do so in their deserved sentences or paragraphs, and keep them short. With this advice, I would expand my three-item lists into characters and events as needed to tell the story.
During the peer editing sessions in this class, I would sometimes stumble while reading or not understand the intended meaning of a sentence. I would grow weary of the defense “but that’s how it’s written in my field!” This response is flawed and begs two questions—Does everyone in the field indeed agree on the meaning of the text in question, when the writing is ambiguous or inscrutable? What good is it to enforce language barriers to distinguish insiders from outsiders of the field?
I admire academics that can explain advanced topics in plain language. They are the writers and speakers who inspire the public and educate newcomers to the field, and I suspect they are also adept at pitching their newest research to sponsors and reviewers, because not all of those readers are ever in the exact same field. The skills for writing for my discourse community and for a general audience should not be so different—even experts appreciate context and clear writing. Good science is accessible. Writing that captivates a broader audience than necessary is better than that which persuades too few.
Computer science as a field has the luxury of being relevant in the lives of most of the world population. But with that broad audience comes the hazards of folk science and distrust. We can defend against such dangers through plain, excellent writing, ensuring that the science is accessible to the interested. Elevating the standards for communication is a central imperative in science, and fields can either wither from neglecting this obligation or, by embracing the art, thrive.