Science Writing: George Orwell and Richard Garvine

How to write, read, and review as part of large science teams when millions of dollars are at stake? Writing and reviewing science projects for the National Aeronautical and Space Agency and the National Science Foundation, I came up with a list of 6 loose rules that make for good science proposal writing:

1. Think about your audience, as the message is conveyed best, if the reading is fun;
2. Avoid technical detail, cite the peer-reviewed paper instead;
3. Present and explain the big picture concisely and accurately in engaging ways;
4. Less is more. Focus on the why, not the how;
5. Avoid shady ambiguity, convoluted arguments, and incomplete explanations;
6. If it can’t be said simply, don’t say it.

This list then reminded me of a short essay that George Orwell wrote in 1946 titled “Politics and the English Language.” It concludes with these 6 rules:

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

I read the essay in the spring of 1989 when I spent much time at sea with Richard Garvine. Rich was my PhD advisor and he probably suggested this essay to me, his German graduate student with poor writing skills. Rich taught me both science and writing. I miss him.

Richard Garvine in his office at the University of Delaware in the 1990ies.

One response to “Science Writing: George Orwell and Richard Garvine

  1. Your reference to Richard Garvine has reminded me of my own great mentor from the 1980’s Edward F L Brech http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2006/oct/10/guardianobituaries.obituaries

    In particular a wonderful memory of his getting me in front of the Secretary General of the British Institute of Management; tea being served by a liveried flunky complete with white gloves; with Edward playfully kicking me in the ankle under the table to curb my obvious enthusiasm…

    But to return to the subject at hand, as I see it, in one respect you are correct to point others towards the use of some rules of writing; “as part of large science teams …..” However, I also suspect that those of you that have worked so hard for so long to gain some understanding of the processes under way within the Arctic and Antarctic; are also having to come to terms with the even greater responsibility of widening the debate to the rest of the planet.

    Perhaps the best rule there will be to be to remember that people respect total honesty.

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