Precision Phrased

Following on from my last post, which contained some pretty precise phrases (albeit not ones of my own), I’ve been reading with interest some good recent posts on the need for precision in scientific writing. On this network Matt Shipman (@ShipLives) wrote about the importance of defining technical terms, using examples like ‘extinction’ which is often used more loosely than its specific and precise meaning allows. Elsewhere, Lewis Spurgin (@LewisSpurgin) channels Orwell in an entertaining (and, I may add, spot-on) tirade against poor writing in science. Simon Leather (@EntoProf) has a more specific complaint regarding lazy referencing and ignoring precedence when citing the work of others. Although these three posts take aim at different targets, they are united by their abhorrence of sloppiness. Writing properly matters, whether that be choosing the right word, avoiding lazy phrasing, or applying rigorous standards of scholarship. On two occasions recently I’ve had pause to reconsider the precision of my own writing. First, I received an email about one of my papers (the one I discussed here). It was a nice email, but it contained this:

There was one sentence that I wanted to ask you about: ‘More generally, the environmental conditions (as measured by the typical spatial and temporal scales of environmental variation) that are likely to select for or against the evolution of specialisation are not restricted to either marine or terrestrial systems…’ I just want to make sure that I understand this correctly – are you suggesting that both marine and terrestrial systems have relatively variable environments and also relatively stable environments?

‘No, no, no!’ was my initial thought, ‘you’re not meant to actually read what I write, and certainly not to take it seriously!’ This partly was just an expression of my underlying anxiety about being rumbled and hounded out of the academy; but it also instigated a minor panic about my writing methods. Writing is something that comes quite easily to me - I’m not making any claims as to quality, but when I get going the words flow without major obstruction. A consequence of this is that sometimes I will write something that feels right, stylistically, without necessarily considering every nuance of meaning. My defence against this is to proof-read and edit mercilessly and repeatedly, and usually this works. On the occasion in question, for example, a second reading was reassuring, and I was able to respond that yes, that was exactly what I had meant; furthermore, I could happily stand by it as I was confident that it was a valid statement (even if not expressed with perfect precision).

The second instance is rather different. I was part of a group which drafted a call for a large funding programme in marine ecology. The resulting document suffered from all the pitfalls of writing-by-committee, and contains various ambiguities (is this a ‘work package’ or an ‘objective’?), lazy citations, important-sounding but essentially empty phrases, and incidences of imprecision that didn’t seem to matter at the time as we were aiming for ‘big picture’ stuff.

But now I’m part of a consortium that is actually trying to get at some of this funding, and every hollow phrase, every ambiguity or lazy shortcut, is coming back to haunt me. The document we wrote is now a sacred text. Sticking to the text is seen as crucial to securing the (multi-million pound) prize. Hushed and urgent conversations include phrases like, “We must follow exactly what the text says here”; “When they give examples of the kinds of things we might address, this means we must address exactly those things, and nothing else” [perish the thought that they were simply the first examples to occur to us]; “What do you think they meant by this?” [just sort of sounded right…]

The moral? Be careful what you write. Someday, somebody may read it carefully and quiz you on it. Worse, they may not, and take what you wrote at face value. You’d better hope then that your phrasing is sufficiently precise to bear the weight of responsibility.