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Some Simple Rules of Writing

The nice thing about going into physics is that you don't have to write much - except for the grant proposal that has to convince funders to support your work or the research paper whose publication is the key to your promotion. Not to mention the general review article that explains to other physicists, or maybe even your spouse, what is so special about the work that consumes your every living hour.

Like it or not, competent writing is an important tool of the physicist. Recognizing that, a few physics departments include some kind of writing experience in the undergraduate curriculum. For example, students in the third-year lab course at Stanford University must write up each experiment as if it were a paper intended for journal publication.

Although I have written for Physics Today for nearly 30 years, I have never taken or taught a science writing class. So I can't say what or how one might teach communication skills to physics majors. I can only share a few rules that have stood me in good stead. I name each rule for the mentor who taught it to me.

I. Miss Ottenberg's Rule: Practice writing short summaries of longer articles. This 7th grade teacher called such a summary a "precis," a foreign word no doubt intended to impress her naive students. Miss Ottenberg regularly gave us several pages of text and asked us to boil them down to one paragraph. The exercise taught us to cut down the trees to better see the forest and forced us to write more succinctly. To make our word limit, we had to sacrifice many colorful adjectives, but along with them we jettisoned lots of imprecise and needlessly wordy phrases.

II. Mr. Orloff's Rule: Combine writing with inspiring reading. I still remember Mr. Orloff pacing the front of my high school classroom as he dramatically recited the lines of Hamlet (he was faculty adviser to the Drama Club). He also entertained us by grouping the required readings into various themes, such as humor, death and love. Stimulated by the divergent thoughts and styles of the assigned readings, we wrote essays on the given theme, no doubt trying to emulate the style of our favorite author. Maybe today's researchers and students would write better if someone held up examples of really well-written papers in Physical Review Letters. Every once in awhile I come across one that can be read by someone outside the narrow specialty, and it's a real treat.

III. Terry Scott's Rule: Get rid of superfluous words. When I first arrived at Physics Today, I received important feedback from Terry Scott, who was then managing editor of the magazine and later served the American Institute of Physics as journal publisher before his recent retirement. Among other things, he insisted I expunge wordy phrases from my stories. On the taboo list were such phrases as "there is..." or "the fact that...." As frustrating as it sometimes was not to have these phrases available to me, I soon found that the sentences I constructed without them were more lively and readable.

IV. Gloria Lubkin's Rule: Rewrite if it's not clear and define your terms. Throughout my tenure at Physics Today, I have had feedback from Gloria Lubkin, who founded the "Search and Discovery" news section in 1967. Especially when I first started writing for the magazine, I would feel quite annoyed when she scrawled "unclear" in the margin next to some paragraph. But when I critically re-read my own writing, I would think of more direct and effective explanations to offer the reader. The rewrite has almost always been better than the first draft. Thus, I try never to invest so much ego in my writing that I am not willing to listen to comments and drastically rephrase if necessary.

The other really annoying thing Gloria does is to circle a word and write "define" in the margin. I hate that. I have finally finished a complicated story and have become so steeped in the language of a particular subfield that I want to use its jargon. Frequently the jargon term is really complicated to explain and I am reluctant to interrupt the flow of my story to define it. On the other hand, if I stick it in unexplained, the term might just stop my reader in his or her tracks. So I am challenged to find a simpler way to say the same thing, or else completely drop the particular detail that required the jargon word, often with no loss to the overall story.

V. Experience's Rule: Good writing is clear thinking. If I have to explain the fractional quantum Hall effect in a palatable manner to a geophysicist specializing in mantle convection, I'd better be able to explain it to myself first; it has to make sense to me. That doesn't mean I have to take a course in every topic I write about, but at least I have to understand the main characteristics of the phenomenon. An even better test of how well you understand a subject is how well you can explain it to a colleague in conversation. Sometimes in staff meetings, we newsreporters summarize for one another the stories we are working on. By having to field questions from the other writers, each of us has to hone our own understanding.

None of these rules is new. They are like the simple rule to tennis players: "Keep your eye on the ball." The players all know the rule, but the challenge is to consistently follow it. And having completed this little piece, I wonder which of the above rules I have violated in writing it.

Barbara Goss Levi is a senior editor of Physics Today, and a member of the Forum on Education's Executive Committee. This article originally appeared in the fall 1997 issue of the Forum on Physics and Society newsletter.

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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin