Some Simple Rules of Writing
Barbara Goss Levi
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.
1. Miss Ottenberg's Rule: Practice writing short summaries
of longer articles.
This seventh grade teacher called such a summary a "prcis," 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. (Miss Ottenberg also taught us the wonderful discipline
of diagramming sentences.)
2. Mr. Orloff's Rule: Combine writing with inspiring reading.
I still remember Mr. Orloff pacing the front of my high school classroom
teacher as he dramatically recited the lines of Hamlet (he was faculty
advisor 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 as well as
students would write better if someone held up examples of really
well written papers in Physical Review Letters! Every once in a while
I come across one that can be read by someone outside the narrow
specialty, and it's a real treat.
3. Terry Scott's Rule: Get rid of superfluous words.
When I first arrived at Physics Today, I got important feedback
from Terry Scott, who was then the managing editor of the magazine
and now serves the American Institute of Physics as journal publisher.
Among other things, he insisted I expunge wordy phrases from my stories.
On the taboo list were phrases such 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.
4. Gloria Lubkin's Rules
I: Rewrite if it's not clear.
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 reread 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
II: Define your terms.
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 just might 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
5. 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 first to myself; 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 news reporters 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. Having completed
this little piece, I wonder which of the above rules I have violated
in writing it!
Barbara Goss Levi is Senior Editor of Physics Today, and a Member-at-Large
of the Forum on Education Executive Committee. She has taught at
Fairleigh Dickinson, Georgia Tech., and Rutgers Universities, and
she has also served as Chair of the APS Forum on Physics and Society.