A brief note in the journal Nature caught my attention the other day. It took issue with the use of the word ‘poo’ in a research highlight; in fact it called it juvenile.
The highlight was a news piece not a research article and was reporting on an article published in the Proceeding of the National Academy for Science entitled: Responses to pup vocalizations in subordinate naked mole-rats are induced by estradiol ingested through coprophagy of queen’s feces.
So is this an example of poor use of tone in academic writing, or a simply pomposity on the part of the author of the comment?
Finding the right academic voice or tone is difficult for many students. Over the years I have marked many assignments in which the author writes as if they are talking to their mates in the pub. Equally I have read more than one Masters Dissertations (and PhD thesis and papers to boot!) in which the author seems to believe that route to scientific veracity is to write in the most convoluted and pompous prose possible. In fact there is a bit of a pendulum at work here; students start out too informal and end up at the other extreme, before hopefully finding a mid-ground as they develop their practice.
I am an advocate of direct and active prose where ever possible and to me pomposity, convolution and pretension is like a spark to a gas ring. The KISS acronym holds well in my view: Keep it Short and Simple. Simple does not however mean informal. As writers we should aim to communicate clearly using appropriate language for the audience and above all else make sure that we write in direct and clear prose which is also wherever possible engaging! Practice is the key. Find academic authors and science journalists we like to read and reflecting on and dissecting their style to adapt and form in to our own style through practice is the key. I don’t hold myself up as a good writer, simply one doing his best and learning through practice. I like to reflect occasionally on the six rules on good writing proposed by Orwell and modified slightly here:
- Never use a metaphor or other figure of speech which has become hackneyed.
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
- Never use the passive where you can use the active.
- Never use a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent. Write for your audience and never forget that it is they that count.
- Break any of these rules sooner than say anything barbarous.
Would Orwell have used the word ‘poo’, perhaps? Do I agree with the comment about the use of the word poo, no! It is a headline, designed to draw the reader in which in my view is acceptable. The term ‘feces’ is the correct term for the title of the paper sure, but a journalist even in Nature should be able to have some latitude with a headline. We drink our own pomposity, at our peril and the more pompous we become the more distance we place between ourselves and the general public.