An informal writing style

Reviewers of my scientific papers often have one over-arching comment to make about my writing style. The reviewer of a recent article noted, "The writing style is informal, and does not read like a journal article." Another reviewer, reviewing the same article, was kinder: "The writing is informal, but it mostly works for this paper."  That second comment may even have been a back-handed slap; the reviewer might have been implying that the paper was light-weight enough that I could get away with writing informally.

I have kept to my more breezy writing style, however. Given a choice between active voice and passive voice, I'll choose an active voice. I have found that short, simple sentences leading to a conclusion make arguments understandable and intuitive. The problem is that, having read (and internalized) the simple thread of thought, reviewers become convinced that a concise statement of the "obvious fact" would have been enough.  I once wrote:
Using a single, hard threshold is subject to one glaring problem. The threshold is global
in nature and applies to the entire image. Mature storms may be more intense and cover
a large area, but initiating cells may have only a few points above the threshold. Thus,
based on a single threshold, it is not possible to distinguish between noisy points (some of
which may happen to be above the chosen threshold) and initiating cells which may have
only a few points above the threshold.
As a suggestion to improve my writing style to make it more appropriate to a journal article, I was asked to change it to:
Discriminating initiating cells from noise is difficult when employing a single threshold because it is necessary to employ a threshold that is high enough to limit the size of the mature storms that are identified using that threshold.
The changes here are instructive:

  1. Lack of an "informal" introduction (my sentence about a glaring problem)
  2. One long sentence instead of multiple, short sentences.
  3. Important implied knowledge (thresholds are global) that is dropped in suggested modification
  4. Use of weaselly words ("difficult") rather than strong language ("not possible")

Some times I refuse to make the suggested changes. But more commonly, I make the changes because, with review cycles on the order of a few months, negotiating these wording changes can lead to long delays.  The result is that I often feel that my first submission reads better than the final paper.

Sometimes, of course, the reviewer simply rejects the manuscript because it "does not have the right tone."  Fortunately, this is rare. But it is at such times that I wish the American Meteorological Society had a recommended writing style.  I should be careful what I wish for, though, because the status quo of AMS writing tends to the ponderous. It is very likely that any writing style guide would bless such language.

It would  be great if the AMS would just borrow the Economist's style guide.  It starts by quoting George Orwell:

  1. Never use a Metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do (see Short words).
  3. If it is possible to cut out a word, always cut it out (see Unnecessary words).
  4. Never use the Passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a Jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
All these rules are valid for scientific writing, except the fifth. The whole style guide is worth reading -- I am a fan of the Economist's writing style (if not, always, of the content).


  1. this is interesting. even in the industry working in a customer facing environment where one has to write technical reports, the customer perception of your know how depends on how you write the sentences along the lines of suggestions you get.

    fundamentally, it looks like the academics who should be the ones responsible for dissemination of knowledge actually want to make it difficult to understand..

    reminds of me tales my grandpa told me of Brahmins in the old days.

    maybe if you wrote your paper in Sanskrit, they will accept it!


  2. Actually, trying to get rid of all forms of "to be" makes writing sharper. For example, your first few sentences

    "Using a single, hard threshold is subject to one glaring problem. The threshold is global
    in nature and applies to the entire image."

    We may revise it to:

    "Using a single, hard threshold possess one glaring problem: its global nature applies to the entire image."

    Perhaps we could even revise the second clause better as "...its global nature affects the entire image."