When I was in CÉGEP, I had to take a couple of complementary courses to get my degree. Due to the way my schedule was structured, I basically had no choice but to join a social science class. I’ve written about this class before, but there’s one thing that I have to repeat: I am not a social scientist, which means my lack of interest in the subject did not help for the boredom I experienced.
In this class, I had to read many texts that were technical (in the social science realm). Depending on your view of brief, they were around twenty to thirty pages, which isn’t that long unless you dislike the subject such as myself. However, what I noticed about all of them (I’m pretty sure I am not exaggerating here) was that they exhibited symptoms of being overstuffed. What I mean by this is that the author would use roundabout ways of explaining a point. Instead of a brief sentence, colourful metaphors were used (as if this was a novel). They also broke one of Orwell’s rules for writing, which suggests that a writer should not use a complicated word when a simple one will do.
The worst part was that the complicated word tended to not even be a technical term. For example, if the writer wanted to describe the colour red, they wouldn’t just say “red”. Instead, a whole flurry of many-syllable words would be used. Sure, it made the writing colourful, but it did not make it easy to sort through.
I have a very simple test for finding out whether your writing is overstuffed or not. When you read a sentence, does it make sense right off? If so, you’re good to go. If not, does the sentence take multiple read-throughs because the concept is difficult (such as a subtle scientific point)? If so, then you may want to try to clarify, or you can accept that the concept is just a little difficult. If you answered “no” to that question, then your sentence is probably overstuffed.
I’m sure there are more exceptions and edge-cases here, but I would say that this test covers a lot of scenarios. If you can’t make sense of a sentence and there’s no real reason for it to not make sense, then you’ve done something wrong in your writing.
The reason this interests me scientifically is because transmitting new scientific and mathematical concepts can be very difficult. I’m thinking more in the case of students in secondary school and beyond, but this also happens when trying to understand what is happening on the frontier of an area of research. If the essay or paper is so overstuffed in its language that a person gets to the end of a paragraph and can’t figure out what they have just read, something has gone wrong. If an author is trying to make a scientific point, than this runs counter to their desires, because the point is lost in place of the language, which is never a good thing.
Therefore, I certainly don’t want a scientific paper to be as fun to read as a manual, but I don’t want it to be a literary novel either. There’s a balance to be struck, and overstuffing one’s writing with extra or more complicated words means the author does not have the reader in mind.
Take the needlessly complex language out, because showing how one knows these rare and obscure words does not help a reader receive the message that is desired.
A Needless Goal
As far as I can remember, my goal for any test is to get a perfect score.
Personally, I thought that this was the goal for everyone, so you can imagine my surprise when I found out that many people don’t aim for this grade, citing is as unrealistic. Of course, this score was not unusual for me, so I continued to try and get these grades.
However, as I’ve finished CÉGEP and am about to start my university studies, I’ve become more reflective on the topic of grades. I’ve written about this before, but there are two principle reasons I try and get a perfect score on any test I take: I like to push myself, and I know that good grades means bursaries. That’s it. Therefore, I’ve started to reflect on what it means to want to get perfect grades.
The first thing is that it shows that I want to learn and master principles. However, that isn’t the only way to master what you learn. After all, just because you don’t really absorb the material before a test does not mean you cannot learn it after a longer period of time. As such, good marks show initiative, but they aren’t necessarily required.
The second thing is that good grades don’t really change what you do in the day-to-day duties of a scientist. I will still have to calculate things, and as long as I know how to do the general steps (which can be learnt and referenced over and over until it sinks in like any employment), I’ll be good to go. I’m reminded of a comment one student who is older than I and was working at the university for the summer: “I barely even know how any of this computer code works. I just use it.” Any task can be learnt, even if you didn’t get a perfect score on an exam back when you were a student.
This is why the long-term need for great grades seems pointless to me. Or, said another way, I don’t think is a goal that should be pushed on to anyone. I do it because I enjoy the challenge and want to financially aid myself through my studies, but no one needs to do this. In the long term, I don’t think it will make you a better scientist (except for the opportunities that one may get because of their good grades).
A good scientist, like I always say, is about curiosity and trying to find all the ways that your results may have fooled you.
Should I Use A Complicated Word?
When communicating, there is always this fine balance to be struck between adding enough technical jargon and terms to be precise, while at the same time not overdoing it to the point that a reader has to have a dictionary beside them in order to understand what they are reading. The worst feeling I’ve ever had while reading is going through a paragraph and not even being able to grasp anything that the author is saying. This is a pretty big sign that something has gone wrong. Science is a big culprit for these kinds of errors. Some articles are way too technical, while others are so empty that they are like husks of corpses, barely the thing the author wanted to communicate.
To combat this, many people will suggest that you should simplify your vocabulary. You don’t need to necessarily dumb down what you’re saying, but you should write in a way that is accessible to all. This means eliminating long words for shorter synonyms, and not over explaining when a short explanation will do.
These are good ideas, but every time I hear them, I think to myself, “But I want to use these new words I’ve learned!” Is that such a bad want?
I don’t think so. I think there’s always a place for using different words than the one thousand most popular words in your language (link to xkcd). The reality is that nobody has come across the exact combination of words you have, so there will always be some sort of asynchronous gap between the set of words they know and what you know. Sometimes, this will tip in your favour. Other times, not so much.
Therefore, it does not make reasonable sense to limit one’s words to what both parties know, because you don’t know every single person in your audience. So don’t worry about using words that are a little more complex.
With that being said, there are two strategies that I employ in order to use words that may not be as known to a general population.
This one is fairly obvious. Defining the word you use instantly puts you and your audience on the same page. Even better, it means that any difference between the definition they use and the one you use is eradicated. I would use this when introducing scientific jargon, because it’s usually important to have the words make sense from the outset. By explicitly defining the term, you ensure no confusion.
For words that are more complex but aren’t necessarily technical scientific terms, I like to “wrap them” inside the sentence. What this means is that I’ll craft the sentence in such a way that (hopefully) the reader will glean the meaning of the word if they don’t already know it, and it will enhance the sentence if a reader does know it. To do this, the context of the sentence (or even paragraph) should lead the reader to the right conclusion for what that word should mean. Therefore, it doesn’t do any harm for those who don’t know it.
What’s important to note about this method is that only one word is “new” in the sentence. If multiple words in the sentence are complicated or rare, then the ability of the sentence to give meaning to those words is compromised.
I’ve read a lot of science books, articles, and other content, and I’ve always hated when I looked a word up inside of a sentence and I see that it is from “Old English” or the like. At that point, I consider the word pretty exotic. If one word is like that, it’s not a big deal. However, if the whole sentence is like some bad imitation of Old English writing while talking about computers, we have a problem. Using the wrapping method can solve this problem and give your text a bit of flair, while defining technical scientific terms is the best way to go when you’re introducing science into the equation.
Remember: your communication is not supposed to be about showing off how many words you know. Instead, it should be about getting a message across. You can introduce new words to an audience, but you have to be careful while doing so.
Analogies in Teaching
I’ve long been a proponent of using analogies while discussing concepts that are highly abstract or technical. They allow one to understand what an expert is saying without necessarily having to learn all the background information required to truly understand.
Another use for analogies is when one is teaching. In this situation, the person the teacher is talking to knows most of the background information that is necessary to understand this new concept. However, the trouble is that the jump, from where they are in their understanding to where the teacher is, is too great, meaning a technical explanation can only get one so far. This is where an analogy can help.
(Advanced apologies for using an analogy for an analogy.)
Analogies are like training wheels. Their purpose is to give the person the ability to make that conceptual leap to the new idea, much like training wheels allow a person to get used to riding a bicycle before riding on only two wheels. Furthermore, analogies shouldn’t be thought of as a replacement to complete understanding of a concept. Instead, they can help situate one in an idea before it becomes familiar enough that the analogy is no longer needed.
That last distinction is incredibly important, because I hear experts all the time say things like “this analogy is okay, but it isn’t quite right.” Of course it’s not exact. If it were, the analogy would be the concept itself! Instead, the purpose of the analogy is to introduce a concept to someone in a way that does not seem totally foreign. Once the concept is well understood, then by all means drop the analogy if it isn’t perfect.
Think of an analogy as a useful step towards the understanding the complete picture, and not as a perfect equivalent to the concept at hand. Most times, the latter path does not exist. By taking the former approach, you’ll be able to better take advantage of the power of analogies.