The science of editing science

words by Boa-sorte&Careca
The Index of Banned Words:
[Via The Loom]

Over the past week I held my first real class, teaching a roomful of students writing about science on Appledore Island (along with a few ornithological auditors, shown in this picture of my classroom). They put up with a relentless schedule of researching and writing and ended up with some …

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Jargon explains science. Any scientist doing their job is full of words to describe what they do.

But these words can be used to put a wall between the researcher and anyone else. Immunology almost requires an education in a foreign language, using terms not found in any other field.

This can make it very hard to write for other audiences. While using the jargon can be distancing, using the wrong word can be confusing. witness the debacle over the word theory, which has almost opposite meanings in science and in general usage.

However, many times jargon is simply used because it is jargon and makes the author feel superior to their readers. “What, you don’t know what apoptosis means? well, I do.”

So, the words Carl choses are mainly ones where clarity as accessibility are key. Many are so over used that they almost no longer have much meaning: paradigm shift, breakthrough, utilize. These are words any editor would go after because of their cliche nature.

And there are better words to use that actually impart information to the reader. As Carl recognizes with his update, again demonstrating that the Web is a conversation, one that informed him about his writing:


Update, 6/18 11:20 am: Thanks for all the conversation, both in the comments and on Twitter. It’s made me realize that I should divide my banned words into a couple categories. Some of them, like utilize, are science words that should not be allowed to escape scientific journals. But others, like breakthrough, are words that both scientists and non-scientists alike may be tempted to use like steroids, to artificially boost their writing. These words often end up being just wrong, and in some cases–like referring to a preliminary experiment in mice as a miraculous cure–they can be cruel by raising hopes in the sick that may later be dashed.

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