This blog shares some of our thoughts about plain language, and the latest discussions about plain English and clear design in New Zealand, and around the world.

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01 July 2010

The chemist who wrote

Hands up, who has a scientific brain? Do you think this means you’re not a writer? Do you think words are better left to the artists amongst us?

Coming from a family of scientists who write with clarity and lightness, I’ve been thinking lately about how a scientific mindset can be a valuable tool in writing plain English. Far from avoiding words, I believe that scientists can harness their strengths to produce clear, well-organised documents. Approaching a document logically can help you over the twin hurdles that face many writers; how to start, and what to say next.

When we look at a document at Write, we start by thinking about structure and purpose. Has the writer told the reader why they wrote the document and what they want the reader to do with it? Does the writer state the main messages clearly at the start? Do points follow each other in a logical order, with a strong, clear argument? If you can do these things, and then find direct, precise, shapely language to convey your thoughts, you’ll be well on the way to plain English. The basic disciplines of careful design and a logical approach are central to the task of writing — as they are to science.

But are we doing ourselves a disservice by dividing ourselves into scientists and arty types in the first place? In Other People’s Trades, Primo Levi — chemist and writer — discusses the false divide between science and literature. He argues that the two cultures have much to offer each other, that at their best they operate hand-in-hand, and always have done.

This is an unnatural schism, unnecessary, harmful, the result of distant taboos and the Counter-Reformation, when they do not actually go back to a petty interpretation of the Biblical prohibition against eating a certain fruit. It did not concern Empedocles, Dante, Leonardo, Galileo, Descartes, Goethe and Einstein, the anonymous builders of the Gothic cathedrals and Michelangelo; nor does it concern the good craftsmen of today, or the physicists hesitating on the brink of the unknowable.
Levi, P. Other People’s Trades. 2nd ed. London: Abacus, 1991: viii.

Perhaps our most powerful writing comes when we dismantle the barriers around our identities and disciplines, when we use fully all the writing muscles available to us. Just look at what can happen when the scientist steps beyond logic into creativity and intuition; when the poet brings focus and an eye for detail to flights of the imagination.

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