It's time to vote for your favourite story and author in this year's clitoridesawards. [ X Dismiss ]
Home « Forum « Author Hangout

Forum: Author Hangout

Formal Writing Need Not be Awful

Ross at Play
Updated:

I came across this excerpt from Scientific American:

Psychologists have been interested in empathy for decades, but the approach of bringing in neuroscience to study the emotion is only in its adolescence. The first decade or so of work focused on establishing the independent yet interacting neural networks that underlie emotional and cognitive empathy. In 2004 neuroscientist Tania Singer, now at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, and her colleagues published a groundbreaking paper in Science that compared brain activity in a person experiencing pain with the same person's brain activity when observing a loved one experiencing pain. Sixteen women underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging while their male partner sat nearby. Varied levels of painful stimulation were administered by an electrode to one or the other partner. A signal alerted the women when their partner was feeling pain. Some areas of the women's brains were activated only on receiving pain themselves, but others—most notably parts of the anterior insula and the anterior cingulate cortex—lit up no matter who was hurting. Empathy activated the affective, or emotional, parts of the pain network but not the physical sensation of pain. That study and the many imaging studies that followed indicate that our core ability to empathize begins with the way the brain represents our own internal states and evolved to include our perception of what others are feeling.

Are you exhausted after reading that? Could you manage a brief summary of the main point the author was trying to make? I am very exhausted because I've read it often and carefully enough to (I think) manage a brief summary.

It's a shame because this is almost a superb piece of technical writing. WTF? You gasp.

My guess is it was first published in some academic journal. For that audience it is very fine writing indeed, IMHO. If so, I think the editors at Scientific American have done their readers an awful disservice by not insisting they be permitted to make some adjustments to make it more accessible to general readers.

I'm discussing this example because many here seem to suggest the formal rules of punctuation inevitably result in prose so cluttered with punctuation marks that it becomes stilted and disjointed. Not so! That is an inevitable result of formal writers not organising their ideas into a logical sequence then trying to express their ideas simply.

The excerpt is a pain to read but not because of excessive punctuation. Its only problem, as far as I can see, is it actually needs some optional punctuation to assist readers not already experts in the field to take in its ideas in digestible chunks.

Consider what's left if you remove the three short sentences in the middle Which just describe the experiment. That leaves 6 sentences with an average length of over 30 words. Only 7 commas and 2 dashes are used. All except 2 of the commas are essential to enclose parenthetic asides, which authors of fiction would typically use too. There are also two before the word but when two independent clauses are being used. Those two are pretty much obligatory

These very long sentences have almost no punctuation. There's a reason for that. The author wrote every sentence with its subject followed by the main verb as soon as practical, then proceeds onto explaining the core idea of the sentence. For its original audience, it is a superb piece of writing.

Well, almost.

The writer knew she was in trouble with the last sentence. She used italics then bold for: and evolved. She may know how that sounds in her head - but nobody else does.

So, what do I think the editors at Scientific American should done with this article?

I can't find anything bad before the final sentence. It's just too much to take in. I'd suggest three paragraphs: set the background, describe the experiment, and then its the conclusions. The two new paragraphs probably need introductory words, for example, "During their experiment, ..." and "Its conclusions were ..."

The actual problem with the last sentence is it's ambiguous what the subject of 'evolved' is. I originally thought it was 'our core ability to empathize'. Someone wrote to the writer who advised it is 'the brain'.

My original thought was the sentence would be clearer if written like this:

That study and the many imaging studies that followed indicate that our core ability to empathize: begins with the way the brain represents our own internal states, and evolved to include our perception of what others are feeling.

To get the meaning she intended I think I'd go with this:

That study and the many imaging studies that followed indicate that our core ability to empathize begins with the way the brain represents our own internal states. The brain then evolved to include our perception of what others are feeling.

I doubt many will, but I hope some find this interesting … When you see examples of awful formal writing, cluttered with punctuation and disjointed to read, don't blame the rules of punctuation for formal writing -- blame the author for not working to get their ideas into a coherent order and then expressing those ideas as simply as possible.

Geek of Ages

@Ross at Play

Huh? I thought it was a perfectly fine piece of prose, and perfectly understandable.

The sentence you call out is perfectly reasonable and I had no problems parsing it.

Replies:   Ross at Play
Ross at Play
Updated:

@Geek of Ages

I did say, assuming it was published in an academic journal:

For that audience it is very fine writing indeed, IMHO.

The only thing I can find to assist lesser readers in most of it is to divide it into three paragraphs for the background to, the design of, and the conclusions of the experiment in question.

I would not say paragraphs beyond about 100 words are verboten, but I'd like to know there is some reason for doing that. I see no reason why this paragraph should have been 225 words long.

I disagree if you are suggesting there is only one reasonable way to parse the final sentence.

The actual point of my post was to use it as an example of fine formal writing. It has very few punctuation marks - because the writer organised their ideas coherently and then expressed them simply.

Replies:   Geek of Ages
Geek of Ages

@Ross at Play

Ah, I misunderstood.

Replies:   Ross at Play
Ross at Play
Updated:

@Geek of Ages

Thanks for saying that.

I did think it almost perfect. My disappointment was if Scientific American reprinted it from somewhere else, I think they should have fined-tuned it for their readers.

Crumbly Writer

@Ross at Play

I'm discussing this example because many here seem to suggest the formal rules of punctuation inevitably result in prose so cluttered with punctuation marks that it becomes stilted and disjointed. Not so! That is an inevitable result of formal writers not organising their ideas into a logical sequence then trying to express their ideas simply.

The objection that many of us have about punctuation isn't that it's 'improper' or difficult to read, instead it's that the punctuation interrupts the flow of the story (i.e. how it's read). That's an entirely different thing than how a technical document is read, where no one cares 'how it sounds when read aloud'. You're confusing oranges and water buffalos.

Ernest Bywater
Updated:

@Crumbly Writer


You're confusing oranges and water buffalos.


The water buffaloes in the orange jumpsuits are the criminal ones you have to be very wary of.

typo edit

Ross at Play
Updated:

@Crumbly Writer

The objection that many of us have about punctuation [is it] interrupts the flow of the story.

I provided an example proving it is NOT the rules of punctuation for formal writing causing those interruptions ... it is poor writing!

VERY GOOD formal writing has VERY FEW punctuation marks. Achieving that requires only the author to organise their ideas coherently first and then expresses them simply.

That was the entire point of my OP.

Back to Top