Monthly Archives: October 2019

Scientific Writing

The ARC WM Director spends a lot of time writing; grant requests, research papers, reports and, yes, your News Blog. My work is submitted to collaborators and reviewers, while I spend a lot of time reading and reviewing grants and research papers. 

So a large part of my job concerns the written word. Writing well is not easy: I find writing hard after 40 years of academic work. Perhaps there are two things that an academic needs: good ideas and the ability to convey these ideas in the written word. Instructions for people making grant applications stress the importance of a clear and compelling narrative. The text must be easy to understand and follow. But what makes for clear English? I think there are two different aspects; the words used and the order, or flow, of the words.

Of these two dimensions, the words themselves and the way they are strung together, the latter strikes me as far more important. The words need to create a clear and compelling narrative; you need to tell a good story. Telling a good story turns on putting the thoughts down in the right order, including all the important ideas, and not digressing into issues that do not contribute to the storyline. It might sound odd for a scientist to draw a lesson from a nursery rhyme but I often use ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ as an example. Everything that is needed to create suspense and provide meaning is included in the tale, while there is nothing included that does not need to be there. For all we know, Red Riding Hood might have met a hedgehog on her way to Granny’s house – it does not contribute to the story line; leave it out.

Good writing reflects good thinking. Writing is like painting – an iterative process where a general idea takes form and is crystallised into a meaningful set of objects; ideas in the case of writing, brush strokes in the case of painting. Writing is the act of generating material and organising it in a coherent way.

One of my enduring frustrations concerns the way modern grant applications break up the storyline with their endless boxes to be completed; the people that produce these forms clearly do not read them in a cogent way. Take the application form on which  I am currently engaged. It places the section ‘Why is this research needed now?’ – in other words the ‘background’ – after the ‘research design and methods’ section. It takes only a little thought to spot that the research designs turns on the study question, which in turn turns on ‘why the research is needed now.’ As for this current fashion for insisting on ‘Scientific Abstract’ and ‘Plain English Summary’ – this rests on an outmoded notion that a good scientific abstract cannot be explicated in ‘plain English’. What rot!

Then we come to the words themselves, an issue that I think is subordinate to the question of how the words are strung together. There are two issues concerning word selection. First, the same word may mean different things to different people. Second, some words might simply lie outside a reader’s vocabulary. The first problem, different meanings for the same words, is much more problematic than the simple issue of vocabulary. The subject of service delivery research is bedevilled by lack of consensus over the meaning of the words that define its essential constructs [1];  so much so that it has been described as a ‘tower of Babel’.[2] The only way to confront this problem is to refer to a framework into which the essential constructs can be fitted. Then the terms that might cause confusion can be explicated with reference to that framework. For example, the term intervention can be very confusing in the context of service delivery research. Sometimes it refers to a clinical intervention, while other times to a service intervention (designed, for example, to improve the uptake of a clinical intervention). In the recent call for ARC proposals I was seldom sure which of these two was being referred to. Reference to a simple, generic, causal framework for service level interventions would have cleared up this confusion.[3] 

The question of vocabulary is one that is often referred to by public and patient representatives. The meaning of a word may be obscured either because it is a term of art whose meaning is specific to a particular subject or discipline, or because the reader simply has not encountered the word in their general reading. In the former instance, the solution is simply to explain the term or provide a glossary. Words like ‘cluster’, ‘linear’, ‘sensitivity’ and ‘interaction’ have more precise meanings in quantitative science than they do in the vernacular.

It has become very fashionable to criticise the use of dictionary words that are seldom used in common parlance. People who use such words are often criticised for being elitist and some people use software to identify and thus eliminate obscure words. It is also true that many superb communicators, such as Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, John Major and Winston Churchill avoided using obscure words. Nevertheless, it is also true that there are nuances of meaning and, as Wittgenstein argued, all language is an approximation.[4] So I do not think it is fair to argue that the use of less common words is necessarily a form of elitism or showing off. Sometimes, it is an attempt to get as close as possible to what you want to say. Synonyms are approximations; they mean something similar but not exactly the same. To be solicitous is not quite the same as to be attentive. To besmirch is not identical to traduce. To extirpate is not quite the same as to remove. And isn’t egregious a better fit than disgusting in many contexts? In short, do not use less common words simply in order to show off. Equally, do not rush to judgment, that the user of a word is trying to show off, merely because the word is not widely used.

What is my take-home message? It is this – do not think that writing is easy. In fact, think of writing as a method; as a method to help you organise your thoughts. How often have you set out to write a sentence with a clear idea of what you want to say, only to find that the sentence is hard to complete? The sentence is hard to complete because the thought was incomplete. The process of writing helps you to sharpen the underlying logic of what you are trying to say. It is in the very process of writing that your scientific argument takes form. Be prepared to find it hard, tear up your previous drafts, worry over the sentences that you use, and seek constructive criticism. The term ‘writing’, does not describe what we are really doing when we write.

Richard Lilford, ARC WM Director


  1. Lilford RJ. Health Service and Delivery Research – A Subject of Multiple Meanings. NIHR CLAHRC West Midlands News Blog. 30 November 2018.
  2. McKibbon KA, Lokker C, Wilczynski NL, et al. A cross-sectional study of the number and frequency of terms used to refer to knowledge translation in a body of health literature in 2006: a Tower of Babel? Implementation Science. 2010; 5: 16.
  3. Lilford RJ, Chilton PJ, Hemming K, Girling AJ, Taylor CA, Barach P. Evaluating policy and service interventions: framework to guide selection and interpretation of study end points. BMJ. 2010; 341: c4413.
  4. Wittgenstein L. Philosophical Investigations. Oxford: Basil Blackwell Ltd; 1953.