[On] Point to Ponder: 3 Reasons This is Excellent Scientific Writing

Scientific writing is hard to do well. There’s just no question about it. Clunky terminology, 6-letter acronyms with hyphens, latin terminology none of us learned, even if we took etymology in high school… the list goes on.

But in a recent Wall Street Journal, I was hooked by an article about cancer. Instead of a wrinkled brow, I was nodding my head and drinking in the science-y prose. It’s an example of excellence in scientific writing, and it’s worth unpacking. It’s right here, and it’s called “The Saturday Essay.”

The job of any scientific speaker? It’s to blend these voices effectively; balance them during pitches and when explaining your product.

  • “Priests” = Voices of authority (e.g. scientists)
  • “Bards” = Voices of the common man (e.g. readers, consumers)

    With this voices in mind, let’s look at The Saturday Essay.

It’s an article about cancer. It’s written by a doctor. She argues we’re losing the battle. From her opening line, the reader is immediately at ease; we just know she’s not going to launch into “scientific journal speak.”

Dr. Raza starts with, “I have been studying and treating cancer for 35 years, and here’s what I know about the progress made in that time: There has been far less than it appears.”

Super. I’m following. And she keeps that easy-going tone:

“Despite some advances, the treatments for most kinds of cancer continue to be too painful, too damaging, too expensive and too ineffective. The same three methods – surgery, chemotherapy, and radiotherapy – have prevailed for a half-century.”

This introduction hooks me and makes me want to continue. And because of her mastery of rhetorical theory and the “Speaker|Audience|Message” triangle penned by Aristotle, she keeps me going until the end.

Reason #1: Humility, Vulnerability, Transparency
– Dr. Raza’s article (which is an excerpt from a book) follows the story arc. In the first half of the article, she does an excellent job laying out the problem, and she does so with humility, vulnerability and transparency.
– She admits that the reduction in cancer deaths, though they have fallen by 25% since 1991, is not due to advances in treatment but lifestyle changes (e.g. quitting smoking).
-“Overall cancer deaths are not dramatically different than they were in the 1930’s” (transparency).
– “For AML, odds of survival after a bone marrow transplant have hardly budged since the 1970s” (humility).

Gustav Freytag, a literary playwright, penned this arc in the 19th century

Reason #2: She’s Been There
-Dr. Azra Raza is a cancer doctor, yet she watched her own husband succomb to the disease. She knows the doctor side and the caregiver side. The presence of the rhetorical device here is ‘identification.’ She can identify with the personal struggle of watching a loved one go through cancer, because she did it.
-“I’ve experienced the pain of the situation from the other side of the hospital bed. My own husband, a leading oncologist himself, survived one cancer at the age of 34 …” but not the second.
-Then, Dr. Raza invites us into one of her last conversations with her husband. This is deeply vulnerable and highly valuable for the reader in terms of connecting with the writer/speaker. We already like and trust her, but now we feel for her and empathize. She writes,

“At our daughter’s 8th birthday party, I found him hiding in a bedroom. ‘What’s wrong?’ I asked? ‘I did my best to live until her birthday,’ he answered. ‘I need another target, Az.’ I managed to say with bogus good cheer, ‘What about my birthday?’ He looked wistfully at me and smiled, ‘I’m afraid that is too far.’ Four months later, he died of sepsis.”

Reason #3: Her Solution Just Might Work
– In the 1st half of the article (“up the hill” in the story arc), Raza presents the problem. She is blunt and upfront about the failures of science in recent decades; they have been growth spurts – yes. But on the whole, from 30,000 feet, it’s not moving the needle nearly as much as people – as patients – would like.

She writes, “For one thing, all of us in the biomedical sciences need to descend from our high horse and humbly admit where we have been wrong. We have sought to model cancer in petri dishes and mice, seeking out single drugs for simple genetic mutations. But cancer is far too complex a problem to be solved with such reductionism. We have not made much progress in the past 50 years and won’t advance much more in another 50 if we insist on the same-old same-old.”

The second half of the article (“down the hill” in the story arc) centers on the hope Dr. Raza has in the work being done to attack the earliest cancer cells. To get at them before they multiply. She talks of biomarkers and also a new tool called the mChip and the hope scientists have in its power to detect early cells.

Summary: What Can We Learn From This Article?

Why did Dr. Raza “Nail It” and what can we model in our own scientific writing endeavors?

  1. Scientific writing, when done well, is easy to read. This requires great forethought about Audience.
  2. Scientific writing can include personal stories. Without Dr. Raza’s personal story and that of her husband’s, we may have been less inclined to read on.
  3. Scientific writing can still communicate difficult to understand science-y stuff, but it can be disseminated in a way the non-science reader can understand, absorb, and appreciate.
photo by Ruth Bruhn

Cindy Skalicky provides expert public speaking coaching and brand consulting to entrepreneurs and small businesses who seek to master their message on stage, online and in publications. Her passion for crafting, analyzing and presenting messages developed through over 25 years in the corporate, academic and entrepreneurial worlds. 

Cindy coaches clients – 1-to-1 and in workshop format for teams – on pitch decks, TED talks, storytelling, presentation presence, brand messaging, PR strategy and more. Contact Cindy at info@onpoint-communications.com or call 970-290-4684.

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