Chemists' bad writing isn't bad because it's blunt. I just finished reading The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz -- bluntness a-plenty in there, and it's a terrific book. No. Chemists' bad writing is bad because it's unaware audience exists, is inarticulate, hopeless with a narrative, jargon-ridden, lede-burying, resentful of the task, and mutely stolid. (Chemists' good writing is, of course, a beauty to behold.) English majors tend to have these things in their writing roundly abused, if not beaten into submission, by junior year.I hate to admit it, but I feel that's a fairly decent description of my scientific writing, and possibly some of the writing on this blog. However, this follow-on comment was equally interesting, yet much less accurate, I felt:
The problem, at university level, is the structure of chemical education, which has nothing but contempt for anything that eats minutes and dollars and does not produce a more useful bench scientist/grad slave. And that, frankly, is part of why I'd be less inclined to hire a chem major for a general-biz job than I would an English major. You guys produce hothouse flowers simply by not giving the kids opportunity to wander -- oh, sure, they can take a few electives, but they know where their time's supposed to be spent -- and the naivete outside these narrow bounds can be astonishing. The gender imbalance doesn't help, either; it's -- still, often -- as though there's no awareness of the macho/nationalist assumptions, which play *really poorly* in many parts of the world. I kid you not, I just sat through a meeting in which a chemist spent a good bit of time mocking a Chinese name in a bizarrely Archie-Bunkerish way. This...you can't do this. And he seemed utterly unaware. It's not rare.
Let me make the contrast this way: A highly successful fiction writer of my MFA year decided, while in the writing program, that he wanted to be a doctor, and more or less went AWOL from the program so he could get his prereqs for med school taken care of. The faculty were annoyed -- he was, after all, a very promising writer, no less an eminence than Saul Bellow admired his work and called it out for special attention -- but didn't throw him out. He did become a doctor; he's also regarded as one of the best youngish literary writers in America.
I cannot begin to imagine a grad student in chemistry being allowed the same freedom. And in the end it makes a difference.
You guys loosen up on the path to chemist -- kill that German military model -- and we'll see what happens.First, I just disagree with a description of chemistry students (undergraduates and grad students) as hothouse flowers. I would like to know more what they meant, but the environment of chemical academia is probably harsher (work ethic, etc.) than the general business world (so far as I can tell.) I also think the author does not understand the difference between a grad student in chemistry (more-or-less a paid university employee, even if the lawyers don't think so) and a MFA student (a paying customer.) The administrative flexibility and time offered are going to be different. Finally, we don't really have a German military model, did/do we? Surely, this is exaggeration on the author's part.
Nevertheless, a thought-provoking read.