Book review

Subtleties of Scientific Style

Matthew Stevens, Subtleties of Scientific Style published by Sciencescape editing.

Reviewed by Tina Thornton
Catchword, Issue 111, Spring 2007

This slim book (103 pages) provides a concise summary of some of the intricacies associated with editing scientific documents. From his accidental entry into editing early in his science career, Matthew Stevens shares his 12 years of experience addressing some of the ‘faults of scientific writing’ that are often encountered. This book aims to address both the vagaries of this specific type of editing and to provide a succinct overview of some of the key editing concepts. An extensive table of contents helps the reader locate any particular broad issue for which they want quick answers; the index helps with the more nitty gritty points. Matthew starts by exploring substantive editing and expands upon some useful lists from other sources to come up with a plan of attack for science texts. Using the concept of an ‘editorial Gestalt of a document – understanding it as a whole, not just the parts’ a very practical strategy for approaching scientific editing is provided. A series of seven ‘passes’ are outlined that can reduce the risk of missing anything important - completeness, spelling, local meaning (at the sentence and paragraph level), figure and table citations, meaning (local and overall – assimilating the various facts), references, inserted comments.

The following sections introduce items such as common errors of writing (filler words, hesitancies etc.), errors of substance or sequence (such as unsupported statements, unaddressed aims, lack of agreement), errors of reasoning (false assumptions, tautologies, statistical clumping). After discussing some of the flaws, Matthew then moves on to ways to improve scientific written expression by focusing on abbreviations, using active versus passive voice, examining the order of events, and using Plain English in science. Within all these areas useful examples are shown and a common sense explanation is given. Visual presentation is given its own section, highlighting a particular bête noire – using word processor functions for graphics with the simple instruction – don’t! Considerable details are given to help editors improve the appearance of scientific graphs. There are then 26 pages listing tricky or misused terms and errors in classical language as applied to science texts. This encompasses aspects relating to the use of terms such as: respectively, parameters, due to, base on, using, while, and with. Matthew provides clear examples showing ways these terms can be used to both obscure and to clarify scientific concepts. The appendices include a section on editing techniques, wordy phrases, British versus US spelling, and non-displaying and Unicode characters. Finally, the bibliography gives readers an extensive list of texts, web and software resources that can make the job of the scientific editor so much easier.

In this book the author has shared his expertise and various ‘trick of the trade’ within a specialised field of editing in a way that can prove very useful to editors dealing with ‘science speak’. One of the most beneficial components is the way that he clarifies sentence structure and expression to ensure that the scientific meaning is not confused. Overall, this book would be a very helpful resource for editors working with scientific documents.

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