Subtleties of Scientific Style

Reviewed by Richard Weisburd
Review of Matthew Stevens; Thornleigh, NSW, Australia: ScienceScape Editing, 2007. 103 pages. Softcover ISBN0-9578877-2-8. Available online. Softcover US12.00/A$15.00 + postage.

Substantive editing of research papers is a difficult task. The content is complex, technical, and original. The authors are intimately familiar with their own work, but not always aware of the difficulty that readers may have extracting meaning from the prose. Add to the mix the fact that the authors are writing in a foreign language, and you sometimes have the makings of impenetrable confusion. Venturing into the inner workings of an author’s text to not only fix spelling and grammar, but also unearth hidden meaning, is a daunting and sometimes Herculean task.

As the president of a scientific editing and translation company, one of my most difficult tasks is to vet prospective new editors. Even explaining how we want substantive editing done is hard, so I was excited to learn some time ago that Matthew Stevens was planning to distill the wisdom gained in his years of elite editing into a book. The book was published last spring, and it does not disappoint. Before proceeding to extol the virtues of Matthew’s compact little book, I must admit that I have collaborated with Matthew on research editing for more than 10 years and regard him as a good friend. Further, at his request, I critiqued a prepublication version; hence, I am not exactly impartial about Matthew, his editing, or this book.
imageMatthew begins by defining what substantive editing means, starting with quotes from authorities like Maeve O’Connor; he then proceeds to consideration of the importance of substantive editing, communication with authors, and his own approach to achieving effective substantive editing. Over the years, Matthew has developed a way to achieve a gestalt of editing that usually leads to superb results, even with poorly written source material. His explanation of how to achieve this gestalt is arguably the most original aspect of the whole book.
Matthew’s writing style is prescriptive, clear, friendly, and often funny. Although only 103 pages, the book contains a wealth of useful information. It is organized into sections beginning with an explanation of what substantive editing is, and continues with sections on Common errors, Errors of substance or sequence, Errors of reasoning, Improving expression, Improving visual presentation, Tricky or misused terms, five appendices (containing useful information, mostly of a technical nature), a bibliography, and an index.

Most of the book delves into particular problems common in research writing and ways of fixing them, including many before and after examples. I have used some of these examples in my research writing courses, and my students have found them enlightening. I felt particularly edified by the section about common miscommunication that results from using phrases like “x times larger than”; e.g., two times larger than really means three times the size. Throughout the book, Matthew emphasizes the importance of paying attention to what the words literally say (often something silly), and then questioning whether the descriptions match the data (sometimes, they don’t).

There are some issues in research writing about which there is a diversity of views. On some of these, like the superiority of active voice over passive for most research writing, Matthew is emphatic, but he presents the reasons for his strongly held views. He also cautions readers to follow the Instructions to Authors, “no matter how ludicrous you think they are.”

You need not simply take my word for the quality and value of Subtleties. The book is freely downloadable as a PDF from Matthew’s website. Have a look and decide for yourself. Matthew asks that you send him US$6 if you find the PDF useful (and I don’t receive a cut of that!). The PDF is fully searchable, which makes finding particular parts easy. For readers who prefer reading physical pages, a paperback printed copy is also available from the website for US$12 plus postage.

Subtleties is perhaps not comprehensive and systematic enough to serve either as the main text for classes in scientific editing or as a reference work to resort to when questions arise. More likely, interested readers will quickly read through the entire little book, chuckling as they go, and then later search the index or PDF for relevant sections when the need arises to look for details. Subtleties will certainly be useful to any editor of research manuscripts who wants to help authors clarify meaning. While examples are drawn mostly from biology, the principles explained extend to all the natural sciences and medicine and perhaps even to the social sciences and beyond. In addition, diligent researchers seeking to improve the quality of their written communication will find much of value here. Highly recommended!