An eloquent plea for emulation (book review)

Lisette van Hulst

Writing about science is a skill best learned by imitating excellent examples, says Scott L. Montgomery, author of the revised and extended 2nd edition of The Chicago Guide to Communicating Science.

The title might suggest that this Guide was written for people who want to communicate science. However, the manual also addresses research scientists who are reluctant to try their hand at writing (‘Don’t all scientists hate to write?’) and those who feel that oral presentations are ‘the penance to be paid for a poor career choice’.
The author himself, a geologist who also majored in English, writes with an infectious pleasure in eloquence. Scott Montgomery refutes the idea that scientists are bound to be awkward communicators. Instead, he states that communication is ‘part of the essence’ of scientific research.
The bulk of the book is devoted to communication among scientists, but the second edition also includes a new chapter on communicating science to the public. Montgomery claims that ‘now, more than ever before’, all scientists should also be able to ‘translate professional knowledge into common forms of discourse’, which require ‘altogether a different skill set, a very valuable one to own.’
The Guide’s second edition was also updated on the use of the internet and social media: “Blogging can be a successful career move.” Moreover, it contains new material on where scientific research generally takes place – far more in industry than in academia – as well as new chapters on plagiarism and fraud, writing a graduate thesis, science translation and how to be an effective and responsible source to the media.

Room for play
Montgomery’s main advice for aspiring authors is to select well-written examples and to ‘internalize’ them in order to develop ‘an ear for what sounds right’ for a particular type of text. ‘Recognizing good writing for what it is can be the first step to doing it yourself.’
To support the selection process, Montgomery elucidates the qualities that identify ‘functional’ scientific writing. For those who aim for excellence, he demonstrates how creativity and elegance can be employed within the confines of editorial etiquette: ‘There is certainly room here and there for play, whether this involves chiseling a suggestive phrase or coining a clever term.’
Throughout the book, the author generates great expectations regarding ‘chapter 19’, where he promises to present the skills required for writing and speaking to non-technical audiences. Unfortunately, however, that chapter is altogether too brief to offer much direction in dodging the difficulties of science communication. Undoubtedly Montgomery has much more to offer in this field, considering his extensive experience and the well-informed opinions he offers in various other chapters.
So yes, selecting models for emulation is a valuable suggestion, and Montgomery’s own writing provides excellent examples for all who aim to elevate their eloquence. This Guide may certainly help to improve scientific communication among peers, but scions of science communication will have to wait for the Chicago Guide to Communicating Science to the Public.