Cassie Rodenberg: Electron-ic Bonds

To be simple or to be clear, that is the question.
January 28, 2009, 10:38 am
Filed under: Musings, Science, Writing

Today, someone said I sounded “too smart.” Funny how events turn.

As a child, you crave adulthood, only hoping someone would recognize your self-diagnosed above-average intelligence. The bigger the word, the better. “Look what I know!”

As a science writer, being deemed “too smart” is a wounding comment, to say the least. It equates to saying, “you’re no good at your job” or “go into another field.” That’s what you’re supposed to do, break things down, bring ideas within the reach of the public.

However, my “too smart” writing was found in my evolving journal article on psychological research, specifically dealing with how the public views science. A journal is not intended for the “public” nor the bag boy at the grocery store. The grapevine goes from journal (to optional PR release) to news story. The public is a least two generations away from reading my scintillating research.

You might ask, just what was this sentence? What have I done wrong? The search light falls on one sentence and upon one word in particular – “perceive.” Perceive, really? Would such a word baffle colleagues, members of the scientific community or even a ninth grader? 

I was advised to dumb down the sentence. Should the phrase “scientists perceive the public opinion on science” be made more simple? How about “scientists think that the public’s thoughts on science…?” More simple…yes. More confusing…yes.

It boils down to: should simplicity take precedence over clarity? Unfortunately, Webster’s didn’t make those two words equivalent. (Notice, I avoided using the term “synonymous,” for all those illiterate scientists reading.)


5 Comments so far
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“should simplicity take precedence over clarity? ”

That sounds too smart.

Just kidding. In this particular case, the simplicity is coming at the expense of clarity and even plain literary quality. If anything , you’d be doing the vocabularies of any who don’t understand the word “percieve” a favour – by making them at least look it up.

Comment by Nash

There are plenty of science writers who go straight to the journals to find news, skipping the whole “press release” part. I’m just saying!

Comment by Mary

You’re right; how could I have forgotten to mention journals? I’ll edit now!

Comment by cassierodenberg

But if you edit, how will readers know that you’ve changed the text? If changes can be made without any record of them, what does that say for the future of journalism as a “record”?

Comment by Mary

Well, if something is unclear, wrong or can be made better, aren’t we as journalists obliged to fix it? If the system logged the updates, the original publication date would be lost as would the piece’s original seat in time.

Comment by cassierodenberg

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