T. Clifford Allbutt on Writing


I try to amuse myself, and the reader, with the same rhythm and tone of literary prose as the medical prose of Celsus, Watson, and Paget. Let me explain: If we try to make our words too fancy, the message gets lost and, like a painted woman, it becomes odious. Pater and Stevenson are not the worst writers, but when I see their “paint” I become boor-like and close the book. Despite their form, I wish for more substance – even with Virgil or Tennyson. While their art is good, their phrasing is wordy. Here’s an example: "I will answer him according to the multitude of his idols." The same can be said of Bright: "The Angel of Death is abroad through the land; we may almost hear the beating of his wings." By saying, "How far away it would have been had the orator said the flapping of his wings," the meaning gets lost. But this is literature, and from a sentimental standpoint it can’t be entirely eliminated. Still, rarely is scientific prose considered literature. Literature is not just the art of expression, it’s the creation of thought and emotion. It’s strength of understanding blended with the beauty of sound and cadence. Although scientific language should not be ignored, it should be a vehicle of the intellect, not sentimental thought: its discourse and knowledge should not be dismissed, nor consigned to the attic. But if it's written succinctly it retains its meaning and the aforementioned become less important. Like Ascham says: "It doth rather trot and hobble than run smoothly." In other words, bad prose is bad business. Hopefully the listener won’t be fooled or harmed by an author’s repeated bad prose, such as the following: "A more accommodating denomination is commonly given to it"; "Gratitude for his rectitude"; "an organisational centre of crystalisation"; "necessarily temporary"; "very nearly entirely"; "so that it at once commenced"; "the native rulers were as a rule," etc. Another report ended with, "unsolicitedly." It reminded me of a looper caterpillar. Here’s another: "This revelation was the inauguration of a new dispensation, not the termination; also this new dispensation … ," and, "Of all I have known he could least hold his own." Both contain untimely assonance and alien rhythms of verse. Perhaps the following will set your ear on edge and make you wish you had never read it: "recurrences of this kind are found to abound." Finally, in a passage of otherwise pleasant prose the following clause, though likely a deliberate jingle, really offended my ear: "one venial fault frustrated the effect.”

Sir T. Cliffort Allbutt, Notes on the Composition of Scientific Papers (1923)

(Allbutt's original narrative = 636 words: Recast = 428 words)


T. Clifford Allbutt on Writing


Beware the painted woman and long-winded scientist. They're both absolutely odious; offensive to the ear.

Sir T. Cliffort Allbutt, Notes on the Composition of Scientific Papers (1923)

(Allbutt's original narrative = 636 words: Recast = 15 words)
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