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“Writing style” vs. “content”: Watson & Crick’s example

November 5th, 2008 by
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Recently I attended a scientific writing workshop by Rona Urau and Susannah Goss here at MPI, Berlin.

Plenty of interesting stuff that I’d like to share here. I was under the impression that style doesn’t matter all that much; but the workshop changed my mind. And there is a paper that uses Watson    and Crick’s famous Nature paper as an example of how much style matters. There was a key paper on the same ideas by Avery et al. that was completely eclipsed by the success of Watson    and Crick’s. The key difference? Style and rethoric.

Watson    and Crick  were  extremely  concise;  their paper is only about 900 words long. Avery  et  al.  were  verbose;  their paper  is  about  7,500  words  long. They also were persuasive and used first-person statements (Avery et al. used "the authors"). They stated the importance of their work on the first paragraph, while Avery et al. never made any claims about the importance of their work.

From Urau and Goss’ materials:

And any of you still wondering how attention to stylistic aspects can help get your work published may be interested in the following statistic: "Inadequate writing can slow or prevent publication of scientific research. According to an editor of Evolution for example, poor writing is almost as frequent a reason for rejecting a manuscript as is flawed experimental design or analysis; nearly 50% of rejected papers are so poorly written that reviewers and editors cannot understand the experimental design, analysis, or interpretation (Endler 1992). My informal survey of editors of other biological journals suggests that this percentage is typical." (Moore, R. [1994]. Writing as a tool for learning biology. BioScience 44, 613-617.)


Avery, O.T. , C.M. MacLeod, and M. McCarty.  1944.  Studies on the chemical nature of the substance inducing  transformation  of  pneumococcal  types.  Journal  of  Experimental  Medicine  79:  137-158. 

Watson,  J.D.  and  F.H.C.  Crick.    1953.    Molecular  structure  of  nucleic  acids:  a  structure for deoxyribose nucleic
acid.” Nature 171: 737-738.

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