Science, Seuss and the Elements of Style

PoulsonTeachBy David Poulson
Most of my communications work with scientists and other researchers involves convincing them to write shorter, less jargon-filled sentences.
The payoff is improved public understanding that can build a constituency for what they do.
But now there is evidence of another payoff – one that is more direct, measurable and involves the coin of their realm: academic citations.

Researchers at Britain’s Warwick Business School reported Wednesday that the shorter the title of a science paper, the more likely it is to be cited by other academics. That’s according to, a leading science, research and technology news service.
The impact isn’t trivial, said the study published in the Royal Society Open Science journal. The researchers examined citations of 140,000 papers with titles as short as one word and a long as 55 words.
They found that each character added to a paper’s title reduced citations by 1.78 percent, according to
An example: “The role of particle morphology in interfacial energy transfer in CDSE/CDS heterostructure nanocrystals,” was cited 68 times. But “A draft sequence of the neandertal genome” was cited 700 times.
Research is nice, but of course any journalist will tell you that the “omit needless words” admonition of William Strunk and E.B. White is the most powerful sentence in their “Elements of Style.” That’s saying a lot for what is perhaps the most influential book on writing ever published.
“Omit needless words” has an elegance that delivers a communications punch by following its own advice.
I tell my environmental journalism students to think of constructing a story as if they were engineering a fuel-efficient vehicle. But instead of miles per gallon, success is measured by increasing meaning per word.
You can go too far. The Warwick paper on brevity is titled “The advantage of short paper titles.” Researcher Adrian Letchford said it would have been a mistake to call it “Paper titles” or “Titles.”
But my favorite argument for writing longer comes from Dr. Seuss, who wrote “Green eggs and ham” on a bet that he couldn’t write a book with fewer than 50 unique words.
Seuss’s advice on writing short is consistent with Strunk and White’s. But it is delivered in a manner that does not omit needless words. Here it is:

It has often been said
there’s so much to be read,
you never can cram
all those words in your head.
So the writer who breeds
more words than he needs
is making a chore
for the reader who reads.
That’s why my belief is
the briefer the brief is,
the greater the sigh
of the reader’s relief is.
And that’s why your books
have power and strength.
You publish with shorth!
(Shorth is  better than length.)

That’s good stuff powerfully delivered. And it just goes to show that it isn’t so much the number of words. It’s whether those words engage readers.
Nonetheless, until you master the lyricism of Seuss, my advice: Be brief.