I have nights when I wake up at three and have great difficulty returning to that blissful state whence I came.

I have nights when I wake up at three and have great difficulty returning to that blissful state whence I came. After half an hour of sleeplessness I normally turn to reading as a remedy. Recently while skimming through a bedside anthology of quotations I discovered the advice that I had missed all those years ago when I was starting my career.  

The quote: ’Make him (the reader) laugh and he will think you a trivial fellow, but bore him in the right way and your reputation is assured.’ W Somerset Maugham.  

Had I then but known this eternal truth I would have reached those heights where I could have demanded concise double spaced one page summaries rather than having to write them for my boss to give to his boss to give to the great man.  

My mistake was that I believed it was a scientist’s duty to write clear prose, and whenever I gave a talk I attempted to lighten my message by including the odd merry quip. Big mistake. 

The way to get on in this world is to write such indigestible prose that the reader needs to read your writings three times to understand them. There appears to be a strong inverse correlation between position in society and readability of prose. The medical profession enjoys a high status because amongst other reasons they have invented their own language, difficult for the laity to understand.  

My wife was suffering from a severe pain in the leg and visited our GP. His diagnosis was sciatica. We nodded wisely. We later found out that the word meant a pain in the leg.  

Further evidence can be found in the US department of labor median salary list for various occupations. Three of the top four professions are medical, and lawyers come sixth. If you ever read a contract it will be clear that lawyers too have their own language. Chemists are halfway up the list above actors, postmen and nurses, but well below physicists and mathematicians. The latter can use terms like ’Eigenvalue’ without blushing, even though it would be clearer to use ’characteristic value’, but it doesn’t sound as learned.  

It must be clear that the stairs to the boardroom are built on sentences, the more difficult the better. There are several techniques that can thicken one’s prose.  

’So called’ is a useful tool. The phrase originally meant the expression that follows is totally untrue. As an example: ’my so called life’ is not worth living. In Germany it is used to mean ’this expression will be new to you’. There is a growing tendency for ’so called’ to be used by English speakers in its German page-filling but meaningless sense. So you can scatter the term in your reports like parsley across a braised steak, improving its appearance without increasing its nutritional value.  

Another valuable technique to increase the jargon index is the abbreviation. Few however can aspire to the heights of the engineer who used the term AMD (air movement device) to mean fan. However, one can use a familiar abbreviation to mean something else, for example, to me AA means Analytical Abstracts or atomic absorption, but it can also be used for acetic, arachidonic , or amino acid, activation analysis. This can greatly slow down the reader. 

A useful procedure is to never write a short word when a long expression will do: ’employ’ sounds much more learned than ’use’, for example.  

Finally, as demonstrated here, the value of the clause in extending sentences should not be underestimated, because this simple but effective technique when well employed, although unfashionable these days, can give rise to sentences that are of paragraph length, which will mark the chemist aspiring to be a member of the board as suitable material and he or she will find the extra effort in perusing Roget’s Thesaurus will be amply repaid in his or her emolument or pay to put it more simply. 

Neil Forsyth