Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The T-Word

A colleague is writing a proposal with a large number of other scientists and recently sent around a draft for the group to read, discuss, and edit. One member of this group commented only that the writing was "turgid". Ouch.

The dictionary definition of turgid includes words such as swollen, bloated, and pompous. Turgid is not a nice word, but I suppose it's somewhat kinder than its synonyms.

I tend to be a rather fierce editor, but I have read the proposal draft and I'm not exactly sure what about it is turgid. If the proposal draft said:

We are requesting that the funding fall in torrents -- except at occasional intervals when checked by violent gusts of annual reports which sweep through the internets (for it is in the National Science Foundation that our hopes lie), transforming this planetary body and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the broader impacts that struggle against the darkness of the unempowered. [apologies to Bulwer-Lytton]

then maybe you would have a case for calling the writing turgid. Otherwise, I don't see how anyone could reasonably say that what my colleague has written thus far registers in any significant way on the logarithmic Turgidity Scale.

I have never tried this particular editorial approach: making a somewhat savage comment but not providing anything more specific or constructive. I think I will not be in a hurry to try it out on anyone, though. In the case of students, it would be extraordinarily mean, and in the case of colleagues, it's a good way to have your input ignored unless you also provide more specific advice, if not some actual editing.

21 comments:

Anonymous said...

Maybe they meant "turbid", meaning "not really clear". Turgid is often applied to male-only anatomy and dead bodies...not writing.

Aspiring FSP said...

Love this.

Alicia M Prater said...

It's likely that the commenter doesn't know the definition of the word. I come across such instances quite often when I'm editing, which is what I do professionally. It's amazing how narrow many scientists' vocabularies are, and how unaware of it they can be!

Comrade PhysioProf said...

I agree that generally speaking that kind of advice is not helpful, particularly when applied to an entire document. I will say that I did once encounter a paragraph in one of my trainees drafts that was so fucking horrendous, it was more than unclear or incomprehensible. It actually implied the exact fucking opposite of every single affirmative point we were trying to make with the piece as a whole. It was a limpet mine on the manuscript.

In that case, I just crossed out the entire paragraph, and wrote next to it, "This paragraph is so wrong in so many different ways, that I don't even know what to say." The trainee got the point.

But that is very different from just slapping a label on an entire document, or doing what I have heard of--but never actually seen: just writing "rewrite" on the first page of an entire document with no close editing whatsoever.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

Oh, and by the way, "turgid" is not always an insult.

Anonymous said...

I have a senior colleague who has actually written things like "The introduction is crap" on one of my papers but not bothered to add WHY or what I ought to do about it when revising. That kind of comment, untethered to a reason or a suggestion for change, is not helpful. I wonder what he does for his students - I hope he makes more of an effort to explain what they should change (though you would think that someone trying to mentor a junior colleague would also realize that said colleague might benefit from constructive criticism as well).

Anonymous said...

Sounds like someone resented having been made to read it, and is making their feelings known. That's my interpretation of the meta-message in that one-word comment anyway.

Thomas Joseph said...

If I was the author of the grant, and this was all that came from one of my collaborators, my response would be: Piss up a rope, dillweed. Oh, and since you can think you can do better ... do it, on your own grant.

Prof-like Substance said...

I think I recently had a paper reviewed by Dr. Scathing Comment With Nothing Specific To Back It Up With. That's always fun in review, but I can't imagine doing that to a colleague whom I plan to work with in the future. Nothing like making sure you burn your bridges by using napalm rather than be satisfied with mere matches.

Bill Ruhsam said...

This sounds like the perfect negotiation tactic of getting the negotiator to come down without you needing to provide a substantive counter offer.

"Turgid!" is proclaimed and the initial author furiously rewrites, exempting the commenter from any need to work on the first draft.

I may have to try that sometime.

catgirl said...

I think it's turgid to use the word "turgid", in the pompous sense of the meaning. It seems like this person was just trying to look to smart.

Anonymous said...

I have had that particular editorial approach tried on me, and it was all but efficient. It took me a while to get over (what I perceived as) the animosity of the comment before I could get back to writing.

John said...

One-word dismissals generally translate to "don't bother asking me to do this mundane chore, and the poor writing you're asking me to read is not helping your request". Rejection by dismissal, and a not a collegial tactic, but it's not intended to be.

I've seen this done by exalted people to people several levels down, and I'd agree it is inappropriate among colleagues or aimed at grad students.

I don't understand picking on the word turgid. It is just one of the thousands of English words, and one with several meanings relevant to writing. Half the web definitions in fact relate to writing. Bombastic, embellished, overcomplicated, boring.

It is disconcerting to see several people erroneously insult the narrow vocabulary of scientists.

Anonymous said...

I'll try to take the other side here. I don't think it's appropriate to PUBLICLY address a colleague's writing in this way, but I'd have no trouble telling a colleague in private "This writing sucks. Get it fixed, and then we can talk substance." Similarly, in a review, I would feel free to say, "This writing sucks, find a proofreader," without additional comment.

That may not seem constructive, but basic proofreading is a time-consuming task -- especially when the writing is bad -- and can be handled by a large variety of people. My value-add is maximized when I'm focused on how to improve the content and at the high level how the content is presented (e.g -- you say this is the main point of your work, but isn't it better to say that this is the main point, or isn't this aspect also hugely important?).

In short, I generally don't consider my job to do basic proofreading on your paper, and when you hand me a paper that's so poorly written I feel the need to comment on that aspect, you're wasting my time. Don't expect much back.

A senior MSP

amy said...

Brutal reviews are very common in the humanities, and "turgid" is a popular epithet. I've never got that one, but I have got "opaque", "unfocused", "overly simplistic", "derivative", "murky", "unpersuasive", and even "laughable". The most annoying was the comment: "I am not persuaded by this argument." There was no explanation of why, where the weak spots were, what counter-argument the person had in mind. They simply weren't persuaded; therefore, my paper was no good.

yolio said...

Uph. In grad school I had a committee member who was the king of the sweeping comment. He was all about taking relatively minor writing flaws and using them to call into question my command of the English language.

"Doesn't appear to be familiar with basic grammar" translated to: there are two comma splices in the first complete draft of a 150 page document. And "Is a lazy writer" translated to mild overuse of a simplistic, active voice sentence style.

It really threw me for a loop, because generally I am a better than average writer. I had never dealt with such sweeping attacks on my competence as a writer.

I suppose this experience left me with a thicker skin? After it drove me to tears a few times and reduced my morale to barely functional levels. Bastard.

Kriste said...

Most of the time when people I know use 'turgid' (especially to describe grant application prose) they tend to mean "hard to get through" or use it as a synonym for "dry" - so whilst they might be using it wrongly, it tends to be used in this way consistently in my experience.

What is usually being requested in these cases is that the text is made a bit more interesting and user friendly, but that there isn't anything wrong with the content per se.

Anonymous said...

Senior MSP, nobody expects a full rewrite, clearly. Personally when I review something I make a list of the typos I find, without too much effort in a paper... I don't bother for a grant. But when the problem is diffuse I put ONE example, and that's it. The guy can figure out the rest.

JFSP

Anonymous said...

I don't see the point of delivering a sharp but totally vague and uninformative criticism. It can only be to personally attack you because of any number of motivations: resenting being asked to read the document in the first place (but then why didn't they just say so?), feeling the need to be a bully because some people get a power trip or sense of superiority from that, maybe to 'punish' you for some other thing they are resenting about you....

If I received a criticism that was nothing more than "this is crap" and no constructive specifics, I would respond with "fine, then re-write it for me."

Ms.PhD said...

I've read plenty of turgid writing - mostly from my current PI trying to rewrite MY papers. It's a fucking nightmare.

Having said that, I've also gotten some of these extremely brusque and unjustified critiques, but usually about my science and usually from reviewers. I usually take it as a sign that I pissed someone off by showing they were wrong!

Kevin said...

The one-word review is laziness, whether the word is "turgid" or "great".

I only review about half a dozen papers a year, because it takes me many hours to do the review. Bad papers often take 3-4 pages of comments to explain to the authors where they messed up, and why there isn't a trivial writing patch for their incompetently done experiment.

Many of the authors I review are not native speakers of English, so I don't throw things back that are poorly phrased (though I often do comment on the need for a native-speaker as a copy editor).
I will return a paper if the English is so bad that I can't figure out what they are trying to say.

On a co-authored grant proposal, I would rewrite anything I didn't like.