DNA, Nobel Prizes, and Succinct Writing


Am Fam Physician. 2003 Nov 15;68(10):1930-1931.

Fifty years ago, Watson and Crick1 reported the double-helical structure of DNA that would eventually earn them the Nobel Prize. Given the far-reaching implications of their report, it was notable in its brevity—occupying a single page in Nature,1 and weighing in at only 903 words.

A frequent lament I hear from authors is that their topics require more space than our standard guideline for length (about 2,000 words). When this happens, I think about the scene from the film, A River Runs Through It, in which the stern father looks over the homework essay of his young son, who must finish this task before he can go fly-fishing. More than once, he tells his son to go back to work and cut it in half. I also recall the quote: “I would have written you a shorter letter, but I didn't have time.” Now, I'm going to add Watson and Crick's pithy piece to this Trifecta of calls for brevity in writing.

Every author should keep readers foremost in mind—how much time do they want to spend reading a clinical review? Readers value articles that are short and readable, and that readily convey the important points. And isn't the point in writing an article to actually have it read?

Watson and Crick's report shows that even complex topics and scientific breakthroughs do not have to be dense or verbose. They can and should be conveyed in plain, straightforward language, without unnecessary detail. In fact, looking over their report, I found about 50 words that could easily be cut without losing meaning. So, next time you set out to write, think short—think DNA—think Nobel Prize.

Jay Siwek, M.D., is editor of American Family Physician. He is professor and chair of the Department of Family Medicine, Georgetown University Medical Center, Washington, D.C.

Address correspondence to Jay Siwek, M.D., Department of Family Medicine, 212 Kober-Cogan Hall, Georgetown University Medical Center, 3800 Reservoir Rd., N.W., Washington, DC 20007. Reprints are not available from the author.


1. Watson JD, Crick FHC. Molecular structure of nucleic acids: a structure for deoxyribose nucleic acid. Nature 1953;171:737. Reprinted in: Ann Intern Med 2003;138:581. Also accessible at: http://www.nature.com/genomics/human/watson-crick.



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