Clinical Tone: Declassified
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Foreword

clin·i·cal
ˈklinək(ə)l/
adjective
1.
of or relating to the observation and treatment of actual patients rather than theoretical or laboratory studies.
"clinical medicine"
2.
efficient and unemotional; coldly detached.

One of the most iconic aspects of the SCP Foundation is how it reduces all the spooky, scary things that go bump in the night into objects that are contained and described with science. It's also one of the most difficult aspects to grasp when writing an SCP; telling a ghost story is much easier than writing a research article, and 'your tone needs to be more clinical' is one of the most common and vaguest, most unhelpful pieces of feedback that a budding author can hear. This essay attempts to clarify that feedback and offer concrete, useful suggestions for improvement.

These are not official rules of any kind. This is not a guide to writing interview logs, journal entries, or format screws. I don't claim to be the (or even an) expert on this, and freely admit that I have not always adhered to the following guidelines. However, I'm doing my best to reduce my hypocrisy and I've been told that I'm very good at improving others' clinical tone. With that out of the way, let's begin.


Clinical ≠ Verbose

The two most basic tenets of clinical writing are:

  • Avoid contractions
  • Avoid colloquialisms

The first tenet is easy to grasp and easy to implement: If you have any contractions such as "Won't" and "Could've", replace them with the full terms such as "Will not" or "Could have". Unfortunately, the second tenet is not so easy to grasp and often misinterpreted. Everyday speech - no matter the language - is comprised of colloquialisms that make sentences shorter, simpler, and easier to understand. Many of these colloquialisms are so common and ubiquitous that we don't even recognize them as such.

Scientific and clinical documents, however, rarely (if ever) allow for colloquialisms, no matter how common; they demand the technical terminology. Making an article more clinical does not automatically mean using bigger words - it means eliminating colloquialisms and maintaining professionalism. Scientific articles need to be clinical - but they also need to be concise and readable.

Let's look at an article that has achieved clinical tone without compromising its story: SCP-186. One of the core aspects of SCP-186's horror is the weaponry involved, such as:

Mortar shells specially designed to be fired from a Mortier de 58mm type 2, containing a gas that causes animal cells to become unable to cease life function

If the average person were asked to describe the aforementioned weapon, they might describe it as a gas that makes people immortal, or that keeps people from dying. 'Immortal' probably isn't clinical, but 'die' is, right?

The SCP Wiki's standards are not identical to those of real-life scientific articles; the wiki's standards are simplified approximations of said articles and feature a few quirks of their own. One of those quirks is that 'die' is often considered nonclinical and gets replaced with words such as 'expire'. A corollary of this taboo is that the verb 'kill' always gets replaced with verbs such as 'eliminate' or 'terminate'.

Returning to SCP-186, notice how Kalinin replaced "die" with "cease life function". The sentence lost its colloquialism and became longer in the process. This is crucial - the sentence became longer because the clinical term happened to be longer, not the other way around. Many authors incorrectly assume that making a sentence longer automatically makes it more clinical, which causes them to seek out 'more clinical alternatives' to phrases like 'the light will switch off' even though that phrase is already clinical.

Strive to keep your article professional and concise. The KISS principle has been an integral part of engineering for almost sixty years; make it an integral part of engineering your SCPs as well.

Keep in Mind

  • The Technical Words Guide is a terrific resource for you to peruse if you're unsure about phrases such as 'Cherenkov radiation', need to make sure you're using 'velocity' correctly vs 'acceleration', or just want to double-check your prefixes.
  • While the use of passive voice (i.e. "the sandwich is to be eaten" v.s. "eat the sandwich") is hotly debated by style guides and English instructors worldwide, the wiki encourages passive voice in the containment procedures as a quirk that helps further depersonalize the narrative.

Quantitative Measurement

No scientist or engineer worth their salt would ever forgo numbers in a research paper or technical document of any kind. Using quantitative measurements, even estimates, is a crucial part of legitimizing real-life research because they are concrete, recorded pieces of data that can be easily compared to and referenced.

SCP-1512 is one of the gold standards of using quantitative measurement to maintain clinical tone. In spikebrennan's words, 1512 "is the Foundation confronting some kind of squamous, rugose Lovecraftian horror from an incomprehensible non-Euclidean dimension of space-time… as an engineering problem." This feat of writing is accomplished through judicious usage of quantitative measurements.

SCP-1512 is a root-like organic structure with an estimated mass in excess of 80,000 metric tons at present. It consists of a dense and knotted network of long branches or tendrils. Each tendril is several hundred meters in length, with additional branches every few meters, and coil or zig-zag in various directions with no discernible pattern.

We learn that SCP-1512 is a gigantic eldritch root-like being, but spikebrennan does not simply call it "a gigantic eldritch root-like being"; we are given an estimate of its mass (in the tens of thousands of tons) and length (numerous tendrils, each hundreds of meters long). Spikebrennan provides a measured, quantified estimate that can be referred to later.

Admittedly, size is an easy attribute to quantify. What about something a little trickier? How could you write "SCP-1512 is invincible" without sounding like a scientist in a cartoon?

Despite SCP-1512's apparently organic composition, it has an unmeasurably high Vickers hardness and has proven immune to damage by cutting, burning, lasers, corrosive acids and similar substances, and other means.

This sentence lays out that SCP-1512 is invincible and remains clinical throughout by explicitly listing unsuccessful methods of harming 1512 with units of impenetrability: specifically, Vickers units of hardness. Although the article never actually says what those units are, it skirts the problem with the phrase "an unmeasurably high Vickers hardness". With judicious quantitative measurements, spikebrennan paints a vivid, concrete picture of this eldritch beast from beyond - without compromising the article's clinical tone.

Incorporating quantitative measurement is a relatively simple, yet highly effective method of improving the clinical tone of an article. This doesn't mean you should try to turn every aspect of your SCP into a numerical value (the over-usage of fictional units like Humes come to mind) - but the next time you want to describe an aspect of your SCP, do a little research and see if there's a scientific unit for it. You might be surprised at what you find.

Keep in Mind

  • Quantitative measurements are great, but don't overdo it - unless the SCP will blow up the planet if its cell is not exactly 5.6789 cubic meters or its anomaly is caused by it being 1.23456 meters tall, just round to the nearest tenth ( or, at most, hundredth). Random but Useful also offers useful tips on quantitative measurements and significant digits.

Qualitative Description

Qualitative measurement is as overused and abused as quantitative is underused. This is because any description that doesn't involve numbers or units is qualitative - which is the majority of writing, and frequently results in overly verbose, flowery, non-clinical writing, especially when writing human[oid] SCPs.

The two most basic rules of clinical qualitative descriptions are:

  • What you see is what you describe: The description of your SCP should be concise and focused on its actions and physical/anomalous traits. If your SCP has blue eyes, say it has blue eyes. Not piercing blue eyes or deep blue eyes - just blue eyes. Unless the SCP's personality is anomalous or contributes to its danger (i.e. it's hostile to Foundation researchers), it doesn't warrant more than a short sentence in the description and would probably be better off in an interview or incident log.
  • The object is dead to you: You literally do not care about the anomaly. It's worth less than a discarded snack wrapper. When describing it, you have no sympathy. You don't speculate on what it thinks or how it feels. That's the reader's job - yours is simply to describe what the anomaly is and does at face value.

SCP-847 is a terrific example of crisp, clinical descriptions.

Initial stage behaviors involve emitting vocalizations resembling high-pitched whimpering gasps and adopting more provocative poses. After 3-5 minutes of the initial stage, SCP-847's behavior enters a secondary stage, during which it becomes fully animate, approaching any male subject, adopting a hunched pose and appearing to look up into the subject's eyes.

"High-pitched whimpering gasps", "provocative poses", and "appearing to look up into the subject's eyes" are simple, precise descriptions that help us visualize 847's actions. From these descriptions, we can immediately infer that SCP-847 is trying to act seductive, sexy, and sultry towards men. Crucially, the article never uses terms like sexy or sultry, nor does it speculate on why 847 acts in such a way. It merely describes 847's actions in a way that lets the reader paint a mental picture of and characterize 847 themselves. The ending is particularly gripping:

12/3/2011: WHAT'S WRONG WITH ME

3/8/2013: I'M SORRY I'M WORTHLESS

8/31/2015: DADDY I'LL BE GOOD

The author, WrongJohnSilver, explains his intentions behind the piece: "The other reason I made it as difficult as possible to tell what SCP-847 is, is that no matter what, it has very strongly the aura of a person driven to mental illness from a lifetime of abuse…. if there's a person inside, there's something worth saving. There's compassion there. I have to strip out so much humanity from SCP-847 just for us to begin to think that maybe it's an object."

The description does not ever say this. It is merely an animate mannequin that does different things in the presence of different people. There is no sympathy. No hatred. No feeling. All of the abuse suffered by 847, all of the psychological torment it exhibits, and all the tragedy it displays are exclusively intimated by the reader.

That is the key to clinical qualitative descriptions. You, the author, can be as invested as you want; but you, the actual writer, must be as detached as possible.

Keep in Mind

  • Your wording should be as unambiguous as possible. This doesn't mean dump your entire headcanon about the SCP onto the page; you want the reader to ask questions about what's implied or unwritten. But if the majority of readers have to ask clarifying questions about what's actually written on the page, that's the author's fault.

Conclusion

What should you think about when writing in a clinical tone?

  • Avoid contractions
  • Avoid colloquialisms
  • Incorporate quantitative measurements
  • What you see is what you describe
  • The object is dead to you

Hitting all these boxes might not guarantee perfectly clinical tone - that only comes with practice - but it should get you extremely close to that mark.

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