by Rob Dunn
We are working on a new book in the lab called The Book of Invisible Life. In this book, we will compile stories about microscopic species, stories written by both professional writers and by scientists. The scientists involved have been asking for tips about writing for the public and so I composed of list of suggestions. These suggestions are biased as a function of my experience and preferred writing style. They are also biased in as much as my original intended audience was scientists unaccustomed to writing for the public.
1-It is about the people. Let’s say that your topic is Chlamydia. I know and you know that you can write something perfectly interesting about Chlamydia without mentioning people, but the truth is the article will be more interesting if includes people. Readers want to hear about people. If your story is about Chlamydia, it is really about Chlamydia and people. If you don’t know anyone with Chlamydia find someone who does, or, perhaps less awkwardly, find out who revealed the biological story of Chlamydia (seems to be this amazing and rarely written about fellow–http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stanislaus_von_Prowazek).
2-Your story needs a happening part. If you string together paragraphs of facts, you have not written a story. You have written a textbook and for as much as teachers tell students otherwise, textbooks are boring. Something needs to happen in the story and then either resolve or conspicuously fail to resolve. What happens can be funny. It can be serious. It can be funny and then serious and then funny again, but it has to happen (Conspicuously, I have given this advice in post in which absolutely nothing happens).
3-It is easier to write a simple story. Look, while you are reading this you are thinking of ways around my suggestions. “Oh,” you might think, “I could write a compelling story without mention of people or characters in which absolutely nothing happens. It will be about a rare beetle.” I bet you could. I believe in you. But to do so is to do things the hard way. Just a piece of advice here. If you are just starting in science writing, you might want to avoid always doing things the hard way.
4-Nouns not adjectives (see more on this from the brilliant Stephen King). The temptation in writing a story is to use piles of adjectives to describe the beauty, awe, tininess, sublimity, grandness and awkward bumbling of whatever it is you are writing about. Don’t. Use strong nouns and verbs. Write simple sentences.
5—Sound like you (I stole this one from Kurt Vonnegut). Your voice should be your own. If you are writing what someone else could write, well, you can take it easy and let them do it.
6-Be relevant. Scientists are trained to study marginal topics. Suggest to a PhD candidate that they might focus on a common relevant species and they will, with a natural inevitability, disappear into the rain forest to study something obscure instead. Perhaps it is reasonable for scientists to focus on the obscure; in the margins we hope for big discoveries others missed. It is not reasonable for writers, unless, in that obscure, the reader can see a broader story, a story relevant to millions of people.
Image 1. Me, with longer hair (or even just hair), in Bolivia where I went to study something obscure.
7-Tell the readers what they want to know (Pity the reader).Write for the readers. When I talk about ants, people almost always ask, “what should I do about ants in my kitchen?” It took me a decade to realize this was my listener/reader saying, “this is the only way your topic was even remotely interesting to me.” You don’t have to give readers the answers they want, but if the reader has a natural reason for caring about your topic, don’t avoid it. Your goal as a writer is to engage as many people as possible in ways that might affect their lives. This stands in contrast to your goal when writing scientific papers which is, as near as I can figure, to write a paper that appeals to thirty people and, in doing so, avoid affecting them in any real way (lest they give you an unfavorable review).
8-Even if it is not about people, it is about people.
9-If you write about scientists, make them human. This doesn’t mean make them seem ordinary if they are not. Scientists include ordinary people. Now that I’ve said that, let’s be more honest, they also include a fair number of folks incapable of navigating the aisles of the supermarket. Tell it like it is—I know a scientist who walked to work wearing two different shoes and only realized it on the way home (OK, that was me, but I digress)—but even odd scientists have ordinary struggles. By making scientists human you let the readers know scientists have daily struggles, problems buying cars, issues finding the right the schools for their kids. You want your reader to relate to the characters in your story.
10-Know your stuff. You need to know a story better to write about it for the public than you need to do to write about it for scientists. To write about a story for non-scientists you need to capture the big story and explain complex topics in ways intelligible to folks for whom the topics are new. Don’t shy away from complex ideas, but explain them with clarity. Doing this requires you to know the details AND the broad picture. Imagine you are trying to figure out things about the field you are writing about that the experts missed.
11-Tritrophic is not a real word. Your reader does not know the words tritrophic, ecological assemblage, genomics or parthenogenesis. That is not because your reader is dumb. It is because scientists made up those words and never told anyone but other scientists. Don’t underestimate the intelligence of your readers. Readers can be very clever, but it is not their job to know all of the words that you and the twelve people you call colleagues made up.
12-Share your joy. You are writing about science because you like science. Your reader is reading about science because he or she likes science. If you share your joy in a piece of the scientific world the reader may well feel joy too. If they do, they might send you a letter and you will feel joy again (After thinking, “I’ll be dammed, an actual paper letter.).
13-Your story can turn at the end in a way that changes the perspective of the reader. It is a great sensation if, at the end of the story, we see the topic you are writing about in a new light. In a short article, this turn is most easily made in the last paragraph. If you are writing a book, well, you have bigger problems.
14-Delete. Cut mercilessly (says the guy who has just written a 1300 word list). Cut extra words. Cut paragraphs. Be wariest of sentences and paragraphs you love; they have a tendency to stick around even when they don’t help. As Arthur Quiller-Couch said, murder your darlings. Delete whole essays. Winnow. Writing improves with practice and winnowing is part of practice. Fill your trashcans with attempts. Fill them with whole books. Share what is left over, the cut stone of a story, a stone that anyone would agree shines. Then start over, and when you do, remember it is about the people.