I’ve written highly technical science articles, and I’ve written fiction. Although I learned a lot about well-written prose from Strunk and White, my experience has shown me distinct differences between writing science and writing fiction. I’ve been thinking about the differences for a week or so. Yesterday I read Caroline Lodge’s Book Work blog at www.bookword.co.uk “What I write about when I’m not writing fiction.” I decided the time had come for me to share my experiences.
I spent about twenty years working as a research scientist. During that time, I wrote a number of articles about my work. I also wrote a book about research relating to chalk reservoirs that contain oil and gas. At the time, I didn’t consider myself a professional writer; a quick read of my work back then easily shows that. I wrote better than my colleagues, but that represented a pretty low bar.
That changed in 2000 when I started writing for a science journal. The company paid me to write for forty (plus) hours a week. I discovered the fine points of critiques. And by that, of course, I mean the finely honed swords of my more experienced colleagues slicing bleeding red holes through my beautiful words. In addition to the other editors’ critiques, technical contributors to the article weighed in on my failings. For one article, I had feedback from twenty-two individuals. Fortunately, by the time I did that article, I knew how to handle the multiple and sometimes contradictory feedback about both technical and writing issues. We also worked with an experienced copy editor, to whom I learned to say yes ma’am about 98% of the time.
The journal staff—especially the copy editor—had a vested interest in helping me improve my writing. Later, I became executive editor, and I trained others to write in the voice and style of the journal.
In one way, writing scientific articles is easy: just the facts, ma’am. This was more straightforward when I reported my own research, but even when I wrote review articles on topics that I previously knew little or nothing about, I had access to experts in the field and spent time reading and understanding their research.
OK, it’s really not that easy, or anyone could do it. If you can absorb a highly technical topic within three months and teach it to interested professionals in an 8,000-word, understandable article, and then do it again and again, I know a job for you. I did it for eleven years.
We wrote review articles. That meant we covered a wide range of topics for a general technical audience.
Like most any other kind of writing, first we hooked readers into starting the article. We used a variety of methods, of course. Examples included novelty, connecting a specific topic to a general framework, controversy, and even on occasion human interest. Then the article either moved from the general to the specific, or from the specific to the general, whichever worked better.
The article had to tell a story. If it just jumped from fact to fact, readers fell away quickly. In our case, after a compelling introduction, we usually transitioned to the science behind the technology, moving toward the specific application to a new tool or service being described. Most articles ended with examples from the field. Transitions between these sections were important. The reader needed to see the connections from the introduction to the science, into the engineering and technological application, and from that into the examples. Whenever possible, a geographical or topical connection from one example to another made the article read more smoothly.
Fiction writers should recognize these needs. Hook the readers, tell them a good story, and keep them reading through the transitions of the story. But some important areas for fiction didn’t fit with our science writing.
No character point of view crept in; although technically the writing was third person omniscient, we had no characters’ minds to peek into. Writing science usually does not require dialog. In our case, even quotations were virtually nonexistent. We made that a style choice, but a natural one. And of course, the article included no emotional beats or character reactions.
We wrote with a distinct voice, a collegial voice. How would an expert explain the topic to the scientist down the hall who is expert in a different field? Jargon had to be avoided or explained, but once the article discussed a difficult concept, we assumed the reader understood it.
Passive constructions are difficult to avoid in technical writing, but we did what we could. Many articles by scientists—the source material for some of our writing—have sentences like this:
“The substance was weighed. Then it was partitioned into two parts. The first part was spun in a centrifuge, then the liquid was siphoned off. The second part was heated until the fluid evaporated and the solid residue was collected.”
God forbid the scientist admits his or her actions in writing. To get past this issue, we often created a person to perform these steps. Well, usually a generic title rather than a specific person.
“The technician weighed the substance and divided it into two parts. After centrifuging the first part, the technician siphoned off the liquid. Heating the second part evaporated the fluid, leaving a solid residue for analysis.”
If we could have given a gender to the technician, this could have been shortened more, but the “he or she” construction is awkward.
Other constructions using state of being verbs appear often in scientific writing.
“The area was clear of debris before the explosive test.”
“The languages were unknown.”
“The subject was taller than most others.”
In fiction, sentences like these cry for more powerful verbs, but much of science describes a state or condition, making such sentences difficult to avoid or eradicate.
Graphics provided one advantage in writing scientific articles, and my journal maintained a substantial graphics budget. A well-done graphic is truly worth a thousand words.
Remember that when you have a cover designed.
Tomorrow, I’ll talk about my transition to writing fiction over this past year.