Why do people become science writers?
Writing about science – and medicine, and IT – is incredible fun. It expands your worldview. It makes you interested in things you never imagined you could care about.
But to do it well takes some hard work. So a few mentors don’t hurt. Like who? How about Stephen King? Here are 12 rules for science writers from King’s “On Writing.” If you don’t have a copy, buy one.
“Writing has as much in common with sweeping the floor as with mythy moments of revelation.”
And a corollary:
“Sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position.”
Writing well about science, IT, or medicine is hard. Gathering facts is hard, sifting through them is harder still, and constructing the story is hardest of all. A piece of writing should feel silky and effortless when it’s done, but while you’re doing it, it should make you sweat.
“Construct your own far-seeing place.”
Your far-seeing space is where you do your research. Where you make connections. Where you think. Where you make your first attempts to organize your notes into coherence and then build them into the arc of a story.
Give yourself the most conducive-to-work space possible. It can be in an attic or a cellar, but don’t put your computer in front of a window. And make sure the room has a door.
“You must not come lightly to the blank page . . . This is writing, damn it, not washing the car or putting on eyeliner.”
This is not to say you shouldn’t have fun. (See above.) It’s means you need to take the work seriously enough not only to get your facts straight but – extremely important – to explain why they matter.
“Put your vocabulary on the top shelf of your toolbox.”
By this, King means using the vocabulary you already have rather than reaching for more elaborate words. You’re after clarity, not Victorian elegance.
“Grammar is not just a pain in the ass; it’s the pole you grab to get your thoughts up on their feet and walking.”
For writers who have been at their craft for a long time grammar ceases to be a pain in the ass because they don’t consciously have to think about what kinds of clauses they’re using or where the commas go. They learned the rules young and they’ve become ingrained, like knowing how to read music is to a violinist.
Younger writers may need to work to absorb grammar, but it can’t be ignored.
By the way, here’s King on the difference between American and British grammar:
“American grammar doesn’t have the sturdiness of British grammar (a British advertising man with a proper education can make magazine copy for ribbed condoms sound like the Magna goddam Carta), but it has its own scruffy charm.”
“The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”
You know this one. Adverbs are like weeds: you don’t notice the first one, but pepper the piece with them and they crowd out everything else.
“Never tell a thing if you can show it.”
The usual advice here is to use examples, and it’s good advice.
But “A Field Guide for Science Writers” (an exceptionally good read) makes the point that explaining what something is not is a good technique too.
Ground water, for instance, is not an underground river or lake but water moving slowly through cracks and crevices in the ground.
“Writing is refined thinking.”
You can’t write about science or IT without first thinking hard enough about the subject to learn. The “refining” part is smelting the gold from the ore – and then, to stretch the metaphor, making something beautiful or useful from it.
“Language does not always have to wear a tie and lace-up shoes.”
Students (and not a few specialists) tend to think the more serious the subject, the more formal the language should be. Formal becomes stilted and jargon-ridden and eventually he piece lies dead on the page or the screen.
Take off the tie and lace-up shoes. Put on chinos and loafers instead.
“Write about what you love to read.”
This, of course, is if you have a choice. Sometimes we’re assigned subjects in which we have zero interest. But sometimes the process of researching an arcane subject reveals its fascination. Be open to the possibility.
“Good writing is always about the story.”
Scientists writing for professional journals are addressing other scientists – hence “peer-reviewed” journals.
General-audience science writers are talking to bright people who know little or nothing about the subject but are interested: grandmothers in curlers, high school teachers, off-duty nurses, accountants.
All of them are people who want to be as intrigued as if they were reading “The Shining.” That means we writers have to wrap the information in a story that has an arc: Here’s what’s happening, here’s how it came about, and here’s why it matters.
It helps a lot that all these fields are inherently dramatic:
- What will rising sea levels mean?
- What does it mean that a doctor falsified data to so as to connect immunization with autism?
- What will the “smart cities” of the future be like, and what will it be like to live in them?
Who wouldn’t want to know the answers to questions like those?