As a lifelong scientist I’ve written a lot: peer-reviewed scientific papers, laboratory investigations, grant proposals, meta-statistical analysis, class papers, critical analysis of policy options, and state-of-the-science white papers. Much of it was read by only a handful of people. Some of it likely never got read at all. I’ve also written three books, two on famous scientists and one on a technology buff president. So what fiction and narrative non-fiction writing tips can a scientist offer? Here are three:
Cut the big words: This includes jargon, those words that only scientists in the field know. The reasons are obvious. When writing fiction or non-fiction for non-scientists, that is, the general public, the key is to avoid words that most people don’t know. I’m not saying dumb down your writing to primary school or reality-TV-politician level, but avoid tossing in fifty dollar words that will distract from your message. There are no extra points for displaying the grandiosity of your vocabulary or your skill navigating an online thesaurus. Write like you want someone to read what you write.
Be precise: One of the reasons scientists use technical words is because jargon is precise. Each word has a very specific meaning, at least to the group of scientists within that field or subfield. But to the public these same words may mean something completely different (the word “theory” comes to mind). Write your article or book or blog post, then edit it to make sure you are saying exactly what you want to say. Then edit it again. And again; as many times as needed to get it right. If readers have to guess what you meant, or worse, believe it meant something other than you intended, then your writing needs further work. Write active sentences, not passive ones. Use precise, not vague, words.
Don’t be boring: Face it, a lot of science writing is boring. Peer-reviewed scientific papers are the worst: You have to lay out the rationale for the study, describe your methods, list your results, explain how you analyzed the data (with statistics, yuck), and draw conclusions. Most journal articles are read by only a handful of other scientists who specialize in that field. To everyone else they can be mind-numbing. When you write your novel or your non-fiction book or your poetry it’s easy to fall into long descriptions that can, let’s be honest, be rather dull. Sure, you need to place the characters in some time period and describe what they are wearing and thinking, but don’t write three pages describing every detail about the local scenery or everything in their clothes closet. Trust me, your reader will skip over much of it. If they are going to do that, why put it in there?
Bonus tip: One way to avoid being boring is to construct real characters. Stereotypes won’t cut it. Flat characters that don’t inspire either love or hate (or at least compassion or disdain) aren’t going to get the reader involved in the story. Your characters shouldn’t appear to be purchased off some generic shelf; they should have normal human faults and desires and insecurities. Most scientific experiments fail. When they do the scientist proposes a new hypothesis and tries again. People who fail and yet continue to strive to achieve something grand make good characters. Let them fail, then give them a second chance. Perhaps several second chances. To paraphrase Robin Williams, “Reality, what a concept!”
More in my On Writing series (click and scroll).
David J. Kent is the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, in Barnes and Noble stores now. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity (2013) and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (2016) and two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.