These remarks were presented by freelance science writer Ann Finkbeiner at the 2014 DCSWA Professional Development Day panel “How to Write Science Beautifully." Ann has generously allowed us to reprint them here.
The moderator wants us to talk about how to write about science in a way that’s literary and maybe even beautiful. “Beautiful writing” is a phrase I use all the time – “what a beautiful writer,” I say – and a thing I spend a large fraction of my life trying to do. But I haven’t a clue what beautiful writing is. I haven’t a clue what it is even to me, and surely it’s different for everybody. I could come up with a lot of adjectives – well-structured, a little surprising, musical, written with a pleasing voice – but except for “well-structured” nobody can tell you how to write surprisingly or musically or with your own voice. So I can’t tell you how to write with beauty.
That leaves “literary.” Literary writing usually means fiction, it means writing the way fiction writers write. I love reading fiction; I read much more of it than nonfiction and often because it’s better written. Applying the techniques of fiction to nonfiction is a field called literary nonfiction and heaven knows there’s a minor industry in it. And heaven knows every agent in the world tells you they can sell that book idea only if it's based on a narrative. And heaven knows, I’ve loved Tracy Kidder and John McPhee right along with everyone else. So literary nonfiction is a thing, and you can easily find out about it. For a while I thought it was interesting because I was an English major and before I’d even heard of the Big Bang, I was learning about the devices of fiction – about rising action and climax; about establishing character through foils; and using landscape to set mood; and finding the right detail to establish setting; and creating dialog that convinces the reader and reveals the character; and creating the voice of the narrator; and so on and on, including absolutely never once on any account using even one cliché.
In retrospect, I don’t think learning all that has been particularly useful. In the first place, you can figure it out yourself by reading lots of good novels. In the second place, I’m not sure how useful those devices are when the story is about science. Isn’t the point of science writing that the readers enlarge their understanding of the world? And that to do that, they have to trust the writer, and that means the writer has to tell the truth. The writer can’t go haring off, creating mood by pretending that the Space Telescope Science Institute is dark and brooding, or creating foils by rigging scientists’ characters so that one is cheery and the other one anxious. So fundamentally, I don't trust the premise.
Never mind. We science writers want to use the devices of fiction. We want to feel like we’re the ones in control. We want to evoke in our helpless readers the thrills and chills of scientific discovery. To do that, the reader has to see the scientist, as though the scientist is right there in the same room. Somehow, the scientist has to be evoked. Evoking, I think, is one of the things fiction does that science writing doesn't usually do. But I think Richard Preston did it in “First Light,” and Lawrence Weschler did it in “Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder,” and so did Elizabeth Royte in “The Tapir’s Morning Bath.” These authors first of all treat the people they write about as characters: they choose the right details to describe their characters, they let the characters talk an awful lot, they watch what their characters do, they place them in their settings. All these authors also used a nonstandard structure – nonstandard for science writing, whose structure is usually either chronological or logical or both. Instead, they used what I call a mosaic: one scene set next to another scene set next to an explanation, or one person’s behavior set next to another person’s comments, set next to still another person’s interpretation, and finally the reader just suddenly gets it. Humans are OK at logic but they’re superb at putting seemingly unrelated things together and seeing the whole. And the whole is an emotional understanding of the scientists; the scientists have been evoked. The way I say it to myself is, the underlying trajectory of the story isn’t logical, it's emotional.
But I’d said I didn’t trust this presenting nonfiction with the devices of fiction. And I don’t, it’s too seductive. So I want to add a caution. Fiction is art, a collection of made-up facts and impressions in a made-up world that uncannily evokes in a reader the same world. Fiction can feel true and entirely believable – you can read a novel and after it believe that no marriage is ideal, we should just quietly adjust to each other, until you read the next novel which makes it clear you just throw the bastard out. Readers expect fiction’s truths to be like this, believable but idiosyncratic and partial and temporary; and readers don’t mind because they’re in it for the evocation, the experience of someone else’s world. They’re not in it for truth about the world we all must share.
Nonfiction arranges facts into a story, it finds the story in the facts. Readers are in it less for evocation of someone else’s world than for understanding the facts and nature of our own. Without facts, nonfiction is unreliable and readers’ understanding of the world is correspondingly untrustworthy. Untrustworthy authors/narrators in fiction are charming; in nonfiction, they’re worse than useless, they're a betrayal, they're at best a waste of time.
Here’s a story. Years ago, I was running a workshop class for young science writers. One of them, a medical writer, sent around a story to be discussed by her classmates, who liked the story. The first paragraph was an anecdote about some parents whose son had some terrible disease, talking out their grief and fear. The class liked the anecdote, they cared about the parents. No, but the anecdote was made up, said the young writer. She had an appointment to talk to the parents but she hadn't done it yet so she made up the anecdote as a placemarker. The class was really pissed. They were so pissed I was surprised. She had a good reason for making up the anecdote, I thought, she wasn’t really lying to them. Then I thought, her reasons and intentions are irrelevant. What’s relevant is that they believed her and what she said wasn’t the truth. They believed a thing that was untrue and that she knew to be untrue. She looked them in the eyes and lied. She betrayed them; they wanted her taken out back and shot.
So my note of caution is this: as science writers, we should go ahead and treat our scientists as characters and their discoveries as plots; and find pretty analogies; and control the rhythms of our sentences; and look for the central conflicts and the narrative arcs; and write with our own peculiar voices. But our readers have a different covenant with is. They trust us, they think we’ll tell them the truth; they think they can put that truth into their worlds and rely on it. And if we betray them, they'll be pissed. So if you want beauty in science writing? Find the beauty in the facts, in reality, and write about that.