Jo Marchant: How to Write (Long) About Science

Decoding the Heavens - Antikythera mechanism

This guest post comes from writer Jo Marchant, author of the excellent Decoding the Heavens, and describes some ground she, George Zarkadakis, Alok Jha and I covered in a panel session on literary storytelling at the World Conference of Science Journalists last week in Doha. Marchant usually keeps an excellent blog at Decoding the Heavens, but as it’s glitched up this week, I’m hosting this crossposting here. Her website still works, though, so pay a visit and check out her book.

How to write – long – about science

by Jo Marchant

One of my most inspiring experiences (and there are a few to choose from) at the recent World Conference of Science Journalists in Doha, Qatar, was taking part in a panel session on “literary storytelling”.

Most science journalists have experience of writing short news and feature articles, and understand the challenge of conveying complex technical concepts in a clear and engaging way. But attempting long-form features or books requires a whole different set of skills. The Guardian’s Alok Jha, who chaired the session, asked David Dobbs, novelist and science journalist George Zarkadakis, and me, to talk about taking readers with you over articles of 5000+ words.

David spoke first, about the importance of finding the right structure. In long pieces, he pointed out, the conventional feature structure of lede, back story, narrative and close doesn’t work – each individual section is too long, and the reader will get impatient. He suggested cycling through those elements, having mini-features within a feature, to keep the reader interested. When you change the scene, he said, you can vary things like the voice you use and how zoomed in you are, like changing the focal length of a lens. He also talked about learning from the structures used in music or drama – a lovely idea that I had never thought about before – for example introducing a new character towards the end of the second act.

My own talk, as a relative beginner, was about making the switch from writing short news and feature articles to writing a book. I concluded that there are some things about news journalism, especially when it comes to science, that actively inhibit the parts of the brain and ways of thinking needed for a more literary style of writing, which requires you to have an emotional response to your subject. I’ve posted on it here.

Finally George spoke about the importance in fiction or narrative non-fiction of making connections – your chapters can’t be separate blocks of information. He explained the use of mind maps for getting all of the elements of your story down on one page, so you can see them all at once and chart the connections between them. These are your added value – links that perhaps the researchers themselves haven’t even made. Both George and David said that they keep diaries when they’re writing a book to record what they’ve done each day and track of these connections.

In the discussion, we talked about the importance of knowing what to cut. When I started writing a book, I got excited about having space for all the fascinating (to me) details and anecdotes that I had unearthed in my research. I soon realised that you have to be just as disciplined – perhaps even more so – than in a shorter piece in cutting anything that doesn’t fit into your narrative. You’re expecting people to invest a big chunk of time in your piece and it can be quite an endurance test, the reader can get distracted easily. Sometimes I think it’s like clinging to a t-bar ski lift as it pulls you up a mountain. If there are too many lumps and bumps the reader’s concentration will waver – they’ll fall off and they won’t get on again.

The famous “kill your darlings” quote came up of course. I’m not sure who said it first, some people say Hemingway, some say William Faulkner, but this blog post says that it comes originally from the British author Arthur Quiller-Couch, describing “style” in his 1916 publication On the Art of Writing:

‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it–whole-heartedly–and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.’

George quoted a great line from the French writer and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: “A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” And David mentioned a beautiful passage written by Janet Malcolm, in which she describes the biographer’s struggle of knowing what to throw out, and likens it to clearing the clutter from a crowded house.

Alok also asked us all beforehand to come up with some writing tips and recommendations for the audience. In the end we didn’t have time for them in the session, so here they are below:

An article or book that budding writers should read to get a sense of what good writing is:

David recommends Beware of Greeks Bearing Bonds”>Beware of Greeks Bearing Bonds, by Michael Lewis. He says:

“It’s about finance, not science, and that’s part of the point. Lewis, one of our very best longform writers, faces a task similar to that of writing about science: Explain the workings and consequences of a seemingly arcane, jargonophilic discipline (finance) in a way that engages the reader. He doesn’t just engage you: He provides wild, raucous, riveting entertainment — theater, really — in a way that gets all the essentials right and sets up a magnificent close. A huge percentage of what you need to know to write well and beautifully is in this piece.”

(For another perspective on the financial situation in Greece, see George’s recent blog post).

David’s second recommendation is Song of the Dodo, by David Quammen:

“One of the best books, period, written in the last two decades, and easily one of the best science books written in the 20th century. If I could have only one grocery bag full of books to read for the rest of my life, this would be in it. As with Lewis, this is not an explanation but a story, a tour of a new and important idea about evolution told through visits with smart, driven, startlingly original and articulate scientists. Quammen is one of our very best; I don’t know a science writer I’d rank above him. He’s also grievously underrecognized, and I’m shocked far too often to discover that many science writers have never heard of him. He’s magnificent, and this book is a tour de force. It also has one of my favorite sentences of all time (ranking close behind “‘Shut up,’ he explained.”):  “Cor! You don’t see that every day, do you.” When you hit it you’ll know why.”

My choice was Gilgamesh, in particular an English version published in 2004 by Stephen Mitchell.

The Epic of Gilgamesh is the oldest known work of world literature – written down on clay tablets in ancient Mesopotamia in the second millennium BC. I love the writing because it is simple, clean and direct, there are no wasted words. Yet the prose has an energy and a beauty, it feels alive. It switches effortlessly from the broad and sweeping to the personal and intimate. Much of this is Mitchell’s work, but I wonder if it also owes something to the oral tradition which would have been like a continual editing process as the story was spoken out loud – it would have been instantly clear to the narrator from the audience’s reaction which bits worked and which bits didn’t.

The prologue describes how the hero, the king of Uruk, has been on an epic adventure – experienced all emotions from exultation to despair, journeyed to the edge of the world and back – and carved his trials onto stone tablets. The narrator invites the reader to admire his gleaming city, the mighty walls, gardens, orchards, palaces and temples. Then it tells you to climb the ancient stone staircase:

Find the cornerstone and under it the copper box

that is marked with his name. Unlock it. Open the lid.

Take out the tablet of lapis lazuli. Read

how Gilgamesh suffered all and accomplished all.

I love this because it sucks you right in, straight away you imagine opening the box, taking out those tablets and starting the story…

Tips for someone looking to improve their writing toolkit:

Here are David’s:

1. Read lots of good writing — and read hard. Read the great things things two or three times. And by all means, read a mix of science and of things NOT science. And learn to read to take it apart and see how it works and how they solve problems. Mark the good points and go back later to see how they work.  Read to steal. Which is to say, not to take a tactic or strategy and imitate it, but absorb it and fully understand it and make it an integral part of how you write. (Knowing how to throw a curve ball isn’t enough; you have to know when and where to throw it.)

But you can’t steal unless you learn how to read first. How does John McPhee move so smoothly between places in time? (Answer: He finds the right structure first.) How does Janet Malcolm move herself and her own observations in and out of scenes? Why does Michael Lewis put himself in some stories as “I” and leave himself completely out of others? How does David Quammen get away with opening a book with 80 pages of backstory? What makes Vladimir Nabokov’s sentence (in Lolita) These burst. so incredibly effective? How does Deborah Blum manage to generate sympathy for Harry Harlow’s work even while conveying the horror of some of his experiments? What decisions does Rebecca Skloot seem to have made about handling her first-person presence in The Immortal of Henrietta Lacks?

Answering some of these questions will take you only minutes or hours. Others may take days or weeks. But every time you answer one, you’ll add an invaluable arrow to your quiver.

2. When you get to your later drafts. READ THEM OUT LOUD. The sour junk will rise to the top, and you can throw it out.

I love these. My own tips are just a couple of things that I do to get over that feeling of staring at a blank page.

1. Brainstorm then edit

If I want to convey an elusive feeling or thought and I’m not sure where to start, I write down individual words and phrases that seem to capture any part of it. I try to switch off any inhibition, I don’t worry about sentences, or whether what I’m writing makes sense logically. It’s just a cloud of words that pop into my head and feel as though they might be at least partly right. Then, once I have those raw ingredients on the page, I become more analytical/critical and try to make a piece of sensible writing out of them.

2. Stream of consciousness then edit

If I want to get a story to flow, then I read through my notes and get the events straight in my head. Then I put all the notes to one side and just write the story down. I don’t stop to check dates, facts etc — if necessary I’ll just put in xxs where I can’t remember exact details, I just try to write the story all in one go, as I’d tell it to a friend, with no stopping or thinking about it too much. Then, only once I’ve got the story down, I’ll go back and edit – clean up sentences, check quotes, facts, figures, cut unnecessary bits. The aim is to end up with a narrative that hopefully has some pace and energy to it.

I’ll leave you with George’s inspiring words:

1. Respect for the economy of language. In every language there are many ways of expressing the same thing but only one that is the simplest. Chose this one and make sure it is from the heart.

2. Connect with the reader.  A writer is a reader who mutated. Often this mutation causes selective amnesia: the writer forgets that she was once a reader. Reconnect with your previous self and talk to her about what moved you in the subject you chose to write a book about. Do not presume that being smart is enough. A book full of smart ideas but no emotion will vanish swiftly in the all-devouring quicksand of indifference.

Jo Marchant writes on science and other goodies. Her book Decoding the Heavens, about the discovery of the ancient Antikythera mechanism, was shortlisted for the 2009 Royal Society Prize for Science Books. You can follow her at Twitter or contact her here.

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