Write for your college roommate, someone who you respect as being as smart as you. They went into a different line of work. They’re joining the conversation late. They need to be brought up to speed; but assume that your audience is as intellectually engaged and as smart as you are.  — Quoted by Steven Pinker

My writing world is divided between science writers and writers of fiction. My own talents lie squarely in the former, but the latter group comprises most of the writers I deal with personally – that is in real life.

Alice in Wonderland (John Tenniel)

Having poets and novelists critique your science writing is valuable

I belong to an amazing writing group – Critical Ms. They are nine local writers, most of whom have works in print. Some have won literary prizes. They’re that good. We meet every two weeks and take turns submitting manuscripts to the group for serious professional critiquing.

They submit collections of poetry, songs, literary fiction, and chapters of young adult novels with themes of fantasy, adventure, science fiction, teen angst, and sports, among other things.  I submit essays on parthenogenesis, prolactin, evolution, kangaroos, infrasound, and seahorses. I suspect they aren’t always sure what to make of me.

When I first applied to the group, they were rightfully hesitant. What could I do for them? What could they do for me? None of us were really sure. But, as it has turned out, we have a great deal to teach (and learn from) each other.

What they do for me goes like this:   I submit my essay a week in advance of our meeting. They review it, blue pencil it, and then come to the meeting to talk through their critique. They will spend an hour on my 25 double-spaced pages and when they are through I will be enlightened, encouraged, and thoroughly humbled. These people know so much about writing.

Novelists know how to turn dry facts into an effective scene

And that’s the first key.

Science writers blog and tweet about science. They are my portal to great science stories and research – all potential fodder for my own writing. Certainly there are lessons to be learned in reading their work – much of it is stunning. But they don’t talk much about how they do it. They just do it. Their passion is for the science.

But, my fiction-writing friends (I was about to call them my “fictional friends”), they blog and tweet about the writer’s craft –how to develop characters, paint a great scene, write a killer opening, and follow the bouncing ball of two or three story arcs happening in tandem. (I didn’t even know what a story arc was until I met these people.) Their passion is for writing. It’s all about how they do it.

When my novelist friends read my work, they want characters they can identify with. They want interesting dialogue and vivid scenes. They want plot and narrative flow.  Beginnings, middles, and ends. They concern themselves with timing and order of reveal. It’s not what I say, but when I say it.

The order in which information is revealed matters

What they don’t want is the museum fatigue that comes with an endless delivery of facts. They want to know how all this science that I’m handing to them relates to their lives; what it all means in the world.

Really, they are saying, “Sure this is interesting. Now tell me a story.”

I think it’s great that science writers communicate to people who are already interested in science. It helps spread the word across disciplines and keeps those of us who love science but who can only live in that world vicariously, happily engaged. Good science writers handily bridge the gap between the stilted jargon of academic research and an interested scientifically-savvy readership that has neither the time nor the inclination to wade through the journals themselves. But that’s preaching to the converted.

Alice in Wonderland (John Tenniel)

Good science writing finds a balance between form and function.

What about the people who don’t spend their winter evenings by the fireplace immersed in the latest best-seller by Richard Dawkins? The ones who zone out when they see graphs and statistics in the same way I used to when my ex-husband raised the hood of the car and talked about the workings of the internal combustion engine? Shouldn’t science writers also try to communicate with them?

I know that novelists – and poets, more so — have delicate hearing. They are attuned to the rhythm and beauty of language. Precise word choice matters to them. How does it sound in the sentence? Is there a better way to say it? A more beautiful word? A more appropriate phrase? Sentences like: “Research findings suggest that the implications of the data anomolies..” physically pain them.

I know this because they aren’t shy about telling me.

Alice in Wonderland (John Tenniel)

Everyone and everything is a character

The day after our meeting, I go through their marked up copies of my manuscript, transcribing nine sets of margin notes onto a master. When I get through, my pages are awash in red pen–

“Too sciency”, “too many numbers here”, “zzzzzz”, “Not clear”, “too many scientific details”, “I don’t understand what you mean”, “sounds academic”, “explain this term” …and on and on.

They love that I tell the story of an abandoned baby kangaroo to introduce a larger topic. They hate that I never tell them how her story turns out at the end. “What happened to Rooby?” they all scribble at the end of my essay. Yes, these people keep me honest.

In the end, if we work together and I do my job right, I’m rewarded with the words that make this whole crazy science writing venture worth-while:

“I don’t usually read non-fiction, but this is really fascinating!”

Now that’s what I’m talking about.

Next time – my gift to fiction writers…