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Saturday, 4 May 2013

Effective Science Writing, Part 2

This follows on from Effective Science Writing, Part 1. It is completed in Part 3.

Creating a beginning.

I never consciously sit down and wonder how I am going to begin a piece. I suppose there must be a point where I think of my start, but usually, the beginning emerges from the real facts that made me think of writing a piece.

The start is important, and fiction writers know this. They work endlessly over the first page, trying to create the perfect hook that will keep the reader hanging on while they do the necessary foundation work. Pick up any best-seller, read the first page, and look for the hook. It will be there, and you need a hook as well.

I think I mainly use one of these tricks:

  • The plain news piece. This is fairly ordinary, and also fairly common. You simply write up a discussion of what a scientist somewhere has reported and then explain why it is important. You will always need a bit of polishing up, but you can set the scene first, and then cut to the new discovery.
  • The direct question. This is a fairly straightforward situation where you ask the reader if he or she has ever considered why something is important.
  • The indirect question (I was showing a trigger plant to a friend who asked . . .)
  • The completely irrelevant anecdote that suddenly becomes relevant later on in the piece, or even at the very end. This one works well when you are a bit older, and have the experience to think of an anecdote you can use.
  • The atmospheric, a trick piece where you set the scene and then work your way in from there. This is a subset of the irrelevant anecdote, but it can work very well.
No, I'm not going to do it all for you. As a science communicator, you are an essayist, and the only way to learn your craft is to study with the masters. Here, I have to confess myself ignorant of good role models from the sub-continent, so I will suggest a method to use if you are writing in English. I leave it to you to undertake the translation of this into a more local method, but I am sure that it can be done.

I can recommend Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt and Leigh Hunt for writers of the past. In more recent times, there are Walter Murdoch (and Australian, and the uncle of Rupert Murdoch, but don't hold that against him!), J. B. Priestley, George Orwell. Or you may prefer to look at the science essayists like Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Martin Gardner, Stephen Jay Gould, Sir Peter Medawar, Oliver Sacks, Lewis Thomas, Lewis Wolpert—and J. B. S. Haldane, who alone among those on this list, had an Indian connection.

You can also search more widely, looking online at the intelligent pieces written for the New Yorker or The Guardian. Or you might try an Australian radio program called Ockham's Razor (one to which I sometimes contribute). This draws mainly Australian contributors, but it also gathers speakers from all around the world. They must all speak for 15 minutes, less a top and tail, about 2000 words, and the quality is patchy but often reaches sublime levels.

I suggest that you gather a collection of perhaps 60 pieces that you really like, and 15 or 20 pieces that leave you uninterested. Then analyse these, as if you were a forger of bank notes. Make lists of the methods used, the tricks of the trade, the flourishes, and rate them. :Look at the low-rating ones, and if you think they are useless, remove them from the list.

Once you have your methods, you can make a deliberate choice of the tricks you will use in a piece. In this way, you will make these tricks part of your tool-kit, and before long, you will use them naturally.

Point number 4: know before you start how you plan to begin. (Once you have done that, you will probably know how you are going to end.)

When to write the ending.

I like to start with a good idea of how I will end a piece. If I don't quite know what that will be when I begin, I try to have an ending in place by the time my first draft is 40% complete. By that time, I will have most of the key points set down, but I will probably be starting to ramble.

Recently, I have been writing a set of children's books, each of about 1500 words, each one to have 17 "openings", with a picture on one page, and text on the other. I write the first six opening to get the story line set, then I write the ending, which is often two or three openings in length, then I fill in the middle section.

About a third of the time, I will later change my first ending to a better one, but at least I didn't waver and wobble.

Point number 5: know as quickly as you can how you plan to end—and before you start writing is best. (Only then will you know where you are going.)

Keeping a full record of ideas, information and sources.

From time to time, even the most focused writer is going to falter, wondering just what brilliant idea was supposed to be going there, or just where that idea came from. That is the reason why I started storing everything in a spreadsheet, about ten years ago.

Mow I know what spreadsheets are supposed to be for, but I heard a story of an old Sydney sporting journalist who used to write news stories in Visicalc. And I realised that he was doing one paragraph to a cell, and then using numbers in another column to sort the cells. It's something that journalists used to do in the days of typewriters and hot metal typesetting, when we used copy paper and double-spaced our paragraphs on that.

I realised that I could do a lot more, because you can sort on three different columns, so I started adding three columns on the left: chapter, part and number, as well as whatever datum I had found and its exact source.

But I hadn't finished yet: I could sort at other times by date, or place or topic, and compare items from different places and then sort again and move everything back into sorted chapters.

The example here is from an incomplete research database for a study of gold rushes and gold lust, around the world. The text in column F already totals more than 120,000 words, twice the length of the book I plan to write.

From time to time, I spot something interesting but not for the book in hand: labelling it chapter 99 pushes it to the very bottom, and because I always use the same layout, I can quickly scoop up those odd bits and move them into a more relevant spreadsheet at some later time.

The thing about my spreadsheet system is that it works like a large number of filing cards that I can shuffle in a variety of ways. I can sort all the entries by year or date, or by the place where they happened. This helps me to see patterns that I might otherwise miss.

Point number 6: plan and record from the very start, because there will always be one vital point that your editor will query or doubt. (Good record-keeping saves time and avoids headaches.)

Setting down a plan and applying it.

Some 3000 words into writing this chapter, I took a break and slept. I awoke in the early morning with a fairly well-formed outline for a general-market book with a strong science bias. Even before my first cup of tea, I noted down six chapter headings, and a few things to chase up. Now I can get on with this, knowing that I won't lose those ideas.

The plan is your helper, not a tyrant. As I work through this in Microsoft Word, I have the Document Map open, and every so often, I type a paragraph that I realise is more relevant to one of the other sections. When that happens, I move it. I have already shifted many of the headings, added a new one and merged two others, but I am still "following the plan".

Point number 7: always have a plan. (Starting to write without a plan is like trying to explore Norway without a map or compass. It may be interesting—until you fall into a fiord!)

This will continue in Effective Science Writing, Part 3.

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