What Science Writers Can Learn from Fiction Writers
(Courtesy xkcd.com. Click to look at full cartoon)
I read an interesting article today from Wired magazine’s science page. In it, Maryn McKenna writes about a conference she attended called Science Online, a gathering in South Carolina for journalists, science writers, bloggers and scientists. One thing she said in the article really caught my eye: What science writing can learn from crap novels (her title).
The truth is, there have only been a few science writers in history who have written like fiction writers at all. Carl Sagan would probably be one of the best recent examples of a good science writer. The problem is that there are some great scientists out there, but not many of them are great writers. Carl Sagan was both. His book Cosmos is easily read by a layman and sold millions of copies because of that. Another great science writer who is easy to read is Stephen Hawking, whose A Brief History of Time is still a book that intrigues me. I am in no way a scientist, but Hawking has made something as complex as quantum physics somewhat understandable for me.
McKenna posted a wiki with notes from the conference and things they discussed. She lists a good representation of several passages from various kinds of fiction that science writers could learn from and use in their writing. These include: opening lines, conversation, description, timing, suspense and endings.
Of course the flip side of this, according to my good friend and master science teacher Michael Dean, one of the biggest issues is that many journalists do not know enough about science and sometimes are not very accurate. Ben Goldacre lists several stories published by the Telegraph that were not based in any scientific fact, and many of them have been taken down off of said news service’s site.
Good writing is needed in not only genres of fiction but also in the academic world as well. I love to consume all kinds of information, even if it is not in my “field”. I love reading about quantum physics, philosophy and many other diverse topics. It is much more exciting to read when the writing is top notch, filtering all of the academic jargon down to something readable by little old me.