In the last few of weeks, I’ve been spending much of my time working on the scientific writing which is the mainstay of my day job and little time doing any of the creative writing which I post here (hence the lack of any new short stories or flash fiction recently – although that will hopefully change once these current projects are finally out of the way). The writing I’m working on is a mix of technical manuals for post-grad students and scientific papers, and you might think that this type of writing is very different from creative writing. That’s certainly true at first glance, but if you look below the surface, you’ll see that a scientific paper and a short story have very similar underlying structures and rules.
In fact, believe it or not, just like any good story, scientific papers have plots with a beginning, a middle and an end, characters that need to be introduced and described, and the best will even have a twist at the end. Indeed, I’ve often found that the easiest way to explain to students how to write a good scientific paper (and indeed how to interpret one they are reading) is to explain their structure in just these terms. This is because most students are familiar with these terms, while the terms used by scientists for these aspects of a scientific paper are much less well known, or indeed obvious.
Take the plot for example: Any good story must have a plot which moves along from a beginning where the basic premise of the story is explained, through a middle where much of the action happens and the tension is built and on to an end where the tension is resolved. Within a scientific paper these are simply known as the introduction (which sets the scene), the method and the results (which move the story forward and develop the tension – will they find what they set out to find, or will they find something unexpected which over turns our current understanding of the world?) and the discussion (where the ‘story’ being told is resolved). Just as with a short story, these sections all need to flow into one another to form a continuous storyline or the reader will get confused, and just as in short stories, you cannot suddenly reveal something at the end to explain your findings if you haven’t already introduced earlier into the paper.
Then there are the characters, except these are generally known as your study system and can be anything from atoms and quarks in the Large Hadron Collider (famous for recently finding evidence of the elusive Higgs Boson) to a Petri dish filled with bacteria or (as is often the case in my papers) species of whales or dolphins. Just as in any story you need to introduce these characters and describe them so the reader knows how they behave (or should behave if you’re going to have a twist at the end!). And just as in any story, your characters can be goodies and baddies, and sometimes you need both to make your paper really stand out. For example, in a paper I’m working on at the moment, the goodies are harbour porpoises which are trying to survive while the baddies are (believe it or not) larger bottlenose dolphins which beat them up and kill them. The tension within it comes from whether or not these attacks are frequent enough to cause the population of porpoises decline or not. The twist at the end of this particular story is that the answer is yes, but only under certain conditions caused by climate change (which no one was really expecting).
While the link between the structure of scientific papers and creative writing is easy to see once someone points it out, what it perhaps even more unexpected is that the same links even exist within the technical manuals like as the ones I’m currently working on. These contain a series of exercises for doctoral students to work through to help develop their technical skills, and you might think these would have little to connect them to writing short stories, but there is. This is because, you still need to have a ‘plot’, drawing the individual exercises together so that the student finds they are developing their skills as they work through it, while the characters are the data which the students will get to know as they work with them. Even within each exercise, you need a clear aim (which equals a sub-plot), and a clear movement through a beginning, a middle and an end otherwise the student will not feel they’ve gained anything from working through the exercises (just as a reader must think they have gained something from reading a story).
I’ve often thought that scientists should be taught creative writing as part of their training, and I’m sure if it were, scientific papers would be both easier to understand and more accessible to non-experts. However, this is an idea which always meets with resistance when I suggest it. Partly, I think this is because the word ‘creative’ in the title as this makes it sound like you are encouraging people to make things up (a big no-no in science), but I think it is also due to a certain level of intellectual snobbery. In particularly, there is a not unsizable proportion of scientists who revel in making things as difficult to understand as possible. This, they seem to feel, is a way of keeping the knowledge within a small elite group. You’ll only be welcomed into this elite if you can prove that you, too, can not only understand papers written in highly technical language filled with strange terms and complicated formulae which no outsider has a hope of understanding, but also write them. To them, writing clear, well-structured papers which takes the reader by the hand and leads them through from start to finish are an anathema which is to be discouraged rather than applauded.
Personally, I feel that this is science’s loss as in today’s world, we to make it as easy as possible for any interested amateur to understand what scientists are finding rather than making it more difficult. We, as scientists, need to share our skills and knowledge with as many people as possible, and the only way we can do that is by making our writing easier for anyone to understand.
From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in print and as a Kindle ebook. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more. To download a preview of the first three chapters, click here.
To read the Foreword Clarion Review of For Those In Peril On The Sea (where it scored five stars out of five) click here.