Tag Archives: writing

Writing to please the reader’s ear


I picked this up on Facebook from Writing about Writing.

It would be great to have this sort of skill. To be able to make the writing itself attractive, even beautiful, quite apart from the subject.

It certainly drives home the message about varying sentence length. Now I would like to see something similar to illustrate the need to make our sentences more active – less passive. That is a continual problem for most scientists and the habit is hard to change.

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The good(?) old days of scientific writing

I recently read the first volume of Richard Dawkins’s memoirs An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist. It brought back a few memories for me.

The political and trade union battles of the early 1970s in the UK, for example. I was working in Aberdeen, Scotland, in 1973-1975. That period saw 3 general elections and massive power cuts. I remember the problems of trying to do research, and even writing, when we only had power for 3 days in a week!

Dawkins took advantage of that time to begin writing the book which established him as a popular science writer – The Selfish Gene.

His description of what writing was like in those days  also brought back strong memories. We wrote and rewrote, with copious use of Sellotape and paste. A few, often considered eccentric, scientists had their own portable typewriters but most of us relied on the “typing pool.” That was an interesting social phenomenon – all female, it reminds me now of the way women were employed to do the tedious calculations for astronomers. They were called “calculators.”

I remember one stroppy typist who just could not understand why I kept rewriting manuscripts. She would often complain – but one had to keep on the good side of people like that otherwise your typing would go to the bottom of the pile.

Here’s how Dawkins described the process:

“I now find it quite hard to comprehend how we all used to tolerate the burden of writing in the age before computer word processors. Pretty much every sentence I write is revised, fiddled with, re-ordered, crossed out and reworked. I reread my work obsessively, subjecting the text to a kind of Darwinian sieving which, I hope and believe, improves it with every pass. Even as I type a sentence for the first time, at least half the words are deleted and changed before the sentence ends. I have always worked like this. But while a computer is naturally congenial to this way of working, and the text itself remains clean with every revision, on a typewriter the result was a mess. Scissors and sticky tape were tools of the trade as important as the typewriter itself. The growing typescript of The Selfish Gene was covered with xxxxxxx deletions, handwritten insertions, words ringed and moved with arrows to other places, strips of paper inelegantly taped to the margin or the bottom of the page. One would think it a necessary part of composition that one should be able to read one’s text fluently. This would seem to be impossible when working on paper. Yet, mysteriously, writing style does not seem to have shown any general improvement since the introduction of computer word processors. Why not?”

By the way, his book is a good read if you enjoy scientific biographies.

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Painless science writing

I guess most scientists find writing difficult.  I certainly have over the years. So I do admire scientists who communicate well, who produce readable material. And do it with ease.

P Z Myers is one of these. He is a prolific blogger (see Pharyngula) and an excellent writer. Besides so much activity on his blog he holds down a teaching job and is in  high demand as a public speaker.

And he has written a book! It’s due out early next year and I am sure itwill be an excellent read.

So what is his secret? How does he write so well, and so prolifically?

Using the sleeping brain

In a recent post, Fishkiller, he revealed part of this secret.  “I write in my sleep” he claimed. Boy, would I love to have that skill.

“I write in my sleep. You see, the way it works is that if I have something on my mind when I go to bed, my brain will churn over it all night long, and because of the way my head works, it will spontaneously generate a narrative. I do that in all of my dreams — I float aloof from the events, mentally transcribing what’s going on. My consciousness is a kind of disembodied reporter, I guess.

This quirk can work out well. Lots of my longer posts are composed while I’m sleeping — I wake up in the morning and the structure of the story is all laid out in my head, with a jumble of words stacked up waiting to be written down. It’s not a complete word-by-word write up, but major themes and key chunks of text are all done, and writing is more like splicing in a few transitions and tidying up some rough edges than actually, you know, writing, whatever that is.”

Maybe he exagerates and it is only part of the story. But I am sure he is on to something. I once presented a class on science writing. It was aimed at young scientists, many of who were contemplating their first paper. So I decided to give help with the approach to writing, rather than just the formality of producing a research paper and getting it published.

Using both sides of the brain

I took the concept of using “both sides of the brain” – the right hand side for creativity and the left hand side for editing. This was basically the approach Betty Edwards used in her course, and famous book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.

The trick is to separate the two activities. Firstly suppress the left hand side of the brain. Be creative. Get your ideas down. Don’t worry about the language, grammar or spelling. Don’t worry about the orders. Just concentrate on a brain dump. Just use the right brain.

Only once you have the material on paper do you allow the left hand brain to participate. Only then do you get into editing, correcting, and so on. The discipline is to suppress the left brain in the initial stages. (Which does take some effort). Otherwise we just naturally attempt to edit when we should be getting our ideas out. That inhibits our ideas, slows down the whole process, causes diversions.

Allowing the left brain to interfere is a major source of procrastination. It’s dispiriting.

If you are interested in following up this approach to wring have a look at the book by Henriette A. Klauser – Writing on Both Sides of the Brain: Breakthrough Techniques for People Who Write. The technique certainly does work and I found it liberating once I started consciously using it. And yoiu know what? After a while I was finding that when I did allow the left brain to apply its editing very little was required. My grammar and organisation was being applied without the left brain interference!

Using the unconscious brain

But I always felt there was another part of the brain we use in writing – our subconscious. That’s why it helps to put a paper aside. To “sleep on it.” I am sure that the subconscious mind may still be working through the ideas, maybe even the editing. Certainly, I always found I returned to the paper with a fresh mind, more able to identify and solve problems. Maybe even satisfy myself that I was happy with the writing anyway.

So, while I hadn’t actually seen the unconscious mind taking the active role PZ describes, even perhaps using dreams, I can certainly see how that works. And wouldn’t it be great if we could train our brain to work that way? It would certainly take a lot of the pain out of science writing.

I am sure that this skill, like all others, is a matter of training. Of experience. Once we learn to take the left brain, right brain approach and consciously put work aside to allow the subconscious to work at it, we are effectively in training. The more writing we do the better we become. The less painless it is.

After all, this is probably how journalists work. And we do too, in the rest of our lives. When we learn to ride a bike our subconscious eventually takes over and we do it automatically. On our jobs we may be applying quite difficult operations, analyses or calculations effortlessly because the skills are unconscious. I am sure many of us perform these operation in our dreams. I certainly do.

So I guess the answer is – do more writing. Apply concepts like writing on both sides of the brain to free up the creative side and take the pain out of editing. Have the confidence of putting things aside to allow the unconscious mind to do its work.

Maybe one day I can put my nightly dreams to work like PZ does

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Using your brain

I’ve been reading about the human brain. This got me thinking about software I used to use a lot for my research. Called the Personal Brain it provides a way of structuring information by forming associations between different thoughts and sources – very similar to the way our memory works. This is a very useful application for anyone involved in research or writing – a useful resource for an active blogger.

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