From Scientist to Storyteller
My plan was to be a scientist. I aspired to become an enthusiastic academic exploring the world of cell biology. I was on track, with a few publications under my belt and a visit to a foreign and high-profile university.
Then I discovered that I could be a storyteller instead. The journey from scientist to full-time, paid (!) storyteller was, as the Beatles sang, a long and winding road.
I used to think that anybody could appreciate the intricate complexity of stem cells, coral reefs and black holes if I simply gave them all the facts.
I was wrong.
I still think that anybody can appreciate nature, but not the way I thought. I no longer write stories about biology. I write stories about people and their love of biology. Here is how i changed.
First, I wrote for my own satisfaction.
I started a blog, hoping to entertain no readers at all. The fewer the better. I simply needed an outlet to improve my writing. It worked, and soon I made an attempt at writing something bigger.
In an early draft of my first book, Your Hands (Handboka), I included five pages on the magical process of egg-production in female flies. I wanted to show to the reader a miniature, wonderful world, where cells cooperated intimately and sacrificed their own future in favour of another cell.
(In brief: 16 cells cooperate to produce a single egg. 15 of the cells will die at the end, but first they help to plan the layout of the future fly; where to put the head, the wings and the legs.)
I loved writing those pages. Then I cut them.
They were written for me, not for the audience. They had to go.
Lesson one: Writing for yourself is OK, but cut it from the final draft.
The long and detailed pages about fly eggs did not progress the overall story, and the facts were, as most of life science research, too abstract for non-specialists to appreciate.
Looking back at the blog and the early draft for the book, I see that although I was enthusiastic, I lacked editing skills. Such training came hand–in–hand with learning to write for someone other than myself.
Second, I focused on the reader.
My first job after completing my PhD was at a non-profit organisation. I wrote interviews, web pages and blog posts about complex medical research for non-specialist readers. More training in writing, and even more training in understanding how to reach different readers.
To reach the intended audience, I had to choose between biological precision and making sure that the reader got the message. I had to choose between jargon and plain language, between complexity and clarity.
For scientists who enter non-academic careers, learning how to simplify scientific details to reach the reader can be hard. Very hard, especially if the details are from your own special field. All of a sudden, it can feel like the countless hours spent in the lab no longer matter. (They do, and they don't, but that's another story.)
Lesson two: A precise sentence is useless if the reader cannot understand it.
But on the other side of academic precision is a magical land of stories. Stories of people and their research.
Third, I talked to people.
My next job was as challenge: a year as a science journalist. I covered medicine, technology, climate and literature, and loved exploring new topics and learning to write for the Facebook-generation.
I also realised that I enjoyed talking to the sources. I — the introvert who needs a pre-planned list of at least three talking points to be able to small-talk — thoroughly enjoyed visiting and talking to other researchers.
In addition to talking about their opinions on a piece of news, we also discussed their motivation for pursuing life as a scientist, and the unruly process of uncovering new knowledge.
The result was reporting that included more than just comments on the facts. The scientists I talked to, in contrast to those I simply emailed, provided more than just statistical considerations, vague nuances and cautionary, expected patience. They brought personal stories of discovery, jokes from the lab, reader-friendly jargon and an insiders view on scientific conflicts.
Writing about the scientists' descriptions of an average day at the lab, their nick-names for temperamental equipment, their world view and their background, brings more than just facts to the pages of a story. It brings emotion.
In contrast to reading about cellular behaviour, readers can engage with the emotions and the conflicts of the scientists. So, in the revised draft for my first book, I replaced the pages full of facts about the flies, and instead told the story of how John Saunders and Mary Gasseling discovered how birds have three fingers hidden inside their wings.
Introducing John and Mary as protagonists of the story allows the reader to follow the scientists, and not the cells, through the pages of the book.
Lesson three: Protagonists give a story emotion, purpose and conflict.
Now, I tell stories about people.
My forthcoming book will cover the sweaty, squishy, sticky, smelly and sometimes sexy world of body fluids. When I introduce the topic to my friends, many ask how big the chapter on a specific fluid will be.
How many pages on periods and pimples?
I answer that Wikipedia has covered the facts of the fluids, and explain that the book will instead be a collection of stories about people. People and their body fluids.
I have talked to a handful of scientists, a chef, a urologists and my dentist. The stories they told me are not written down in medical journals. We laughed, smiled and blushed. And then I wrote.
In effect, the book will be a fountain (pun intended) of personal and professional anecdotes about body fluids. The bare facts will be present, but will sometimes have to take second place. And that is OK.
How do I combine the new results from research on synthetic blood with the quotes from my interview with a local scientist? I don't know yet. I will have to do an experiment to find out. After all, I used to be a scientist.
Lesson four: I still have much to discover. An experiment is a way forward.
I used to think that anybody could appreciate the intricate complexity of stem cells, coral reefs and black holes, as long as I gave them all the facts.
I was wrong.
Humans are hardwired for story. In my experience, being a science writer means writing about people. A story about people gives the reader an intimate way to discover what’s happening inside the human body, deep in the oceans and in the vast, empty space.