What Science and Writing Have in Common
Are you a scientist who wants to be a better writer? You’ve already started!
Writing is not as different from science as you might think. Here are four common themes for science and writing:
1. Seeing the inside
Seeing patterns and structures in a piece of writing requires an analytical approach with many similarities to experimental lab work.
As scientists, we’re trained to rely on strong analytical skills. We use our x-ray vision to look for patterns, order, and outliers. We learn to distinguish correlation from causation.
We wonder about how stuff looks on the inside, why animals and gadgets work the way they do, and if we can make the world better somehow.
We can do the same thing when we read.
How does a text do what it is supposed to do? What is it about the text that excites, informs, or argues? Is it the perspective of the narrator, the sentence length, the anecdotes, or the way each page builds to increase the suspense?
Learning to apply analytical skills to reading will help you become a better writer.
2. The process, not the product
Science and writing share a journey through the unknown.
During the life of a research project, you encounter victories, trouble, setbacks, hurdles, and wins. At some stage you have no idea what you are doing. Later, you see it crystal clear. We keep looking for more answers.
Writing is also full of surprises. In the creative stages, there are no limits, no criteria, and no judges. We sometimes manage to write without fear. Later we must edit, revise, and rewrite. We cut, replace, and start over. We keep writing.
3. The End is not the end
The conversation continues when other people engage with your thoughts.
A finished research project is far from finished. There will always be loose ends, new ideas, and other perspectives to what could have been done. Some of the open ends will form the basis of future work, and others will remain unanswered. We try to keep it simple.
Similarly, a piece of writing is never finished. Almost all sentences can be edited, and paragraphs can be moved. The structure can be altered, and the topic may change. We try to stop at the right time.
Both a research project and a piece of writing will depend heavily on the reader. Their background, views, and individual experiences will influence how they read and understand your thoughts. Readers develop their own ideas about the topic.
4. Let’s experiment!
An experimental approach to science can also be useful as a writer.
If you are an experimental scientist, maybe you conduct three experiments per week for four years. This totals to around 500 experiments during the entire PhD period. These experiments are not for nothing.
A similar, experimental view on writing lowers the threshold for what gets included in a first draft. You are only testing. All suggestions are welcome, and you are freer to explore different strategies of how to get your point across.
A short novella in the middle of a non-fiction text? Sure. Alliteration when writing about gene editing? Of course. Rhyme and rhythm, just because you can? Do it!
Using sticky notes in outlining is another example. The technique lets you see the overview, think in broad strokes, and test different versions of the story.
I developed what I call Storymapping as a graduate student. I have continued to use it in my fiction and non-fiction writing.
Sorting, organising, and grouping the sticky notes triggers new ideas and lets me test and evaluate the strength of the story. I use sticky notes to experiment and build a story that the reader can engage with.
Reflecting on the similarities between science and writing helps you to get to know yourself as a writer.
Maybe you have made other discoveries about your own writing process. Please feel free to share them in the comments below.
Thanks to Lydia Welker and Jon Olav H. Eikenes for great input.