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Explanations and story-telling, or how to write about science

Explanations and story-telling, or how to write about science July 10, 2015

I’ve had a steady gig at The Daily Beast for a half-dozen months or so which, more than paying me too generously, has given me a great opportunity to do some more science writing. I’ve enjoyed this a lot.

You know it's sciencey because the titles say "science" a lot
via my contributor page at The Daily Beast

I took a science writing seminar my senior year in college with Carl Zimmer, an award-winning science writer and a weekly columnist at The New York Times. He’s great, and I still think back often to what I learned from him. It was easily one of the best classes I took, and I was lucky to be in it.

The Open Notebook, a site devoted to learning the craft of science writing, is starting a series of short how-to’s, and Zimmer’s entry is the first. He discusses the unique challenge of writing about science: instead of simply telling a story, science writing requires that you tell a story about something you need to explain along the way. He writes:

A good explanation achieves a happy medium between too little and too much. If you assume that your reader knows as much as you do, you will be prone to leaving out crucial information. It can be hard to notice what’s missing from an explanation, because every part of it exists in your mind, if not on the page. You read your drafts in the same way we look at optical illusions and fill in the blanks to create a complete shape.

There are only two ways to avoid this mistake: either have someone else read your story—someone who’s not an expert on the subject, of course—or develop the ability to override your own in-filling instincts. Paradoxically, the more expertise you have in a subject, the harder this journalistic brain training will become. If you learned about superstring theory 20 years ago in grad school, it will be challenging for you to imagine what it’s like to be someone for whom superstrings are not as simple to understand as parallel parking (or perhaps easier, depending on your driving skills).

But filling in the gaps is not the same as burying your reader alive. It’s a mistake to assume that in order to explain something, you have to deliver a semester-long introductory lecture course. It’s true that we can all learn a lot from a semester-long introductory lecture course, but we don’t expect to enroll in one whenever we open up a magazine or visit a news website.

What we expect, instead, are other experiences: a story, in some cases; an argument, in others. If you spend all your time explaining rather than telling a story or advancing an argument, the structure of your writing will collapse under that explanatory weight.

Thus, the most important step in explaining something well is to figure out what’s the minimum amount of explanation required for readers to understand your overall piece. How little explaining can you get away with? Once you’ve worked that out, then you have given yourself a clear set of goals to achieve. You can then try to make your explanation as delightful to read as the most unexpected plot twist.

I struggled with this when I wrote my most recent piece about a study on assortative mating. The content laid flat itself is somewhat clunky and hard to deal with—couples who were friends before dating pair off less like assortative mating would predict, which means they have a greater disparity in how attractive they are. This is a really cool finding if you have all the background knowledge on the topic to understand what that means, but few readers are likely to be regular readers of psychology journals. That means I needed to answer a few questions so the reader is up to speed: what is assortative mating? what do we know about how couples pair? is this finding even surprising?

Fortunately for me, I was at an event a month before I wrote the article where my boss demonstrated assortative mating using a game. This gave me a story to tell:

Over dinner at a recently renovated firehouse-turned-pizza-kitchen in downtown Durham, NC, Dan Ariely, noted scholar of irrationality (and my boss), hosted a talk on the science of dating and relationships.

While he was speaking, an assistant affixed to each person’s forehead a post-it note labeled with a number between one and ten. This number signified everyone’s hotness, and the game was to pair off with the highest possible number you could (without looking at your own number). Since my whole table immediately started to vie for my attention, I suspected right away that I’d lucked out.

After finding and pairing with a ten, I learned I was right.

The game, while too crude to be properly scientific, roughly demonstrates assortative mating, a common theory of how couples pair. I wasn’t the only one who had matched with the same number. Assortative mating suggests this kind of even matching is roughly how dating works.

Sometimes the real world looks similar to the game we played, but not always. When a relationship starts between two strangers (like in our example) they tend to be relatively closely matched in attractiveness. But when relationships have their roots in friendship things start to look a little different.

And just like that, I’ve provided the relevant background information while giving the reader something concrete to visualize, headed straight into my lede. By now the readers, hopefully, are hooked.

Spending the last month in New York writing and meeting editors and literary agents, I’ve been thinking a lot more about how to improve my own writing. I’ll likely touch on it more often on the blog.


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