Scientists and writers? The two professions bring to mind images that, initially, feel completely at odds – test tubes and laboratories versus pens and computers, equations and logic versus language, dialogue and creative use of adjectives, for example. Dare I say safety glasses versus reading glasses?
This is a chasm that has always seemed much wider for others than it does to me.
The organization of a good article, or the excruciating amount of time it takes to write a novel is near-identical to the discipline it takes to work up a new scientific protocol. First, the ideas float around for a while or, if you’re lucky, inspiration hits with a bang! You still have to prepare a solid experimental model and a plan to execute the proofs – the tests that validate the concept. Where a scientist is striving to gather statistically significant results by repeating tests over and over again, a writer does continuous rewrites to capture the emotion and the message precisely. Ideas and inspiration start the process, but completion take a ton of arduous follow-up. I imagine Einstein had brainstorming as a near constant companion as he theorized about relativity. Many writers cite the routine of their approach to writing – sitting down every morning until lunch and then 2-5 each day until the novel was finished – that’s discipline.
The flow of words that can happen to a writer flushes out a rush of adrenaline, and I know the same rush happens to engineers and scientists who happen upon an “aha! moment.”
Why does it matter? Well, scientists needs writers, or need to be writers if they want to spread the word about their work to a broader audience, through technical articles, textbooks, or their own books.
An interesting website devoted to the subject of scientists and journalism is opennotebook.com. This particular article provides a fascinating look into how scientists interact with journalists, and it interviews three from each discipline. This is three science journalists and three scientists talking about the issues they face when working together on science-based articles. Riveting stuff!
One, Carl Zimmer, a science writer for the NY Times, says:
“Scientists assume that reporters understand not only the underlying science, but the whole history of the field leading up to their own experiment, as well as the connective logic between the different things that they did in their own research. So when you ask scientists to describe their work, they just leap into a narrative that is missing many of the most important pieces of information for writing an article.”
I don’t think that scientists are the only ones who just assume that listeners understand their technical language. Have you ever been talked to, or at, by an enthusiastic stockbroker? Been at a cocktail party and felt ill-informed when talk turned to options, mutual funds and the state of the world economy? We all have our specialties; the language of scientists is not really any somewhat further afield from our day-to-day than other specialties. Its about knowing a subject deeply, isn’t it?
I felt a natural kinship with the aforementioned Carl Zimmer, because his approach to overcome this natural myopia of scientists is similar to mine:
“I typically start my interviews by letting scientists tell the story the way they want to without saying much of anything along the way. Then, when they’re done, I say, ‘There are just one or two things that I still don’t understand.’ Then I go all the way back to the beginning of the story and ask questions to fill in all the steps they left out.”
In my business, strategic marketing for technically minded clients – we often have to overcome the – dare I say – wariness of our scientific clients when we are initially brought in to help draft an engineer or scientist’s first technical article. They think of us as purely creative types, although at McDay most of us toss a different kind of degree into the mix – chemical engineers, biologists, mathematicians; we’ve got a bunch of strangely “both brained” individuals who studied science but love to write.
While it helps that many of us in our company have technical backgrounds, sometimes all that means is that the barrier for acceptance by our clients is lowered, and they talk even faster about their new technology or service (said tongue in cheek)!
We listen, and then we write. Technology translated. That’s McDAY.