Tag Archives: writing

William Gibson does not think our present was anyone’s future

David Wallace-Wells has a long interview with William Gibson on the Art of Fiction in the Paris Review.  The interview concludes

Do you think of your last three books as being science fiction?


No, I think of them as attempts to disprove the distinction or attempts to dissolve the boundary. They are set in a world that meets virtually every criteria of being science fiction, but it happens to be our world, and it’s barely tweaked by the author to make the technology just fractionally imaginary or fantastic. It has, to my mind, the effect of science fiction.

If you’d gone to a publisher in 1981 with a proposal for a science-fiction novel that consisted of a really clear and simple description of the world today, they’d have read your proposal and said, Well, it’s impossible. This is ridiculous. This doesn’t even make any sense. Granted, you have half a dozen powerful and really excellent plot drivers for that many science-fiction n­ovels, but you can’t have them all in one novel.


What are those major plot drivers?


Fossil fuels have been discovered to be destabilizing the planet’s climate, with possibly drastic consequences. There’s an epidemic, highly contagious, lethal sexual disease that destroys the human immune system, raging virtually uncontrolled throughout much of Africa. New York has been attacked by Islamist fundamentalists, who have destroyed the two tallest buildings in the city, and the United States in response has invaded Afghanistan and Iraq.


And you haven’t even gotten to the technology.


You haven’t even gotten to the Internet. By the time you were telling about the Internet, they’d be showing you the door. It’s just too much science fiction.

Scenarios have to be plausible, but reality is under no such constraints.

Communciating science effectively or Dude, you are speaking Romulan

Sustainability and resilience are trans-disciplinary research areas that require communication among people from many different backgrounds.  Communication benefits from being clear, and avoiding unnecessary jargon.  Sometimes making the efforts to articulate thoughts clearly can significantly advance disciplinary knowledge.

Chemical oceanographer Chris Reedy has funny article about improving interdisciplinary communication from AGU’s EOS, Dude, you are speaking Romulan, which was reposted on the Plainspoken Scientist, an AGU blog on science communication.  Chris Reddy writes:

During the height of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster, I joined a group of engineers and other scientists to discuss the evidence for an oil plume, at least 22 miles long and about a mile wide, floating 3000 feet beneath the surface of the Gulf of Mexico. As the chemist in the group, I wondered aloud about how we could exploit the aqueous solubilities of the petroleum hydrocarbons, benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and total xylenes to understand plume formation. I suspected the key to knowledge lay in the plume’s chemical properties.

“Dude, you are speaking Romulan,” one of my colleagues blurted out. The engineers in the group gave me a look, and steered the conversation to the relative merits of different types of statistical processing of data collected in and around the plume. I don’t know from statistical processing, so I hit back: “Dude, you are speaking Romulan.”

As Star Trek fans know, Romulans are a race often at odds with the Federation (they later signed a peace treaty). Romulans speak in three dialects and write with square or rectangular letters. Telling your colleague that he or she is speaking Romulan is a friendly way of saying, “I don’t understand you,” or that you are using jargon, speaking too fast, using acronyms, or jumping over the natural progression of an argument or idea.

What is surprising is that we have these communication breakdowns despite my colleagues also being my friends. We work at the same institution. I have been to sea with them. I know their dogs, eat dinner at their homes, and jointly lament the standing of the Red Sox. Even though we know each other well, our differing scientific specializations can cause us to speak different languages. For us, our small group was willing to recognize these differences and set the ground rules for using the “Romulan phrase.”

Almost every pressing scientific and environmental problem demands the attention of scientists from diverse disciplines as well as the expertise of economists, planners, and sociologists. With a little effort and less ego, we need to aim for a lingua franca that can be understood by a politician, a shrimp farmer, a toxicologist, a lawyer, an accountant, and a Romulan, too.

Writing and the Scientific Process

George Gopen and Judith Swan write in the American Scientist (Nov/Dec 1990) about The Science of Scientific Writing. They write that complex thoughts can be made accessible and clear without minimizing their complexity if a set of structural principles are followed:

  1. Follow a grammatical subject as soon as possible with its verb.
  2. Place in the stress position the “new information” you want the reader to emphasize.
  3. Place the person or thing whose “story” a sentence is telling at the beginning of the sentence, in the topic position.
  4. Place appropriate “old information” (material already stated in the discourse) in the topic position for linkage backward and contextualization forward.
  5. Articulate the action of every clause or sentence in its verb.
  6. In general, provide context for your reader before asking that reader to consider anything new.
  7. In general, try to ensure that the relative emphases of the substance coincide with the relative expectations for emphasis raised by the structure.

…The substance of science comprises more than the discovery and recording of data; it extends crucially to include the act of interpretation. It may seem obvious that a scientific document is incomplete without the interpretation of the writer; it may not be so obvious that the document cannot “exist” without the interpretation of each reader. In other words, writers cannot “merely” record data, even if they try. In any recording or articulation, no matter how haphazard or confused, each word resides in one or more distinct structural locations. The resulting structure, even more than the meanings of individual words, significantly influences the reader during the act of interpretation. The question then becomes whether the structure created by the writer (intentionally or not) helps or hinders the reader in the process of interpreting the scientific writing.

How to write scientific papers

A Nature article syntheses suggestions from authors and journal editors on how to get manuscripts noticed, approved and put in print in an article  Publish like a pro

These days, the dreaded blank page is a white screen with a blinking cursor, and distractions such as e-mail and online Scrabble are just a click away. But there are tricks to getting past the terror-inducing start.

Aspiring writers should have a template to hand — a previous paper published by the lab or a ‘near-neighbour’ article from the same journal. Nazaroff advises paralysed would-be writers to take the template concept one step further by counting the number of paragraphs in each section, the number of figures and the number of references. “Then you will get a sense of the length you are shooting for,” he says. Counting paragraphs can also break down a daunting section, such as the introduction, into more manageable portions.

When a writing task seems insurmountable, Nazaroff gets over writer’s block by making a list of all the parts that need doing and tackling the easy items first, such as calling a collaborator or checking a reference. He lets that momentum carry him past the block. Nazaroff likes to start every day of writing by editing the previous day’s material — a useful tactic that helps to ease him into a writing mindset. “Recognizing that writing is a long process is valuable. Find a mentor in that process, somebody to guide and coach you,” he says.

… The usual writing advice applies to manuscript writing as well — be clear and concise and use simple language whenever possible … “Don’t say ‘rodents’ when you mean ‘rats’ — that kind of creativity is horrible. Science is complicated enough,” says Blumberg, who has also authored several popular science books. Important but poorly written papers could end up being sent back unreviewed by busy editors.

Editors stress the importance of clarity above all else, to help convey arguments and logic to them and to readers. They say that most writers make the mistake of assuming too much knowledge on the part of their audience. In reality, even at the most specialized journals, only a handful of readers will be such close colleagues that they don’t need any contextual set-up.

… Often, less is more for junior scientists crafting manuscripts. The introduction need not cite every background article gathered, the results section should not archive every piece of data ever collected, and the discussion is not a treatise on the paper’s subject. The writer must be selective, choosing only the references, data points and arguments that bolster the particular question at hand.

Once a first draft is complete, says Hauber, the work has only just begun. “Revise and revise and revise,” he advises. Hauber says that new authors tend to think that “once a sentence is written, it’s gold or carved in diamonds”. In reality, however, editing is crucial. Even polished authors go through an average of 10–12 drafts, and sometimes as many as 30.

Writers should ask not only the principal investigator to view drafts, but also every co-author, as well as fellow students or postdocs, and colleagues outside the immediate field of research. Lead authors should give co-authors set deadlines of 10 days to two weeks to suggest changes. Experienced authors counsel letting the draft sit for a few days before reading it with fresh eyes to catch mistakes or problems in flow. Blumberg prefers to read drafts aloud with his students to spot errors.

Writing Tips:

  • You are only as good as your last paper — previous success does not guarantee future acceptance.
  • You’ve got to hook the editor with the abstract.
  • Don’t delete those files. Keep every version. You never know what aspect you can use for some other piece of writing.
  • Writing is an amazingly long learning curve. Many authors say that they’re still getting better as a writer after several decades.
  • The most significant work is improved by subtraction. Keeping the clutter away allows a central message to be communicated with a broader impact.
  • Write every day if possible.
  • Once you’ve written what you wanted to convey, end it there.