The muse has been preoccupied with science-related baloney these last few weeks, which has required said muse to forgo all other responsibilities in support of concentration. There are two sides to my muse: There’s the side of her that allows me to hurl drivel onto a white page for random consumption, then there’s the other darker, more serious side that’s required to wax philosophic about protein this and biochemical that and stuff involving magnesium chloride. Science writing and writing for the hell of it are very different animals.
Explaining scientific research is actually its own science. Whether on the page or standing in front of people who are both willing and eager to judge you, the goal is clarity and specificity and tap-dancing and linguistic gymnastics the likes of which require you to stretch prior to diving into the subject. I learned this the hard way, as seems to be my nature. I can manipulate a sentence into something that’s pleasant to read, but that’s not the goal where science is concerned. I’m at ease talking in front of large groups of people, but that’s a very small part of the program. Pretty is a sideshow. Enjoyment is completely beside the point.
Writing: Anyone with a sense of syntax, rhythm, and a working knowledge of grammar and sentence structure can write junk. Some can even write really pretty junk. Sadly, the ability to make junk pretty doesn’t translate to writing for a scientific audience or even translating science-related blah blah for laypeople. If normal writing is a sea cow, then science writing is whatever animal beats sea cows up and takes their lunch money. Time is not to be wasted with your precious little adverbs and adjectives are only allowed if they scare people. Nouns and verbs, preferably action verbs, are what’s expected. Scientists who are effective writers walk around like Chuck Norris because of how much action their verbs contain.
NO: The inhibition of tumor suppressor activity through oncogenic mutations may result in caner proliferation and potential metastasis.
Is it a true statement? Yes. Does it make the necessary point? More or less. Does it suck? Absolutely.
YES: Oncogenic mutations inhibit tumor suppressor activity and result in cancer proliferation, bitches.
The second sentence eliminates both the wishy and the washy. Can you not feel the action verbs punching you in the neck?! It’s like Samuel L. Jackson screaming in front of a group of cancer biology students, ‘WHEN THESE MOTHERFUCKERS INHIBIT THOSE MOTHERFUCKERS, YOU WILL GET CANCER, MOTHERFUCKERS!’ Is there some gray area involved in the second sentence? Sure, but…listen, just shut up. Effective science writing chooses the active over the passive because the passive never invented the light bulb or the cotton gin or cured polio. I’m pretty confident in my writing ability, but the first time I submitted something to my previous advisor, she destroyed it. It was almost as if she’d called me into her office, lit the work on fire, had me watch it burn in silence, then whispered, ‘Try again’. Such was my introduction to the craft.
Speaking: People are not there to chuckle and nudge one another while whispering, ‘Gosh, what a charming, witty, ravishingly handsome guy who knows crap.’ All that may be flawlessly accurate, but when I’m standing in front of my peers, they are lions and I am meat. Period. One little tidbit of advice I was given was that when talking about your research, you can say anything you want and be safe as long as you say it correctly. That’s the most pointless advice I can ever remember receiving. It’s like saying that if you want to live, you just need to continue not dying.
You need to be able to back up every word you say, every piece of information you show, and be prepared to justify every hypothesis you whip out. If at the end of the talk someone asks you to provide the basis behind a declarative statement made during minute 12 of your presentation, you have two options: 1) Parry their curiosity with an airtight explanation of your ideas or 2) Light yourself on fire in hopes of distracting everyone long enough that they’ll forget the question and focus on the human torch dancing around in front of them. And don’t try telling the person that your statement was based on a bad childhood experience involving a clown dressed like a chemist. You can’t blame your baseless hypotheses on clown trauma, tempting though it might be.
Finally, your slides need to have more pictures/figures than words. Scientists like pictures and graphs and charts and Greek letters that actually take the place of numbers in quantum mechanical insanity.
Such is my life at the moment, for what it’s worth. I become meat for lions later this week, so my muse’s recent preoccupation will hopefully not be for naught (so clever!). The idea is to write what I want to say, not as a script, but rather as an effort to ensure I understand what to say so that I don’t trip all over myself and end up sounding like Goofy on a coke binge. Although, that does happen to be my Plan B if everything else goes poorly, i.e. impersonate a drug-addled Disney character until the paramedics arrive.
Sir @ September 21, 2009