In Your Own Write: The ten rules for excellent writing
SUMMARY: I asked my friend, Henry Gee, to share some of tips about effective science writing with aspiring entrants into the Wellcome Trust/Guardian/Observer science writing competition. His advice was distilled into these ten rules
Image courtesy of The Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize 2011.
News has reached mes oreilles of the science-writing competition bruited forth by the Wellcome Trust in collaboration with The Guardian and The Observer. As I don’t read The Guardian or The Observer very often (being closeted in my shed reading Boris Johnson’s column in the Torygraph while replaying my tapes of kittens being impaled on red-hot skewers), the news came by electronic emanation from my esteemed colleague and co-conspirator, GrrlScientist, who asked me to share some advice, and quickly.
’They’re looking to remind the public about this competition on a thrice-daily basis for the next six weeks or until someone strangles the science editor,’ quoth the eminent expatriate psittacophile, and as nobody deserves strangulation, not even the science editor of The Guardian, I said I’d put in my two penn’orth.
Grrlscientist was particularly interested in specific advice about how to write. Not the hoopla and dancing-around-the-mulberry bush stuff about Inspiration, and Concepts, and How Cool It Must Be To Be Professor Brian Cox In A Shocking Pink T-shirt That Says ‘Too Pretty To Do Math’ — but the actual writing. You know, words. One after the other. On a page.
Not so inspirational now, huh?
In the old days this would have been on paper, using ink. However, my elder daughter, Gee Minor, reminds me that writing on paper is bad for the planet. Paper comes from trees, and once you cut down a tree, you remove its ability to slurp carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. You become a net contributor to the carbon dioxide surplus instead. Oh noes! Well, so much for concept, and, what’s more, I have broken Rule 3 of the Ten Rules of Writing I am about to enumerate forthwith, or, if you are reading this on a mobile device, fifthwith.
Rule 1: Write Every Day
In my long experience as a writer and editor with everyone’s favourite weekly professional science magazine beginning with N, I’ve found that the best writers have been writing all their lives. They wrote stories when they were kids. At school, or as students, they wrote for the local newspaper or the college magazine. Writing simply bursts out of them — they can’t help it. Now, if you are reading this, you will almost certainly be among a self-selected group for whom writing is a passion, a drug, a compulsion.
Passion, though, requires discipline. That’s why my first rule for writers is that, as an aspiring writer, you should write every day. Talent of any kind, whether it’s playing football or the piano, improves with practice, and writing is no exception. It doesn’t matter what it is, or how short. It doesn’t have to be a chapter of The Great Novel. It can be a status update on your favourite social network; a stanza on how miserable it is to wait in the rain for the No 9 to Kensington High Street; a shopping list; a diary entry. Anything. This is why having a blog is good. You can write short items about anything, and, if you are going to do it properly, you will update it regularly. There is no pithier testament to unwillingness to write than an untended blog.
Rule 2: Write as you would speak
If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll know that Shakespeare used 30,000 different words in his oeuvre, though not all at once nor in alphabetical order. It is worth remembering that most of these words were meant to be spoken aloud. Now, your no-more-than-800-word exegesis on the relevance of cosmic inflation to the activation of seven transmembrane-helix G-protein-coupled receptors, notwithstanding and inasmuch as which the release of calcium from intracellular stores, might not have the poetry of a sonnet, but all writing benefits from being read aloud — preferably to an audience of long-suffering housemates or pets. Reading your work aloud is the best way to discover if your sentences are too long; your prose too convoluted; or indeed if any of it makes sense. Use plain English. And sit up straight.
Rule 3: Stick to the point
Many years ago when the world was young (OK, it was about 1998), I was deep in the draft of In Search of Deep Time, my first book intended for the popular science shelves (still available in the proverbial All Good Bookshops, folks). Page after glowing page of peerless prose erupted from my pen. The words were flowing like a very flowy thing. I sent the draft to my editor. It came back, and — the horror! — the same passages I’d loved so much had been struck out, page after page, to which my editor had appended four words that pierced me to the heart. Those four words were:
‘And Your Point Is …?’
This is all about discipline again. If you enjoy writing (and if you are reading this, the chances are that you do) it’s important to keep to the point. Planning your essay in advance is always a help. List the points you want to make, in logical order. Such lists are always too ambitious, so list them again, leaving half of them out. As my editor told me later: ‘Henry’, he said (that’s my name: Henry). ‘Henry, just Tell The Story’. Never a truer word like wot she is spoke.
Rule 4: Take A Break
Now, before I write this part, I’m taking a break to have a cup of coffee and hug my dog. The relevance of this will become clearer later.
Now, unless you are a very skilled professional working to a tight deadline, you should never send stuff straight to air while it’s still hot. Good writing is a dish best served cold. Very skilled professionals working to a tight deadline have sub-editors to go through the text for mishtakes [sic]. You won’t have that luxury. Every so often, take a break. I find that I can’t write more than a thousand words at a stretch without my concentration going hello clouds hello sky and floating out of the window.
My friend, Brian Clegg, who’s written more science books than you’ve had large hadron colliders for breakfast (his latest work is Inflight Science, once again in the proverbial All Good Bookshops) says that the most important piece of equipment a writer can own is a dog. Writing is a solitary business, and a dog provides unobtrusive companionship. More importantly, dogs need regular exercise in the open air, and won’t care that you’ve got a split phthisis stuck in your synecdoche. Visits to the gym can always be postponed, but the sight of those big doggy eyes and a waggy tail will force any writer to get away from the screen, get some exercise, think through what they’ve written and plan the next bit.
Rule 5: Finish it
My younger daughter, Gee Minima, is always starting stories with titles such as Sparkle The Unicorn, but she rarely gets more than a couple of pages in. Most writers will say the same — their bottom drawers are full of half-completed projects. Some of these can be plundered for later use in more successful ventures, but if you’ve started something, it’s important to finish it. Apart from a delightful vignette, My Dad Is Mad, that she wrote for a competition, the only story Gee Minima has ever finished was an 18,000-word epic called Defiant The Guinea Pig: Firefighter! (sadly not yet in the proverbial All Good Bookshops) and that’s only because I wrote most of it, enforcing a rigorous discipline of 1,000 words a day (which I then submitted to Gee Minima for Editorial Scrutiny). It’s just Rule 1 all over again. Writing is an art, but it’s also a craft. To succeed, you have to do it every day. Most writers keep pretty regular hours. Few are the writers who’ve just sat around waiting for the muse to strike.
Rule 6: Avoid cliché
Never in the field of human inquiry have so many known so little about so much. There, you can have that one for free.
Rule 7: There is no rule 7
Rule 8: This rule is temporarily closed for renovations. The Guardian apologises for the inconvenience
Rule 9: Er…
Rule 10: That’s it
Henry Gee is a Senior Editor of Nature and the author of several books. He’s currently writing another book about human evolution for the University of Chicago Press. He blogs at The End Of The Pier Show. He lives in Cromer, Norfolk, with his family and numerous pets. He enjoys writing, beachcombing, playing blues organ, supporting Norwich City FC and falling asleep.