Thursday, December 15, 2011

In my other life, I'm a writer

I've known I wanted to be an ecologist since I was sixteen years old and participated in a career shadowing program.  We conducted legless lizard surveys, and did some nonnative vegetation removal. Basically, I was sitting there weeding the dune and thinking, "gosh, this is the most fun I've had in a while!" Which told me a couple of things:

1) I need a life.
2) I should look into doing this ecology thing as a career.

Yes, I said legless lizard, not snake.  I'm not making them up either!

Fast forward more than a decade, and I'm still an ecologist, now working for the federal government.  The particular job I applied for, and got, is an office job.  And despite the lack of field work, I love my job.  I sometimes feel like I should miss field work more, and I do miss it a lot.  But here's the thing.

I get to write all day long.

True fact: part of the reason I got the job was that I was smart enough to share with the interviewing official that I had fiction writing experience.  There are downsides, like the fact that I spend way too much time in front of my computer. So today, I'm going to share how these two writing aspects of my life collide, and what I've learned in the process.

How fiction has influenced my science
1)  Having a good grasp of skills as simple as good grammar and avoidance of run-on sentences has gained me points from my bosses.  In all honesty, a lot of great scientists are actually really, really terrible writers.
 2) Always present a logical flow of events so that your readers can follow you.  Don't add in side events – or scientific facts – that aren't part of your main plot (argument).   My bosses are actually forever instructing us to "tell the story."  :)
3) If I don't get something, just open up a blank sheet of paper and pour out my messy, jumbled thoughts onto paper.  I've found that it works just as well for constructing arguments as it does for constructing scenes.
4) I'm well-practiced at avoiding passive voice. Today we're instructed to use active voice in science writing, but passive voice actually used to be the standard for peer-reviewed scientific article.  It made for very awkward reading. Ugh)\.

How science has influenced my fiction
1) Succinctness is a good thing.  The Federal Register, publisher of government documents, calculates its costs by word. And as a person who tends to be rather verbose, it's amazing how many words I can cut out in a science document… and as a person who leans toward 10,000 word story ideas, it's important for me to learn to be concise.
2) Should I ever feel the need to use weak verbs,' to be' verbs, or adverbs, those things are totally allowed in science writing.  A little guilty thrill comes over me when I realize I don't have to go through removing them all!  But on the downside:
3) Science writing requires double spaces after a word rather than single spaces. This rule, frankly, drives me insane.  First I had to adjust from college writing to standard manuscript format, and now for work I have to double space?  My fingers have addressed the problem by putting out an unpredictable mixture of both if I'm not paying attention.  So no matter what document I'm in, I have to check every single sentence.  Fun!
4) Writing fiction really makes me appreciate not having to reference everything I say.  Imagine fiction writing under such a system:

Stephen stood at the edge of the cliff, facing the lairs of the dragons, a species known to be dangerous (Tolkien 1937).  It was going to take courage to face evil (Pierce 1988), but love was worth dying for (Shakespeare 1597; Bronte 1847; Wagner 1865; but see Wharton 1905 and 1911).

Just thinking about it hurts my head.


  1. I loved this post! Okay, the whole legless lizard thing is freaking me out a little, but I hope you seriously consider writing a short story referenced like your last paragraph. I laughed out loud.

  2. Awesome post! I've never heard of legless lizards before. Pretty cool.

    Sounds like you have a really interesting job.

    I think you missed a few key references for "love is worth dying for." :)

  3. I second Susan's suggestion for a referenced short story. That would be AWESOME.

    True story: I was an environmental science major until my summer of fun at the Mountain Lake Biological Station in VA. Doing population studies on beetles in hot, humid, dense patches of thistle (and YES, bumblebees DO sting, I don't know why people keep saying otherwise), was pretty much enough to cure me. Someday I'll tell you about all the mice I dropped in my bra that summer... In the fall I switched to biology so I could go to grad school in bioengineering and never go outside again ;)

  4. Sarah - ha! You can't hold out on us now!
    I actually started out in Zoology, but finally realized I just couldn't kill anything in order to study it (pre-dead was a-ok with me - yes, I am a hypocrite). To salvage two years of credits I switched to Botany. I can murder plants all day long without a twinge of guilt. :) (that smiley's for you, Sheena!)

  5. "but see Wharton 1905 and 1911" - LOVE IT!!!! thank you for giving a smile over my lunch break.

  6. Sabrina, I think you've got an excellent idea for a flash fiction piece. Do it!


Got an opinion? Use it! Remember... be silly, be honest, and be nice/proofread.