Thursday, August 2, 2012

Fiction techniques for science writing

Greetings from West Virginia! I’m here to for work training for a class called Critical Writing/Critical Thinking. Non class time is limited, so this post will be brief and rather content free.

The course focuses on writing techniques for clearer arguments (authority based, analogy based) and techniques to present arguments (IRAC). The course also presents pre-writing techniques specific to science writing (not just outlining, but cubing and the six hats technique). 

Other portions of the course have been less helpful. They spent an awful lot of time making us identify subject and verb in a sentence. Didn't we learn that in second grade? But what really puzzled me was the application of narrative structure to science writing. I'm not convinced that applying character, plot and setting to an article on shorebird nesting would really work out for me. But it made me think, how would scientific writing be if it took a drastic turn toward adopting more fiction examples. Say, for example, peer-reviewed journal articles took on various popular POV and tense conventions?

Second person:
 You incubated cultures of a C. crescentus under the control of a xylose-inducible promoter in the presence of a xylose concentration selected to produce a high concentration of fluorescently labeled MreB fusion proteins. You used 514-nm irradiation to illuminate the sample until the density of emissive fluorophores was reduced to the single-molecule level. You imaged this low-concentration sub-ensemble until all remaining fluorophores bleached...
 Naval gazing: 
At present, six billion humans consume 42% of the primary plant production, take 50% of the accessible water supply and dominate most of the fertile land (Vitousek et al . 1986, Pimm 2001)... In addition, humans may be responsible for a steep rise in the surface temperature of the Earth through the emission of CO2 and other greenhouse gasses (IPCC 2001).... and I am one of those, each breath another puff in the gasses clouding the planet. Sometimes I feel like that pollution is inside me, choking and crushing and even increasing the toxic gasses I breathe back out... And what is this effect, this pollution, on the cycle of my days? Only that my glacial control melts and the sea level rise of my sorrow washes me away...
Buffalo Bill creepy instructions:
It takes the eaglet from the nest. It puts a metal Fish and Wildlife Band on the eaglet's leg. It weighs the eaglet carefully so as not to harm the growing bones...

Okay, maybe the last one's not that current. Anyway, these are the things that keep me occupied during eight hours a day of classtime. 

I have to say, it'd make reading for work much more entertaining.

(With apologies to the authors of the papers I mangled for the first two examples: 
Biteen et al. 2008. Super-resolution imaging in live Caulobacter crescentus cells using photoswitchable EYFP. Nature Methods 5: 947-949.
Piersma and Lindstrom. 2002. Migrating shorebirds as integrative sentinels of global environmental change. Ibis 146 (Suppl.1): 61–69)


  1. Sabrina, that was hysterical. I think you should write your next scientific paper in multiple POVs, alternating between an omniscient, charismatic narrator and second person future.

    And then write a textbook in Buffalo Bill. Still chuckling...

    1. All government manuals should be written in Buffalo Bill styles. It'd be appropriate, methinks.

  2. I've been having one hell of a time keeping my fiction prose out of my masters thesis. My adviser keeps telling me things like, "The Journal of Wildlife Management will not accept alliteration!"

    1. Bonus points if you write your abstract as a series of haikus.

  3. Sabrina, you are hilarious. I would've enjoyed reading scientific journals a lot more if they were written in these styles. So many times I had to fight to keep my brain from falling asleep while reading them.

    Thanks for sharing. :)

    1. I'm just glad that most ecology journals finally dumped the forced passive voice!

      Glad you enjoyed.

  4. Sorry for not commenting earlier, but my glacial control melted and the sea level raised of my sorrow washed me away...

    Have a great class, and then apply that learning to a certain project I'm waiting to read.


    1. It's in the mail today! :D And it's almost 15 pages long.


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