I suppose for years I’ve harbored the desire to write for a popular audience. A strange visceral need to be sure, but after it strikes, it’s hard to deny.
While practicing medicine, I would cubbyhole an interesting case file or article to later return to for inspiration. Some dramatic experiences in medicine simply demanded more processing time than my busy medical practice would allow. These records, by the way, helped me develop the stories for my forthcoming book, Carrying the Black Bag: A Doctor’s Story.
Not long after retiring from neurology, I signed up for popular writing classes at the Texas Tech University Higher Education Teaching Site in Fredericksburg, Texas. A retired writing professor who had relocated from a faculty at Houston university taught these courses.
At the time I felt I had a reasonable understanding how to write for a popular audience. After all, I had edited some five medical books and authored over 100 scientific articles and chapters. Wow, was I wrong!
Not only did my scientific writing skills not help, in some ways they impeded my progress toward writing for a popular audience. I would never have suspected this.
Scientific writing must be concise. The space available in scientific journals is precious indeed and editors are maniacal in their attempts to excise excessive verbiage. This results from more worthy articles being submitted than there is space to print them.
I had also mastered the unfortunate but well ingrained habit of using jargon and passive voice. I had earlier been discouraged by journal editors from using popular writing devices such as similes, metaphors, and alliteration. Colorful description in scientific articles was absolutely verboten.
This painful lesson I learned early on from a irritable editor. (In an earlier draft I used the term dyspeptic editor, resorting again to a term not commonly understand. Over learned writing habits are hard to break as I just proved.) The jargon impedes communication to a popular audience to be sure, although it shortens the description necessary-a cardinal requirement for scientific writing.
When writing for a popular audience, I found having to monitor my word choice closely to avoid this insidious habit of using jargon. Lets face it–scientific writing is dull reading and impenetrable if lacking the professional jargon.
Scientific writing also follows on from studies for which data and methods exist. Popular writing has less rules and demands greater creativity. The guideposts are less obvious for popular writing. Any of you with an MFA in creative writing feel free to differ with me on this point.
I remember one day in class being given a general topic to write on and having a devil of a time being creative enough to write a story about it. The idea seemed to come out of no where and lacked context. There had been no experiments, no case file to review, and no scientific literature from which to begin. Ah, the terror of a blank page reared its ugly head! Needless to say, my class offering was short in the extreme.
Naturally, I became most comfortable writing about topics about which I knew something–experiences from medicine and my new found retirement to a Texas cattle ranch. Nevertheless, i have over the years learned to dabble in fiction and occasionally to venture further afield from my comfort zone. While my fiction is of poorer quality than I desire, my attempts as they have unspooled at least have loosened me up.
At the conclusion of my writing classes, I realized I was having such a good time that I did not want to stop. I suggested to several of my classmates (old friends at this juncture) we form a writer’s critique group. Just because our instructor had decided to stop teaching did not mean that we had to stop meeting. This venture soon proved a helpful exercise about which I shall write next. Critique groups are extremely useful but certain precautions are needed. My opinion springs from having experienced both positive and negative outcomes. More later.
Tagged: Creative Nonfiction, Scientific writing versus popular writing
Thoroughly enjoyed this discourse on scientific vs. audience driven writing. It took me back to a technical writing course I took in college in which we were given an object to describe to someone who had never seen it and make sure our description was sufficient for them to imagine it correctly.