Thursday, July 01, 2010

Ask a Geneticist

My first "Ask a Geneticist" post just went live; you can find it here. It's written for schoolchildren, so it's pretty rudimentary and full of generalizations, but I'm reasonably happy with how it turned out. As a first (official) try at science-writing-for-laypeople, I think it's not so bad, although it has much more of a didactic/pedagogical aim and therefore more of a patronizing tone than I'm used to or perhaps comfortable with. It is possible, however, that I will be the only one to notice the unbearably twee condescension in what is by force a brief essay. (I can't imagine myself reading it aloud in my own natural speaking voice; only a higher-pitched, forcibly cheerful tone I use primarily when dealing with hyperactive children.)

The process of writing it was a bit of a lesson in and of itself. It was edited and vetted by the head of Stanford's program at the San Jose Tech Museum, a former research science who now focuses exclusively on community outreach and education. I had hoped, possibly foolishly, that because his focus was on outreach and education, that he would be able to teach me a good deal about clear communication of science. I had visions of my school essays in middle and high school, when I would get them back from my father: bloody and covered with red ink. Some combination of Strunk and White and the Little Red Schoolhouse course at Chicago that I only heard about second-hand from Ayn.

Let's just say I was disabused of my naive sentimentality. There was no secret knowledge handed to me in a manila envelope, 'Rules of Science Writing'. This isn't even science writing for adults, but science writing with an aim towards teaching schoolchildren, which is completely different. And I am enough of a snob about my style that I got into somewhat heated debates with the program director about word choice, sentence structure, and a few places where I detested his edits and changed them back repeatedly. One of his comments to me was "I noticed you don't like starting sentences with 'and'. It isn't necessarily the most proper thing to do but it can help shorter sentences in a row feel less choppy." As far as I could tell, that was the result of one specific place where I objected to starting a sentence with 'and'. In general, when it helps the flow, I don't mind starting a sentence with 'and' or 'so' or 'but'. Neither do I particularly mind sentence fragments. Especially in colloquial, online writing. But I don't think that "To know which test to choose, you have to know the difference between the tests. That means understanding how DNA works" is particularly choppy, or rather I don't think it's any more choppy than "To know which test to choose, you have to know the difference between the tests. And that means understanding how DNA works." In fact, in this situation, I feel that the 'and' is purely an extra word that clogs up the sentence and makes it, if anything, more choppy.

I suppose the reason this was difficult for me is that I wanted it to be more than it was; I wanted this to be an introduction to Science Writing, to fundamentally change the way I wrote about science or thought about writing. It didn't. If anything, I am more set in my ways and stubborn now than I was when I began the process of writing this essay. This wasn't a great learning experience which taught me new and interesting ways of conveying complicated scientific concepts to the unfamiliar masses. It was simply another writing assignment, something I can do reasonably well and reasonably easily, and something which perhaps would be easier still if I didn't care about the finished product as much as I do.

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