Creativity is the key
If we look at the past easily understand that writing is an attempt of building ideas. That is why the writing evolved from drawing to alphabets. This attempt originated masters like Charles Dickens or Isabel Allende. Some, like Jules Verne or Dan Brown, still mix words with images but most use only the writing. For novels it is easy but scientific texts are generally regarded as difficult (Golbort, 2006). Still, some writers believe that appropriated methods simplify the scientific language (Johnson, 2006). This article analyses some techniques used to “paint images in the reader’s mind”.
Robert Kunzig was particularly recognised after publishing 20,000 microbes under the sea in the Discover magazine (2004) and The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2005. The article’s main matter is the undersea layer of bacteria and its importance (whatch a video about it). The copy present in LMS has nine paragraphs divided in two main sections, all beginning with the expression “The thing about the mud…”. The first section describes the discovery of the layer and the second the methane hydrate produced by these “small creatures”.
The overall structure helps the delivery of ideas by facilitating the skimming of the text. The heading ‘opens the door to the land or rhetoric’, the key set of techniques to describe what he witnessed. Using this parody from the Verne’s classic “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”, he easily grabs the reader’s attention and lets him aware of the literary richness and beauty of the text. Indeed, Kunzig uses a lot of techniques: simple explanation, analogies and metaphors, similes, accuracy, estimations, evaluations or simple comparisons, redundancy, description of feelings, use of common sense or general knowledge (see tables 1, 2 and figure 1). Some techniques were previously well described by other authors like Darius (2012) and Yoanita (2012).
Metaphor was the major technique, as the author used to engage and clarify some concepts. Notice the following text (from the original Discover magazine’s article).
“… [the bacteria live in a] dark world without oxygen…” (Kunzig, 2004, p. 32)
The strangeness of the idea is entertaining and still elucidating. All known organisms live in the very same planet. There is no “dark” or “light” world. Still, the contrast between what we are used to see and the “dark world” makes us realize how weird the undersea bacteria’s habitat seems. On contrary, we live in a light and oxygenated place.
Rather than giving ‘beauty’ and attractiveness, the metaphors helps to visualise what the author really wants to describe. He can easily use well-known words to clarify the complex or unknown (Johnson, 2006). Kunzig masters continuously this figure of speech, sometimes integrating with others. For instance, when the author wrote “… the mud… was hardly mud at all”, there is a metaphor (the mud is a bacterial sample) and an antithesis (he contradicts himself).
The second choice was simple and clear explanation. Rather than using the ‘boring and complicated’ technical or scientific terms, the author paraphrased them into a simpler language. Otherwise, the ordinary and lay reader would be struggling to understand (Darius, 2012). When, in the 3rd paragraph, Kunzig wrote that some bacteria consume methane and others consume, he spared the reader of the complex description of biochemical and physiological processes. We can have a good idea of the essential without necessarily master the science. In the end, if the matter is useless for the reader’s immediate purposes, he can lose completely the interest of an article difficult to read.
If one is writing of something new or interesting, it must be amazing. It must engage the reader. As the other techniques shape the objects in the reader’s mind, the description of feelings seed a value judgement, helps him to build opinions. No wonder why the author filled the text with adjectives describing the general feelings related to the findings. There are some examples (from Kunzig, 2005): “… the thing that surprised and delighted the researchers…” (p. 125), “… it was an awful smell…” (p. 127). As people, we all need to know how the others think or what they feel (Shreeve, 2006).
Other precious tool is the accuracy in referencing, especially for the ones who are really interested in proceed with the reading after finishing the current article. He gives the names, nationalities and workplaces of the key scientists involved in the researches, the exact locations, the year and season and the overall basic conditions (e.g. depth, weather) of the findings. Shreeve (2006) says that these and other details shall not be left apart.
Kunzig also makes good estimations, evaluations and comparisons.
“The total [amount of undersea methane]… is probably greater than the mass of all… reserves of coal, gas and oil.” (Kunzig, 2005, p. 126).
Notice that he was carefully in telling “probably”. He was humble enough to admit the possibility of being wrong and still gives us the notion of how much methane exists undersea. The writer was also accurate in writing “It is frozen solid, but it is not exactly ice.” (Kunzig, 2005, p.127). This exact description was an improvement to the concept because most of the scientists simply describe the methane hydrates as “icelike”.
The analogy and simile have the same effect as metaphor, but the author must still be careful not to take the reader’s mind away from what he really means on the text. The comparison between the consistency of the bacteria layer and flesh make us think of something tender and probably slightly elastic.
Is not new that repetition (or even redundancy) is important for the memory and the author did not spoil this opportunity. However, he was subtle and yet effective. For example, e created a ‘small ritual’, beginning the sections with “The thing about the mud…” (Kunzig, 2005, p. 125, 127). He was really subtle by telling “… single-celled microbes” (Kunzig, 2005, p. 126) but it is pleonasm anyway. Microbes are generally single-celled (growing sometimes in clusters or colonies of unicellular organisms). However, for the lay reader it is good to have this clear and enhanced idea that bacteria are always single-celled.
Common sense and general knowledge lower the reader’s effort to understand the text. They are probably applied to ‘bring back’ the reader to his ‘well-known’ territory where he can recover the self-esteem and master the reading session.
Moreover, there are elements but rethorics: the narrative, what Shreeve (2006) agrees as the most effective explanatory method, descriptions of photos, quotations and different points of view related to methane hydrate (good to open the reader’s mind). The will to read is also important for the propensity to absorb information and Kunzig also was careful in this respect. He indirectly suggests that methane can be the main cause of the global warming.
There is another relevant point. The first version (Kunzig, 2004) has nine pages, includes an opening paragraph (absent in 2005 version) and pictures. The piece of the article posted in LMS is still faraway from the climax and probably much more analysis could be made and other techniques found. The pictures are also relevant because the reader can judge the colours and shapes by himself. Yet the portion of text was enough to learn a lot.
One shall conclude that there is no universal formula to paint images in the reader’s minds. Creativity must be the key. Besides, there are two other aspects to take in account: knowledge about the techniques and awareness about the target public. There are still many texts to analyse, many other figures of rhetoric (anacoluthon, anaphrase, anastrophe, apostrophe, etc.), each of them with different features. The science writer must be aware of the reader’s values, beliefs, behaviour, condition of life, etc. He must be exactly like Kunzig: master the words to draw engaging and still realistic images in the minds of the readers.
Darius, N. (2012). The simple explanation. Retrieved from https://sciencewritingblog.wordpress.com/2012/03/16/the-simple-explanation/
Goldbort, R. (2006). Writing for science. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Johnson, G. (2006). Explanatory writing. In D. Blum, M. Knudson & R. M. Henig (Eds.), A Field Guide for Science Writers (Second ed., pp. 132-137). New York: Oxford University Press.
Kunzig, R. (2004). 20,000 microbes under the sea. Discover, 25(3), 32-41.
Kunzig, R. (2005). 20,000 microbes under the sea. In T. Folger (Ed.), The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2005 (pp. 125-127). Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.
Shreeve, J. (2006). Narrative writing. In D. Blum, M. Knudson & R. M. Henig (Eds.), A Field Guide for Science Writers (Second ed., pp. 138-144). New York: Oxford University Press.
Yoanita, T. (2012). A friend sealed in a pen. Retrieved from https://sciencewritingblog.wordpress.com/2012/03/25/a-friend-sealed-in-a-pen/