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April 12, 2012 / Jorge de Amizade

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).

Table 1. Overall techniques in the first ten paragraphs of "20000 microbes under the sea" (based in the Discover’s version).

Table 1. Overall techniques in the first ten paragraphs of "20000 microbes under the sea" (based in the Discover’s version). Click on the thumbnail to open in a new tab.

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.

Table 2. Usage of describing techniques in the first ten paragraphs of "20000 microbes under the sea" (based in the Discover’s version).

Table 2. Usage of describing techniques in the first ten paragraphs of "20000 microbes under the sea" (based in the Discover’s version).

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).

Figure 1.Percentage of describing techniques in the first ten paragraphs of "20000 microbes under the sea" (based in the Discover’s version).

Figure 1.Percentage of describing techniques in the first ten paragraphs of "20000 microbes under the sea" (based in the Discover’s version).

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.

Bibliography

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/

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11 Comments

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  1. annagardiner / Apr 14 2012 3:21 pm

    The work you’ve put into your post is amazing! I can’t believe that first table! You clearly analysed the life out of your text and I like how you managed to tie other people’s blogs into yours – it goes to show you’ve put alot of consideration into what we’ve all been writing.

    I really liked how the author repeated “the thing about the mud is…” it doesn’t scare people off and creates imagery straight away. Reminded me of a lecturer I had last year who called prokaryotic organisms “little bugs”. Their scientific incorrectness adds some humour too.

    I definitely agree that above all; creativity is key, and I am definitely impressed with your effort on this post. It probably was too long though, blogs are usually 200-500 words and I think you’ve got about 1500.

    • fullclever / Apr 14 2012 6:09 pm

      Thank you, Anna.
      I think I wrote too much because I really enjoyed the article. When I saw myself, I was reading the original with over ten pages and interesting pictures. I’ll do my best to improve for the next opportunities.
      Have you done your draft about the science songwriting?
      Regards.

  2. alistairsisson / Apr 15 2012 4:21 am

    Woah. So much content! You certainly have put in a lot more effort into analysis than anybody else thus far. You covered a really broad topic very well and comprehensively, and I pretty much agree with everything you’ve said. I think it is especially true that creativity is the key; you may know all the writing tools and techniques in the world. but if you don’t know how to implement them in an interesting and uncontrived way then your writing will never be effective.

    One thing I will say is that I’m not sure about in-text citation in a blog; it really disrupts the rhythm and can make it a little dry. But maybe I just don’t take blogs seriously enough.

    • fullclever / Apr 15 2012 3:29 pm

      Hello, Alistair.
      Thank you very much for your contribution. You are right about the use of techniques. One thing is knowing the techniques and the other is mastering them. For instance, you can know everything about the musical notes or scales but if you are unable to play any instrument you are not a musician.
      Respecting the references, I do not think that we have the freedom to use others ideas without give them credits. Besides, the audience is important. I believe that my schoolmates understand about the UWA referencing rules (APA, in this case).
      Once more, I am grateful and really enjoyed your post about the use of comma.
      Hugs.

  3. thiarayoanita69 / Apr 17 2012 1:08 pm

    Okay, wow! I would give an A+ for effort.. This piece of writing demonstrates a thorough understanding of the article you are discussing. I do agree with you that both adjectives and figurative language have been a great tool in constructing image on readers’ mind. If I may add, Kunzig has also effectively used “setting” in the introduction, to develop images on readers’ mind. Readers would then start to form a rough estimate, on what the writing is about.. Creativity is of course one of key components in producing a high-quality writing, but without continuous practice, creativity alone will not be adequate in constructing reliable yet engaging image on readers’ mind 🙂

    On another note, I personally do not think that tables and graph are necessary here. Without the presented data that you have shown, I am positive that you can still explain your points clearly. Moreover, I can find very little discussion of your tables and graph, in your discussion. If you want to stick with these tables and graph however, I recommend you to elaborate more on the implication of the results – e.g. why do you think metaphor is the major technique accommodated in the writing, compared to all other techniques? is it more effective? why is that so? And as @annagardiner have mentioned above, I would say your blog post is too long; it is supposed to be a 200-500 words.

    That said, a very well done research that you have done there 🙂

    • fullclever / Apr 17 2012 7:35 pm

      Thank you, Thiara.Sent from Samsung Mobile

  4. suyinnn / Apr 19 2012 9:22 am

    Hello! Thumbs up for the amount of effort that you have put in on this blog post! I liked the way you analysis each and every part of Kunzig’s reading, explaining the techniques and tools that Kunzig’s used to make his article interesting. It reminded me of those days in high school when I did literature; the exploration of themes, ideas, imagery, figurative of speeches, and so on.

    As the saying goes, ‘A picture paints a thousand words’, I do agree that creativity is key. Different people might picture different images due to their own interpretation, and I agree that imagery indeed help in explaining many difficult concepts that are hard to comprehend. I, myself, find it easier to remember things, or even lectures, when I associate and attach different images to them.

    On the side note, I think that your article is above the word limit, it is supposed to be between 200-500 words. The graph about the usage of describing techniques might be a little redundant too, as you have a table about it. It felt slightly like a lab report. Maybe because I am a psychology major, and it reminded me of the results section of a lab report. :p

    I enjoyed reading your article, and I could feel your passion towards the analysis of this work of art. Good job! 😀

  5. studentname23 / Apr 20 2012 4:55 am

    It’s really fantastic job, full clever. I always think about reading the shakesphere. Now I have the confidence in start reading.
    The article was a really a scientific one. I skimmed it first then read your blog. I gathered some information after watching the video only. It was useful to understand the topic.
    I agree the other commentors. You have analysed in various angles but I don’t know whether the contents all appropriate in blogging.
    I also agree that the “creativity is the key” for the topic !!!

  6. lodoubt / Apr 20 2012 2:01 pm

    Having just realised I hadn’t been keeping up with the blog for the week and ducking in, this really bowled me over! It’s a bold experiment into quantitative reviewing. Kind of reminiscent of a scientific paper in and of itself! Though as a few people have commented above, this did make it a bit difficult to hook into from a communications perspective.

  7. noelynn / Apr 24 2012 4:10 am

    Thank you Edyye for the post. You sure did alot of writing, but the good thing was that you were creative too. However, being creative can also mean using tables and figures as the basis of the message.

    Though it was lengthy, I enjoyed it because of the explanations and the varying figures, and tables used. So like studentname23 admits, I found the video useful too. Your analysis was good although the graph was a little too much.

    Great job, you surely were a critical and creative writer.

  8. JamieAlexandraGraves / Apr 26 2012 7:42 am

    Wow! A very scientific summary of a very scientific article! I think your tables and graphs accurately and concisely summarise the uses of language Kunzig uses in his article in order to create visual descriptions for the reader. And I agree with everyone here that you have put in an amazing amount of effort into this blog! But I must admit it was very daunting to look at initially.

    I agree with studentname23 and noelynn that the video you incorporated was extremely helpful in helping me understand the scientific content you’re discussing – a fantastic idea!

    And the myriad of techniques you have discussed such as simple explanation, analogy, simile etc. are accurate examples used to create visual descriptions and are backed up adequately from segments from the article itself.

    Like thiarayoanita69 says – definitely an A+!

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