I picked up Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft because I was curious about how storytelling can improve scientific writing. Storytelling is a core characteristic of human nature and culture. Almost every kind of human communication involves stories to a certain degree. So what about the stories that science holds?
We shouldn’t forget that scientists are writers. Science is as much about writing as it is about research. A scientist is expected to write about their arguments, their findings, and the importance and impact of these findings.
Writing is refined thinking.
— Stephen King, On Writing
Communicating science comes in many varieties. There are of course stories about science. These range from short anecdotes, such as Gauss computing \(1+2+\ldots + 100\) in seconds and Galois outlining his novel ideas in a letter the night before he died in a duel, to grand epics such as the recent biographical movie of Oppenheimer’s life and work. Notice that while based on real life dry facts, these stories are more than that. They are presented in a way that evokes an emotional reaction from the audience.
On the other hand there is plain and straightforward science. The structure of a scientific paper, or presentation usually looks like this: problem → context → method → solution. Or observation → hypothesis → experiments → results. Notice how this structure is already a form of story. There is a setting, or a premise, existing in the world of the research field at hand. The main result is the main character, whether it is a method or a hypothesis. The main character has to engage in dialogue with other related methods and results, overcome the obstacles of argumentation and proof, and come out of this ordeal victorious, shining light to previously unexplored areas and sharing the newfound knowledge with the audience.
I admit this is an extreme comparison but it serves to clarify a simple point. Storytelling can make for more engaging, memorable and impactful science dissemination and communication.
Stephen King’s On Writing
In his memoir, King shares his insights into his writing process and the storytelling elements he finds most important. This is an intimate account that goes beyond a list of “dos and don’ts” you would find in a writing guide. He shares the life experiences that formed him and provides context about why and under which circumstances On Writing came to be. Deeply personal and candid, King’s book addresses the reader with just enough directness you would expect from a friend who is eager to see you succeed in your writing pursuits. This book gave me a better understanding on what I should be focusing on while on my journey to become a better writer.
Here I list some of the points addressed in the book that left an impression on me, along with some notes on how they could relate to science writing.
Read and write a lot. If you are serious about your writing you should do just that. When reading, pay attention to what works and what doesn’t. I am sure that those among you who are scientists have probably some papers that have stuck with you. Stop for a moment and think what made that one journal article so memorable?
Close the door. Make the time and the space to properly dive into the writing process. Also, use that isolation to feel comfortable with your writing. First drafts should be freeform. Criticism and edits come later.
Find your Ideal Reader. Always keep in mind who is going to read your text, who you are writing for, your IR. Don’t waste their time and focus on their reading experience. One way to do this is to treat yourself as the first reader of your writing. Be clear about what you yourself like and dislike when reading. Be critical and question your own assumptions about what is important to include in the text. Have colleagues that will give your their honest opinion about your draft. Of course, depending on the type of writing you are doing, your IR will change. They will be a very different person if you are writing a journal publication, an article accessible to the general public, or a blog post.
Be personal. King spends the first part of the book recounting how he became a writer, explaining where he is coming from, and giving context to his thoughts on the writing process. This not only makes for a more engaging read but also makes us better understand the arguments behind his advice. So go ahead and draw from your own life experiences, and inject your text with personality. This is of course not a general rule and doesn’t apply to all science writing.
Write your truth. Very different from “write what you know”. This is about honesty in what you like and find interesting. Don’t try to impress, or write only what you think the audience will like. Your genuine interests will make your writing both easier and more “true”. For my scientist readers, that interest or passion could be problem solving, or a desire to understand how the world works, or have a positive impact on society. Whatever your research topic is, there is a reason and a story on why you are working on it, and you probably have opinions on why it is important. Spend some time finding your answers to these questions.
Story first. King reminds us multiple times that “it’s always about the story”. Everything else is there to support it. Don’t get too caught up with the linguistic tools at your disposal. Vocabulary, pacing, dialogue, description—they all should ultimately serve the story.
Theme. This one was one of the topics I spent most time thinking about. King lists his personal deep interests that come up as thematic topics in his work. One example is “the terrible attraction violence sometimes has for fundamentally good people.” He advices us to find our own and use “thematic thinking” in our writing. If I had to list some of my own they would be: understanding the hidden geometry behind anything; the interaction between science and art; the philosophy of personal identity and consciousness; and ethical considerations and reflections on the future of human-AI relationship.
What science storytelling isn’t
The way that storytelling can be incorporated in science communication seems to be an active topic of discussion. The aspiring science writer should be wary of the pitfalls of the storytelling approach. Storytelling in science is not an excuse to distort results, hide information, and twist the scientific narrative towards promoting a personal point of view.
Let’s adapt one of King’s quotes that we mentioned above to clarify this. It’s always about the science. Storytelling is there to support it.