Tuesday, August 25, 2009


Learning to unlearn without losing the lessons. If you’d told Mrs. Whatshername (my only Junior year English teacher I don’t remember who taught the term I had to write the bloody Passenger Pigeon Essay) that I would one day be a writer, she would have stared at you in disbelief (granted, the reek of alcohol would have discredited her opinion somewhat). At 16, term papers were not my strong suit. By that time though, I journaled regularly, wrote reams of poetry (teen angsty stuff), and had probably a dozen regular pen pals who ALL considered me their most reliable pen friend. (for the record, Melinda was MY most reliable pen pal--I happen to know she ALSO had a dozen such friends--Cancer’s like to write when we are sorting our emotions). But the formal stuff? Not so much. The Journalism Degree I have a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Journalism teaches you to lead with a powerful hook and then put details in decreasing levels of importance as you go on. They are planning ahead to include or exclude based strictly on space available and that is the way that newspaper and magazine readers read because of it. It still largely uses the ‘main point, 3 supporting details, transition’ paragraph structure you are taught for high school essays, but the emphasis is on communicating the important points quickly, because the audience attention span is short (and admittedly, I read newspapers that way too, rarely finishing articles--but maybe it is because of how they are written). Business and Marketing Communication After my BA I worked in advertising for three years (only JUST squeaking back out with my soul in tact). I had to do two types of communicating there--most importantly, I had to communicate with our clients and their staff, and with the media--in most cases because we needed them to do something. The structure of such communications is 1) a gratuitous compliment, 2) what we need in clear words, 3) why cooperating benefits THEM, 4) How freaking easy it is to do (typically a step by step so they can’t POSSIBLY screw it up), and 5) a gratuitous ‘aren’t we having fun?’ summary. The point of this was usually to get them to do something some larger body or entity had already agreed on, so name dropping was helpful, but in reality it was just a lightly persuasive ‘how to’. Then there was the actual marketing writing… Rule #1: Seven words. The masses have the attention span of a toothpick, and you are NEVER to strain it or they won’t do what you want. You ever seen a bumper sticker or billboard with more words and you are looking at an AMATEUR. The MS and Scientific Writing FORGET communication… the new word of the day is convince EVERYBODY how important our work is! Phrase it so they don’t know we’re bragging. Compliment the scientists who might review us. This is all tongue in cheek, because I am still working in this field, and in reality, we wouldn’t be PUBLISHING if we didn’t feel our work was important (2 manuscripts accepted this week--another with a promising review provided we do some revisions--very good week on that front). But there is a formula: 1) lit review to show the hole in the literature your study will fill, 2) methods of study you did, 3) results in statistical terms 4) discussion in plain English (by plain I mean understandable to any old PhD) which includes conclusions, limitations and next steps. But there really IS a large portion of the scientific community hugely focused on impressing people, and one of the ways they try to do this is to do to scientific manuscripts what William Falkner does to literature--be so verbose nobody can possibly follow the main ideas. Keeping a hold of that slippery baby None of this is outwardly helpful for writing a novel. As I toss the bathwater of these writing schools out however, I keep having to remind myself of the useful nuggets each can bring. While I would never want to give away the good stuff up front as a newspaper journalist does, it is a nice guide for outlining what actually happened (back story) so that I can then write it as if it is happening. And the advertising, PR types make fun characters (CONFLUENCE has a couple, including Trish, one of the main characters). The business stuff though, is something I’ve only recently reminded myself to draw on for the querying, and will be crucial knowledge for promotion piece. I’m not really sure yet if there is anything useful about the scientific writing I do except that it is the demon I wrestle most because I still spend part of most days doing that kind of writing. But I do seem to always have an academic character in the center of things, and I know it has taught me some of the pitfalls—and that no matter how complicated something is, it can be put in plain English and communicated if somebody really has a goal of communicatin, instead of just posturing. I think though, all of the above are why I write my fiction long hand in the bathtub, instead of at my computer. The WRONG kinds of communicating are just too easy to tap at the keyboard.


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

I think you've gotten some incredible training as a writer. I had a smattering of journalism and advertising and found it useful for writing back cover copy (which I wrote before writing the book...just making sure I had a salable story), queries, and synopses.

The scientific writing, I'd guess, would help when applying Strunk's rule: "Omit needless words"?

Mystery Writing is Murder

Rayna M. said...

I admit that there is a lot of unschooling that needs to happen, but the one thing that all the training has taught you is discipline. And that is perhaps the second most important thing for any writer (the first obviously being able to weave a story).

And I quite agree with you on the write in longhand bit - that is the only way, isn't it? *winks*

Watery Tart said...

Thank you to both of you, Elizabeth and Rayna *winks back*.

The scientific writing's major bogey seems to be run on sentences... I've had bosses who like to string together four or five separate thoughts before bothering with a period. *rolls eyes* It has on occassion given me shortening practice--grants in particlar have page limits. But mostly it is a lesson in what not to do.