Making Your Science Writing Sing: Craft Lessons from Poetry

 

I read a journal article recently that attempted to define the word fun. The definition, penned by a scientist clearly immune to irony, was as follows. Fun is “a social-emotional interactional process wherein persons deconstruct social-biographical inequalities to create a with-equal-other, social-human bond.”

Astounding.

As science journalists, our job is to nudge and jostle such inanimate jargon into a more energetic and comprehensible arrangement. A deft science writer might assemble something like: “Scientists discovered that the key to fun is companionship.”

As straightforward as the result might seem, such a transformation requires artistic skills. After all, what is art if not an act of expressive illumination? Yet the training of a science journalist, whether formal or organic, rarely emphasizes artistry. This is, I think, to our disadvantage.

Poetry, one form of linguistic artistry, provides a wellspring of inspiration for science journalists looking to improve their writing. In the same way that great works of architecture are in conversation with sculpture as much as they are with engineering, great science journalism leans on the lessons of poetry as much as it does on the inverted pyramid—or at least it should. Poetry is the ultimate condensation of the language science writers are employed to wrangle. If you’re a science writer without at least an appreciation of poetry, you risk writing the equivalent of stale rows of cookie-cutter condominiums.

 

Science with a Beat

One of the most important tools in the poet’s toolkit is rhythm. Rhythm is set, in part, by the lines of a poem. Look at how the poet Ross Gay arranges each line deliberately in the beginning of “Love, You Got Me Good.”

Honeybunny, for you, I’ve got a mouthful
of soot. Sweetpea, for you, I always smell
like blood. […]

Notice how each line breaks just before an unexpected phrase. Reading the first line alone, we might expect “of honey” to follow. Instead we get “of soot.” This inversion of expectations is heightened by the abrupt line breaks in this odd love letter.

Once a poet understands the purpose of the line, they can use it for deliberate effect, says Sam Illingworth, a poet who trained as an astrophysicist. He now studies science and society at Edinburgh Napier University in the U.K. and founded the science-inspired literary journal Consilience. Illingworth often urges beginning poets to write a nonet, a poem with nine successively shorter lines, to force them to think carefully about the work that each line is doing.

The form is “great when you’re talking about something that’s dissipating,” says Illingworth. “So, if you’re writing a poem about declining sea ice, for example, that could be quite powerful.” The content resonates because the poem itself is shrinking.

Just as poets benefit from understanding such a precise examination of rhythm, so do science writers. While the rhythm of the poem is set by the line, the rhythm of prose is set by the sentence. Short sentences are weighty. They are authoritative. Used successively, they can make a passage feel fractured, fast-moving, or urgent. Longer sentences, full of clauses—a dramatic introduction from a dash, even—can carry you along an important thought, decrease the tempo, or add a sense of texture.

Look at the way this 2010 story by Sean Flynn, in GQ, about the Deepwater Horizon oil spill uses sentence length:

The lights in Mike’s office brighten.

The engines race.

The lights burst.

Mike pushes back from his desk. His computer monitor explodes.

He reaches for the handle on the door, which is steel and three inches thick and bolted to the frame by six stainless hinges.

The short sentences of similar length tick through moments in the scene like a clock counting down. And then, with the moment of dawning comprehension, the pace slackens into a longer sentence as Mike recovers his senses. This effect is heightened by the fractured paragraphs.

In the same way that Ross Gay’s jarring line breaks achieve a distinctive rhythm, Flynn uses dramatic changes in sentence length to make the explosion in his narrative more palpable. Of course, sentence length isn’t the only instrument of rhythm at the science writer’s disposal; word length, paragraph length, and even syllabic stress all contribute to the musical quality of prose.

Like rhythm, sound is another musical quality of poetry that science writers can use to enhance their prose. Consider the way J. Drew Lanham, poet and ecology professor at Clemson University, makes music from this description of a Carolina parakeet in a 2018 story in Orion. This story was later included in the Best American Essays 2019 anthology.

A saberlike tail that would fan to break or bank in a turn, paired with wedge-shaped swept wings, made a pleasing form.

“When I wrote that, I was seeing Carolina parakeets flying,” Lanham says. “I wanted that description to have wings in a literary sense and it to not be bullet points from a field guide.”

Lanham uses sound to achieve that goal. Listen for the harsh alliteration in “break or bank,” which conjures images of words zigging and zagging through the air. The same thing happens in the assonance of “web-shaped swept,” the identical soft e sounds framing the a of “shaped.” There’s even a subtle slant rhyme between “turn” and “form” that ties the tumbling images together.

Of course, dramatically musical language might be out of place in a less literary publication than Orion. But learning these tools allows you to apply them in any situation—even the puritanical annals of a scientific journal. Listen to how Cornell biologist and writer Harry Greene uses sound to subtler effect in a journal article published in Ecopsychology:

… the Cape cobra trap-lining weaverbird nests in the Kalahari …

There are so many interesting sounds here—the repeated c’s, the mirroring of the syllabic stresses in “cape cobra trap-lining,” for instance. It may feel odd for a science journalist to dawdle on words for their aesthetic value in this way, but these considerations are the spice of writing, no matter the medium. You might not consciously notice each choice individually, but their collective flavors make up your overall impression of the writing.

But spice needs to be used carefully so as not to overwhelm a dish. Truffle oil and fish sauce taste great in moderation, but you wouldn’t make a smoothie out of them. Similarly, overwrought musicality sounds gimmicky and can obscure understanding, frustrating readers. Lanham’s and Greene’s writing is compelling not because of the mere presence of literary devices but because of the work each sound is doing to enhance the description.

 

The Right Words in the Right Order

Beyond rhythm and sound, the poet is also concerned with the use of precise word choice— diction in the poetic lexicon. In this way, poetry has a lot in common with science. Venomous is not the same as poisonous, as any herpetologist would tell you, and any poet worth their salt knows that the scientific sterilization of masticate is at odds with the thoughtfulness of chew.

Consider a few lines from Alison Hawthorne Deming’s poem “Science,” a reflection on extinction imagined through a surreal science fair.

[…] a kid no one knew
showed up with an atom smasher, confirming that
the tiniest particles could be changed
into something even harder to break.

The use of “smasher” here is deliberate. It contributes to a fundamental tension in the poem— that children are performing what seems to be advanced science. What is a better verb to describe the blithe innocence of childhood than “to smash?” “Atom smasher” drives that juxtaposition home in a way that “particle accelerator” could not.

Deming, also a science writer, weighs her diction just as carefully in her prose. Consider her story on hyenas, published in Orion in 2014 and included in the Best American Science and Nature Writing 2015 volume. In the article, Deming relates how hyenas have been observed killing more prey than they can consume. Early in the story she calls it a “predatory orgy of killing.” “Orgy” here is as deliberate as “smash.” It connotes the atavism of a band of outlaws on the Serengeti out to feed their hedonic vices. Its sexuality also resonates with a section that follows, which describes the genitals of hyenas (a six-inch clitoris!). A moralizing phrase like “murderous gang” would feel a touch out of place.

This concern for both denotation and connotation—for the literal definition of a word and the hulking mass of associations under the surface—is part of what we neglect as science journalists if we hew too closely to just reporting the facts.

“Poetry is not about transmitting information, it’s about building something that’s beautifully built,” says Deming. “What a poet brings to science writing is you’ve trained your ear to the music of language.”

A poet’s concern for diction even extends to what parts of speech are used. Many poets prioritize evocative nouns and verbs over adjectives and adverbs. In a poem, the sun rarely “sets slowly below the green horizon of trees,” but it might “pierce the conifers.” Relying too much on modifiers to do the work of a strong noun or verb is lazy writing no matter the medium because it’s less precise.

Look at the way Tracy K. Smith uses nouns and verbs in her poem “The Largeness We Can’t See.” This poem is part of a collection called Life on Mars, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2012.

When our laughter skids across the floor
Like beads yanked from some girl’s throat,
What waits where the laughter gathers?

Notice how “skids,” “beads yanked,” and “throat” work together to generate a disturbing and evocative image in just 20 words, none of which are adjectives or adverbs. We don’t have to know exactly what Smith is describing here—reading poetry is often a process of letting meaning flow over you rather than corralling it—but we should notice where the current is taking us. The second line might even produce a kinetic reaction; did you swallow or grimace, just a bit?

Compare Smith’s poem to the way Apoorva Mandavilli, now a science reporter for The New York Times, uses strong nouns and verbs in an award-winning Spectrum article, published in 2015, about women with autism. In this section she is describing a woman with an eating disorder:

Then one day, her counselor at Cambridge pointed out that even if she had no fat or muscle, she would still carry the weight of her bones.

“Carry the weight of her bones” is a compelling phrase because of the work that “carry,” “weight,” and “bones” are doing. Each is a simple word. But applied to the context of a person concerned about her body solely in relation to how much mass can be wrung from it, it strikes a compelling (and uncomfortable) chord. An alternative phrasing such as “she would always have bones” would lose the physicality of the woman carrying herself, and the parallelism between carrying both physical and psychological weight.

Another noteworthy aspect of Mandavilli’s writing here is that the end of this sentence contains a repeated cadence of syllables called meter, the rhythmic quality of diction, in a sense. In this case it is dactylic meter—triplets of a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables (“CARE-ee the WEIGHT of her …”)—cousin to the more familiar iamb. The incantatory quality of words strung up in meter fuels a kind of metaphysical impression of weighing the body’s humors.

It is perhaps worth mentioning that one of Mandavilli’s parents is a poet. While Mandavilli says in an email that she doubts she deliberately chose to write this section in meter, that doesn’t make the choice an accident. Good writing is born of both deliberate choice and an intuitive sense for what works. “When I have the luxury of time, I simply read sentences aloud, play with their structure, and choose the cadence that’s most pleasing to my ears,” Mandavilli says.

If meter seems like too esoteric a tool for a newspaper writer working on deadline, think again! Great headlines are often written in meter (whether editors know it or not), because meter is memorable. Young children recite “Mary Had a Little Lamb” (trochaic meter) despite the fact that few 6-year-olds know what “fleece” is. Headlines like “Picture a Scientist” (dactylic), “How to Be a Cloud Detective” (trochaic), or “When an Eel Climbs a Ramp to Eat Squid from a Clamp, That’s a Moray” (anapestic) are memorable for the same reason.

 

Making It New

Poetry also teaches writers to be better self-editors. Good poetry is tight; it measures each word and line break with a precision that would make any lab tech running Western blots blush. If you’re pulling your hair out squeezing a news story into 300 words, imagine writing a haiku.

“When everything is working together it’s like the poem itself has a mass beyond its size,” says Elizabeth Bradfield, a naturalist poet, and creative writing professor at Brandeis University. “It’s like a meteorite or something. It has a density and heft.”

Bradfield points to a National Parks Service article by Christine Byl about sandhill cranes, which she notes does a good job using tight language. At one point, Byl says the birds feed “on what’s near” to describe their diet.

That simple, three-syllable phrase “says a lot.… It says that they’re opportunists, they’re generalists,” says Bradfield. “Simplicity is not dumbing something down, it’s giving it a strong and condensed potency.”

Poetry’s meticulous approach to the written word is also our best defense against the earwigs that whisper hackneyed phrases to us as we type: This treatment is a game-changer. The study marks a paradigm shift. Mitochondria are the powerhouse of the cell. If we’ve heard a phrase often enough, it loses potency. That’s why saying the moon has a “milky glow” is less interesting than calling it, say, a “porcelain beehive.”

Of course, “Dr. Smith observed a new crater on the great porcelain beehive in the sky” wouldn’t work in a news story. But we can be subtler than that while still being compelling. Daniel Alarcón, describing researchers’ work at Puerto Rico’s Arecibo Observatory before its collapse in 2020, writes in The New Yorker that radio astronomers transmitted a signal and listened for “the echoes that came back,” rather than something like “the astronomers recorded the radio wave signals.” This is a more compelling phrase without outdoing itself.

As writers, we should push through cliches because cliches obscure meaning and accuracy. And accuracy, as the poet Denise Levertov famously proclaimed, “is the gateway to mystery.”

“The more precise you are, the more wonderfully strange things become,” says Bradfield.

Lanham agrees. “Poetry has unleashed feral me. So I’m not bound by convention,” he says. “And I choose to be as close to wild as I can be.”

 

 

 

Courtesy of Bradley Allf

Bradley Allf

Bradley Allf is a poet, freelance science writer, and PhD Candidate at North Carolina State University studying conservation biology. He was a AAAS Mass Media Fellow at The Austin American-Statesman in 2021. His writing has appeared in Smithsonian, Undark, Atlas Obscura, The Charles Carter, Climbing, and many other publications. Follow him on Twitter at @bradleyallf.

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