Saturday, June 13, 2009

Can Writers Learn From Science?

Tēnā koutou katoa – Greetings to you all
Can Writers Learn from Science?When I first started writing blog posts, I became almost fanatically interested in what other bloggers had to say about writing.

My enthusiasm for this hasn’t changed. But with the passing of a year, I’ve had time to reflect on the advice I’ve met and what it means to me.

I’m a Science teacher. Right? Science teachers are expected to know things and be able to teach them to others. When it comes to writing, the dogma that is Science or perceived to be, simply doesn’t work, or so I’ve been told.

Coming over authoritatively doesn’t necessarily hit the spot. It can give the impression that the writer is a know-it-all and turn the reader off.

Asking the question

In Virginia Yonkers’ recent post, Do You Hoard Knowledge?, she rightly identifies the wealth of ‘hoarded’ knowledge and opinion that people possess. She suggests that blogging is an avenue where this precious knowledge can be shared. But how does a blogger go about writing posts to pass on knowledge and opinion to others without emerging as a know-it-all? Michele Martin writes about avoiding the know-it-all image when encouraging participation:

I've been running an informal experiment here for the past few months, trying to see which blog posts generate the most comments. Hands-down they are the posts where I ask a lot of questions and where I give incomplete answers on topics that interest me. I think this works for two reasons.

First, no one is attracted to a know-it-all. Oh, we may want to bookmark their stuff, but that doesn't mean we want to talk to them.

I also think it's because by asking questions and not having all the answers, we leave space for comments to happen. As a reader, it feels like there's more that could be said on the topic, so I'm more inclined to comment. Questions are the lifeblood of conversation. They need to be a regular part of posts.

While I feel that there may be other factors that contribute to the popularity distribution of Michele’s posts, she has a point. Asking questions around and about the topic of a post is not what one expects from the know-it-all who wrote it. Instead of saying, “I’m a know-it-all,” it says, “I’m not sure. I don’t know. Can you help?” What can be more engaging than that?

How can a blogger tell what they know by asking questions? One way is by suggesting their current knowledge on a theme or topic, then seeking support for this in a question. But the vocabulary that writers use in stating what they think is also important to conveying to the reader that they are not know-it-alls.

Getting the words right

In matters of opinion, gambits like “I think that . . .”, “I feel that . . . ”
or “I believe that . . . ” are more likely to engage a reader than simply stating that it is so. Similarly, when it comes to inferences or conclusions, terms like ‘suggest’, ‘imply’ and ‘may be’ couch a willingness to admit that other deductions may be possible and valid.

While many scientists don’t always practice this way of expression, they would be hard pushed these days to claim they were scientists by refuting the principle that alternatives are possible. Conveying this duality in what they write suggests to the reader that they’re admitting they don’t know it all.

It also has the potential to imply that perhaps the reader may help with this if they know something the writer does not.

Upholding the opinion of others

Whenever a writer feels strongly about a subject, it may be more persuasive to quote someone else who holds the same or similar opinion. The implication is that the view of the writer can be validated through the words and opinion of another. It may save the writer from coming over as a know-it-all.

Giving the opinion of another as a suggested way of thinking also deflects the reader’s attention from an otherwise opinionated writer. Here, in a brief excerpt from A Short History of Nearly Everything,
Bill Bryson
puts this to use:

Nearly everyone, including the authors of some popular books on oceanography, assumes that the human body could crumple under the immense pressures of the deep ocean. In fact, this appears not to be the case. Because we are made largely of water ourselves, and water is ‘virtually incompressible’, in the words of Francis Ashcroft of Oxford University, ‘the body remains at the same pressure as the surrounding water, and is not crushed at depth.’ It is the gasses inside your body, particularly in the lungs, that cause the trouble.

Bryson deflects the decisiveness of his opening words, “Nearly everyone”, by his careful use of the word ‘appears’ and cleverly adds persuasive confirmation by quoting a university authority. Indeed, a writer may not necessarily need to state his or her opinion when using this strategy - one that’s used by some of the best journalists.

Writers can endorse their own opinion by quoting the opinion of others, providing appropriate references or links for follow-up by the reader.

Why Science?

The scientific method claims the practice of full disclosure. It suggests that it’s open for anyone to participate by attempting to repeat the observations or experiments made by whoever is doing the reporting. Through this undertaking, a scientist not only is fair to others but also acknowledges that there may be some possibility that what was found could be and should be challenged by others.

Authoritative dogma that does not invite this overt process is well known to stymie opinion and has done for hundreds of years in some instances. The writer who fosters openness by adopting a voice that says ‘your opinion is respected - what do you think of mine?’ presents a win–win option to the reader and encourages engagement.

Your opinion is your opinion, your perception is your perception – do not confuse them with "facts" or "truth". Wars have been fought and millions have been killed because of the inability of men to understand the idea that EVERYBODY has a different viewpoint.

A Green Pen Society contribution

( 3 ) << - related posts - >> ( 1 )

Ka kite anō – Catch ya later


paul c said...

As a literacy coordinator we looked this past year at incorporating some common cross curricular learning strategies such as anticipatory activities like a rapid write, graphic organization with the use of foldables, collaborative learning with a jigsaw activity... One colleague talked of learning about science as narrative. That there are ways for students to learn science through narrative. Your post helps bridge the gap between science and the humanities.

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora Paul!

As a died-in-the-wool Science graduate (twice!) I endorse the idea of teaching Science through narrative. While the (academic) text of Science is something that I find interesting, I wasn't always phased by that form.

As a child, I read the history of the people of Science and found that absorbingly engaging. Davey, Faraday, Fleming, Pasteur, Rutherford, they all meant something to me as people, not as scientists. To read about their lives was impressive to the mind of a young, not-too-literate, grubby-nosed boy. Stories of these people took me back to the library, time after time.

It wasn't the deduction - it wasn't the discovery - it wasn't the fame. It wasn't even the Science. It was the humanness of their existence and the stories of their existence that took my heart. Through that narrative, I was impressed enough, dim as I was, to become a Doctor of Science.

If it can work for me, it can work for anybody!

Catchya later

V Yonkers said...

A lot of what you write about here is about 1) purpose of writing, 2)knowing your audience, and 3)voice or register.

However, there is also different purposes for blogging which translates into different styles and register. For example, compare Tony Karrer, Karyn Romeis, and Michael Hanley's blogs. All blog about the same subject but in different ways, voices, for different purposes. And yet, I don't see them as "know it alls". Michael Hanley's blog, for example, does not get very many comments, but the purpose of his blog is to inform. Tony tends to have a lot of content, but also posses questions to get a dialogue going. Karyn's blog is much more personal, with many personal antidotes and opinions. Hers is much more introspective. All are widely read.

I find that I read different blogs for different reasons. Some of the more popular blogs don't seem to "click" for me because I don't feel they are providing anything new in their perspective and/or I am not really "invited" into their dialogue. Half of the writing process is the audience or reader. If you write for yourself (which is a good learning tool), you should only expect a readship of one. Anything else is gravy! (that means it's an unexpected benefit in the US).

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora Virginia!

I am well familiar with Michael's, Karyn's and Tony's blogs as you know. While they all have quite a different 'voice' and tend to write about different things from one another - and as you pointed out they also serve different purposes in their writing - they are all personable blogs. What is more, as far as I can make out, they utilise expertly many if not all of the engaging techniques that I mention in this post.

I certainly would not say that they come over as know-it-alls either, which tends to bear out my point about writing for engagement.

None of the bloggers you cite come over as authoritative either, yet I have no doubt about their expertise in their own fields.

To take Tony's blog as a case in point. I find it splendidly enlightening that such a successful and undoubted expert in many related fields should be able to relate with his blogosphere the way he does. I'm particularly enchanted that he relates to me as a Science teacher and new blogger (I still think I'm a beginner!) in a way that is non-threatening and engaging. He proves the rule, if you catch my drift.

Catchya later