The “Science” of Science Writing: Reader Expectations

This post is part of a series on the “science” of good writing. You can read the first post here if you’d like, but you can also just dive right in!

How do you determine if writing is good?

Depending on who you ask, the answer will be more or less nuanced–good writing is clear and concise; good writing is engaging or persuasive. Some would argue that writing can’t be good unless its content is based on sound ethical principals. Others might say that any writing is good as long as it gets its message across.

George Gopen and Judith Swan, in their piece The Science of Scientific Writing, foreground the audience as a determining factor in what makes a piece of writing good. This isn’t necessarily a new idea; audience-centered communication has been taught at least as far back as Aristotle’s Rhetoric.

But Gopen and Swan specifically talk about centering audience expectations. When an audience reads a sentence or a paragraph, what do they expect?

Gif of a short clip from the Monty Python sketch, "No one expects the Spanish Inquisition." Three red-robed gentlemen burst into a modern-day living room, and a caption appears, saying "Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!"
False! No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!

Turns out, readers general expectations are pretty easy to predict. And understanding and meet those expectations are core components of Gopen and Swan’s idea of good writing.

Purple giraffes fly over the moon.

See what I mean? You’re probably thinking, “Wait, what about purple giraffes?” I threw completely new information–a new topic, even–at you completely out of the blue. I didn’t even lead into it with the question, “What happens when you don’t meet audience expectations” because I wanted the sentence to feel as out of place as possible.

It pulls you out of the text and might have made the paragraph after it a bit more difficult to read, even though the sentence “Purple giraffes fly over the moon” clocks in at about a fourth-grade reading level.

So what are audience expectations? And how do I meet them to help make my writing better?

We’ll get into that next time. And speaking of next time, here’s a list of all the posts in this series. As each piece comes out, I’ll edit in the links here, so bookmark this page or follow the blog if you want to stay up to date!

  • November 8: The “Science” of Good Writing
  • November 15: This post!
  • November 22: The Structure of Reader Expectations
  • November 29: What’s the Missing Piece?
  • December 6: Taking Action

Thanks for reading–see you next time!

The “Science” of Good Writing

I don’t know if you know this, but writing is hard. And writing good–ahem, writing well–is even harder.

Sometimes, though, writers hide behind the complexity of their subject matter to excuse–or even brag about–their bad writing. Writing in certain academic fields, like science or philosophy, has a reputation for being just completely incomprehensible. And some academics are proud of this. They preen about the difficulty of their work and say things like, “It’s not my fault other people can’t understand my brilliance.”

Okay, okay. I’ve never heard an academic say anything quite like that (I don’t think), but the attitude does exist.

But this attitude butts up against the attitudes of other scholars who think that a core part of academia’s mission is service to the public good. And if the public can’t read and engage with your work, then what are you even doing?

Sometimes, from deep within these debates, advice emerges on how to make your writing better–advice like George Gopen and Judith Swan’s The Science of Scientific Writing, originally published in the 1990 November-December issue of American Scientist.

This piece speaks directly to scientists, who are particularly known among academics for their nigh indecipherable prose. It’s not a listicle, but it ultimately breaks down several strategies for improving scientific writing that are actually backed by research from my field–because it’s co-written by someone from that field.

And it’s kind of great, but it’s also kind of long. And the examples are directly lifted from scientific papers that can be difficult get through for field outsiders like me. So I’m going to do a little mini-series of posts breaking down their recommendations one by one into bite-sized pieces that are slightly easier to digest.

Here’s a preview of coming attractions. As each piece comes out, I’ll edit in the links here, so bookmark this page or follow the blog if you want to stay up to date!

  • November 15: Reader Expectations
  • November 22: The Structure of Reader Expectations
  • November 29: What’s the Missing Piece?
  • December 6: Taking Action

Thanks for reading–and stay tuned!

Revise and Resubmit

It’s been a week, y’all.

I got two short story rejections two days in a row. One of those rejections wasn’t even emailed to me–I had to go to the online submission portal to check on the story, where I found that actually, it had been rejected two and a half months ago, two days after I’d submitted it. If I did get an email, it got eaten by my spam folder. So that was fun.

Rejections suck. I know all the platitudes–not every story is right for every journal, the market is super saturated, part of the trick is finding the right fit, persistence is key, et cetera. These platitudes abound in academia, too, where I spent the last decade of my life.

I could write a lot of words about how the platitudes work in academia, but I won’t, because I don’t want to put myself in too bad of a mood. But one thing that academia has that the short story fiction market doesn’t is built-in peer reviews.

In academia, when you submit an article for publication, the editor may reject it outright. But most often, the article gets sent out to two separate reviewers, who read and critique your work and provide a recommendation to the editor regarding the article’s potential for publication. These recommendations usually comprise four options: reject, revise and resubmit, accept with minor revisions, and accept.

When your work comes back with a revise and resubmit, you receive comments on your work from each reviewer, and in some cases, an additional set of comments from the editor synthesizing the reviewers’ concerns and making specific suggestions for where to focus your revision efforts.

You don’t get that with short story submissions.

If you’re lucky, you might get some feedback on your story, but I haven’t seen any yet. Then again, I haven’t been actively submitting my short fiction for very long.

I’m not saying that the academic peer review process is perfect. There are a number of reasons why it’s not, but I’m not going to go into them here. It’s just that I wish the fiction writing… world… had a better mechanism for giving and receiving constructive criticism of your work.

I know these mechanisms exist. There are sites like Scribophile, which I have used and like, for the most part. And there are people you can pay to provide feedback on your writing. Most of the writing coaches I’ve found, though, focus on critiquing book-length manuscripts and perfecting your query letters and pitches to editors. And they’re expensive.

As they should be. I know first-hand that providing quality, detailed, useful feedback on people’s writing is difficult, time-intensive labor. I’ve done it. I did it for ten years. On academic writing, but still.

However, paying for critique services is an investment I don’t currently have the finances to do. Especially when I’m writing on spec, as much of/most fiction writers do. Every story you put out into the world, every minute you spend writing and revising and submitting and resubmitting is a financial risk. When do you decide to throw in the towel on a particular story and start with something fresh?

So that’s why my current strategy amounts a bit more to receive rejection, immediately resubmit to next venue. Don’t revise, just keep submitting. Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming. And then get back to writing.

So this week, I received two story rejections, but I submitted three stories.

I resubmitted the two rejected stories at different venues, and then I ended up writing an entirely new piece based on a new journal I’d found that none of my current finished pieces fit. I needed something shorter, so I wrote something shorter. And submitted it.

And of course, I keep writing my fanfic and my serial fic over on Tapas.

And now I’m blogging.

Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming.

Just keep writing.

What if I could be a writer?

Sigh.

I’ve started this post twice already over the past year and change. I’ve been trying to write a post describing several major changes in my life, and I keep starting and not quite finishing.

There are many reasons for this, not the least of which is that some of these changes come with some heavy (negative) emotional baggage that I both do and don’t want to air out in pubic, so I err on the side of caution.

But on the flip side, the tiny optimist that’s still living somewhere inside me sees these changes as an opportunity and wants to talk about them and actively work to keep making them happen.

But back on the other flip side, talking about these changes and trying to make them work for me (by talking about them here on the blog) leaves me feeling vulnerable. What if I talk about what I want to do, what I want my life to be, what if I try to make these changes happen, and then they just… don’t?

But enough vagueblogging.

Here’s the footnotes version:

  • I got my Ph.D in 2016.
  • Then I got a two-year postdoc.
  • Then I went on the (absolutely excruciating) job market again and received precisely zero job offers.
  • My husband got an offer for a postdoc in Luxembourg. He took it, and we moved.
  • I continued to work as an adjunct and an online tutor.
  • This summer, I lost one of the adjunct gigs for the time being, and the other didn’t offer any fall work. SO:
  • I am a quasi-ex-academic currently without any adjunct work.
  • I have picked up a few semi-steady freelance writing and consulting gigs.
  • But otherwise, I have a bit more “free time” than I used to, thanks to this “quasi-ex” status.
  • I have been using this “free time” to write. Quite a bit.

And I remember how much I love it. I used to write a lot. Pretty much from the time I could use a pencil, I wrote things, and if I wasn’t writing things, I was reading them and thinking about writing things. I wrote poems, stories–I even wrote an entire YA novel one summer while I was in college about gender-bending royalty, my twist on ye fairy tales of olde about how gender roles are bogus. After I graduated college and spent a year splitting my time between retail and tutoring, I turned to television and movie scripts. But still, I wrote a lot .

Until I entered grad school in 2009. Then I was still writing a lot, but it was all academic stuff. I don’t think I wrote any fiction from that fall 2009 until the first full summer of my postdoc, right before I was set to enter the job market for a second time. Then I wrote, like a few chapters of a mystery novel and then stopped again until, basically, this year (2019).

For reference, that’s roughly a decade with hardly any fiction writing. Sheesh.

Sometimes I get really mad at myself for not trying to keep writing fiction while in grad school, because think of how much I could have written. I’d probably be published by now, right? Except then I get mad at academia for being so utterly exhausting that I didn’t have the time or energy to write fiction. It’s not that I didn’t have any hobbies while in grad school, just that it took up so much B R A I N that writing fiction barely ever crossed my mind.

But now I’m back at it! In the less-than-a-year since we moved to Luxembourg, I’ve written almost 40,000 words of a mystery novel, roughly sketched out a setting for another, written and started a handful of original short fiction pieces, two of which are currently in review at lit magazines (one for the third time–fingers crossed), and written almost 20,000 words of fanfic that I’m slowly letting out into the world bit by bit.

What if I could do that thing I’ve wanted to do for, like most of my life, could actually happen? What if I could be a writer?

I mean, I am. Like I said, I’ve written close to 100,000 words of fiction in the past nine months, and that’s nothing to say of the freelance writing, editing, and consulting I’ve done for actual money or the homebrew D&D adventures I’ve written. I am a writer–I am one who writes.

But the real question, of course, the one I’ve dismissed basically since failing to get into an MFA program the first time I applied to grad schools (and graduating college into a recession), is whether I could use writing to pay the bills.

Right now, the answer is decidedly, no. But I also happen to be in a different place financially than I was back when I first pivoted away from professional fiction writing. My husband makes enough to pay most of our bills, and my online tutoring gig makes me enough to pay the rest–and only takes up about 20 hours a week.

So here I go, trying to figure out how to make writing pay the bills. Fingers crossed!

 

 

It always takes longer than it takes.

My spring break began today.

Well, technically, my institutions’ spring break starts on Monday, but my spring break began today. I’m taking a few extra days to visit my long distance partner, who will also be on spring break next week.

We’re both academics, which means we’ll spend a bit of time goofing off, but we’ll also still work several days of the “break.” Before I left, I spent some time thinking about what I could reasonably expect myself to accomplish while traveling. I took a look at the research & writing calendar I’d made up for myself mid-February… and laughed.

I’m nowhere near where I wanted to be, and I probably won’t accomplish much in the way of research over spring break. I have access to some of my data, but I work best with printed materials, and I wasn’t about to load a bunch of transcripts or journal articles into my already over-packed personal item (my trusty LL Bean backpack). So I’ll probably spend some time working on research while I’m here, but more than likely I’ll work on teaching–grading, giving feedback, planning upcoming classes and revamping courses for next fall. The research and writing will likely wait until the following week.

I’m disappointed, but I built in some extra time into the calendar because of something my dissertation director always told me–something her late husband always told her. “Writing always takes longer than it takes.” And if that isn’t the truest depiction of writing processes, I’ll eat my hat.

A Coping Mechanism

I have a problem.

I’m not good at confrontation. Actually, I’m terrible at it, but that’s a subject for another post.

I’m not good at confrontation, and it’s that point in the academic job market season where my colleagues keep asking me to update them on my search, perfectly well-meaning people who want nothing but the best for me and my career, and the angriest part of me wants to look them straight in the eyes and tell them I have no offers and no more prospects for an offer this year. With no smile. Part of me wants to watch them squirm. To watch them try to come up with some words of comfort. To watch them try decide if they’re going to ask me if I know what I’ll be doing next year or if that’s too delicate a question to ask. To watch them tell me to try again next year.

But as I said, I’m not good at confrontation, and it’s not their fault the market is crap, and I don’t really want to have this interaction with people, mostly. So far, I’ve used two strategies. With colleagues I don’t know as well, I’ve avoided the issue by telling people I’m still waiting to hear from some schools; with mentors and friends, I’ve told them what my plans are for next year (and there are plans), with assurances that I’m actually pretty excited about the unexpected turn things are taking. And I really am. These plans aren’t yet available for public broadcasting, so I’m not including them here. Don’t worry; I’ll be plenty insufferable about them later.

I think one of the cruelest parts of the job market is the emotional labor involved in telling other people I have no offers. As a friend (also on the market this year, also with no offers) said today, “Who haven’t I told yet that I’m a failure?”

I don’t blame people for asking. Hell, I want to know how everyone else is doing, too. And I sincerely hope they’re doing better than me. It’s just so exhausting to put a smile on your face and make reassurances to other people when you just want to scream just a tiny little bit.

Like I said, I actually am really excited about what’s in store for next year, but I’m also mad. I’m mad that academia over-relies on contingent labor; I’m mad that graduate programs both continue to pay their graduates a pittance and continue to accept and graduate students at the same rates despite an already-crap market getting even crappier. I’m mad that tenure-track faculty are being asked to do more and more labor with fewer and fewer resources and stagnating pay. I’m mad at the ways in which academia continues to reproduce whiteness while paying lip service towards diversity and the ways in which it continues to ask more of femme academics while also devaluing labor it considers feminine.

So yeah, I’m mad. And a tiny part of me wants to act on that anger by watching people squirm. But I won’t. I’m just going to blog about it. That’s what writing is for, right?