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… Again.

Remember like two weeks ago when I posted about the revising and resubmitting process in the short fiction market? And how I said it was frustrating because I never got any feedback?

Well, now I have to eat my words because I did get some feedback! Mmm, tasty words.

I didn’t get a ton of feedback, but a little bit of feed back is still feedback, so today I worked on applying it to the story.

And you know what?

It’s a better story.

Big shocker, I know.

I didn’t use all of the feedback, for two reasons. One, I wasn’t sure I agreed with part of it. The editor said a part of the story felt a bit rushed, and I rather liked the pacing of that section. Two, expanding that section would have taken up even more space in 2700-word story I am planning to submit to a journal that seeks stories of 3,000 words and under, and I wanted to expend those 300 additional words at the end of the story. The editor said the ending was rushed, and that, I definitely agreed with.

And I like this ending much, much better than my original ending.

So, I’m going to let it rest for a bit and submit it somewhere else soon. We’ll see how it goes. Maybe they’ll say the same thing, that the part I didn’t change was a bit rushed, or just reject it without giving a reason. Then I guess I’ll give that section another look.

We’ll see how it goes.

I wrote a book! Now what?

So, something happened this weekend.

Did you notice?

Screen shot of front page of the blog, with the "Manuscript Progress" bar circled in red because I have written 75,026 words out of my goal of 75,000!
What now?

I finished my book! I both hit my word count goal of 75,000 and actually managed to end the story satisfactorily.

Well, I say satisfactorily, but I’ve already made several notes to myself with plans for revision. Because I said the book is finished, but I didn’t say it was good.

Now, before you protest and say I’m being too hard on myself, just stop. While I do certainly suffer from my share of imposter syndrome and am often unreasonably harsh on my own writing, that is not what’s happening here.

What’s happening, is a first draft. And sometimes to finally finish a first draft, you have to do some weird things. Like completely change a side character’s occupation and backstory, and maybe even delete a character because they weren’t really serving the story. Like add in new aspects of your protagonist’s motivation that didn’t exist in the first chapter that now need to be added in to the first, like, three quarters of the book.

So, when I say the book is bad, it’s more like, the book is a hot mess.

But that’s okay. It’s not going to stay that way, at least not forever. It is going to stay that way for a couple of weeks while I focus my pen elsewhere.

That’s really what this blog post is about.

I stopped doing just about any other writing for a few weeks because I realized that if I focused all of my energies on the book, I could be finished with the first draft by Halloween, and that realization proved to be an extremely strong source of motivation for me. But now it’s time to get back to other projects.

The problem is, I’m feeling a bit torn on how to prioritize my attention.

As a fledgling fiction writer in the 21st century, I’m unsure what the most strategic path to publication is for me. Back when I was in college (2004 – 2008), the path to fiction publication was to write a book and then query agents and/or publishers. If, when you wrote said query, you could add in a list of fiction you had published in respected literary or genre magazines, you were more likely to get a positive response. So a crucial early step to publishing your book was to write and seek publication for short stories.

This is still a path to publication, and unless you’re magic, it’s the only path to traditional publication.

But is it?

Part of the reason for including your short story publications in your queries to potential agents or publishers is so that they can see that other professionals have invested in you before. Agents and publishers are essentially making a financial decision. They want to know if your work will sell. If it has an audience.

But literary and genre magazines are not the only pathways to building an audience anymore. They’re a good pathway, certainly a well-respected pathway, but not the only pathway.

Other pathways to building an audience for your writing include blogging, podcasting, vlogging, social media, even fan fiction, and online serial publishing services like Tapas.

But growing an maintaining audiences through those platforms takes a lot of work and a lot of time. I recently read a blog post by Chris Breechen, the brains behind the very popular Writing About Writing Facebook Page that talked about how to build a social media following.

His recommended posting schedule?

Roughly one post per (waking) hour, every single day. Roughly ten to twelve posts a day, maybe a hundred posts a week.

I read that, and my heart just sank. Chris said he spends roughly one to two hours per day on the WAW facebook page, planning and scheduling posts. And that’s not counting the blog posts he shares, either, if I remember correctly. Combined with the time he spends writing for his blog, writing on other projects, and doing his other non-writing jobs, he works at least 50 – 60 hours per week.

Damn.

That’s… a lot. More than I can do and maintain my current levels of mental and physical health. So, uh, I’m… not going to do that.

But I could certainly up my blog and social media output.

But any time I spend on social is time I spend away from writing. And I have one story that needs to be revised and resubmitted (for an early December submission window), one story that needs to be finished and submitted somewhere (no deadline), and one story that I’m thinking of writing for an upcoming short story contest with a mid-November deadline.

And that’s not even to mention the research, plotting, and world building I’d like to begin for my next book.

Or the bit of freelance writing/SEO work I’ve got on my plate this week.

Or, of course, revising my finished book.

So, yeah, I’m a little uncertain where to turn my attention just now.

What about you? What’s your ratio of writing to blogging/social-media-ing? Do you spend more time writing on spec for lit/genre magazines? Or do you find the wide, digital world of self-publishing to be more strategic? Let me know in the comments below!

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.