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.

Chapter Ten of The Wrackspurt Infestation is Out!

“The Wrackspurt Infestation” is my Harry Potter fanfic, pretty much my love letter to Ginny Weasley and Luna Lovegood. It follows Ginny after her traumatic first year at Hogwarts, and in this chapter, she finally, finally [redacted for spoilers].

Check out the fic at Archive of Our Own. Let me know what you think of it in the comments!

New Episode of Gig Hunters on Tapas!

Gig Hunters is my original, serial fic that I’m publishing weekly on Tapas, and Chapter Four is now OUT!

So, what’s it all about? Here’s the basic gist:

Freelance monster hunters Chris Carroll and Loyalty Stevens don’t have a ton in common… except a love of used-to-be-mythical creatures and a need to pay the bills.

Think Buffy meets Newt Scamander… sort of. If Newt and Buffy were freelancers in the gig economy.

Anyway, chapter four is out. Hope you enjoy!

Weird Google Queries as Author Social Media Strategy

Writers love to joke about their weird search histories.

A Google search for “Writers and Google” turns up a couple of Tumblr posts along these lines–feel free to peruse them at your leisure.

As I wrote on here last month, I’ve recently decided to get serious about my writing. This means, of course, I’m devoting a lot of my time to writing in some form or another–writing fan fiction; writing original, serial fiction; working on more long-form original fiction; writing professional copy for websites; or writing here on my blog.

It also, as it turns out, means I’m writing a lot of social media posts.

There are a host of thinkpieces and resources explaining why contemporary authors need to be active on social media, so I won’t go into those details here.

Rather, I’d like to share a social media strategy I’m currently developing, partly because I think it’s neat and hope somebody else might find it useful, and partly for accountability. As a writer, and in other areas of my life, I’m a big idea person–I get neat ideas and sometimes I go through with them. I think this is a neat idea, and would really like to follow through with it. Writing about it on here and promising to report back will maybe give me the motivation to actually… do that.

Today I googled….

The strategy is, essentially, to frequently share your recent, writing-related Google search queries. I got the idea after spending a good ten to twenty minutes on Google Street View trying to figure out where in Lochapoka, Alabama (a real place) would be a good spot to put Hicks Chicken Farms (a ficitonal place). Was I procrastigoogling? Maybe a little bit. But I also thought it was funny, and thought the small audience I was building for my author page on Facebook might find it funny as well.

Image of Facebook post linking to my story Gig Hunters on Tapas. The post reads, "Being a writer means sometimes you google weird stuff. Recently, it meant I spent a lot of time on Google Street View trying to figure out where in Lochapoka, Alabama (a real place) to put Hicks Chicken Farms (not a real place). This story I'm publishing on Tapas has me googling a lot of fun stuff, but I don't want to spoil too much just yet!" The post has reached 33 people and has 19 engagements.

And I was right. I posted it a couple of weeks ago, and I think it’s still one of my best-performing posts to date. Granted, my page is still extremely small, so even as one of my “best-performing posts to date,” it’s still only got 33 views and 19 engagements, but they’re all organic–that is, I didn’t pay Facebook to boost the post for me. And that feels pretty good for a page that still has under 40 followers.

So, I’m going to see if I can keep that momentum going, and post every so often about weird Google searches that I think my audience will appreciate, all directing traffic to my original fic Gig Hunters on Tapas. My original fic’s following is still extremely small, as it doesn’t have the inherent draw that fanfic in an extremely large and still-active fandom does. So it needs all the help it can get!

So I think the strategy will be to share Google queries once a week on Tuesdays. That way, I can remind folks that a new episode will be up later in the week on Thursday–keep the fic fresh in their minds and build anticipation for a new episode release.

We’ll see how it works. I’ll try it out for all of October, and then do a bit of analysis and report back.

What about you? What’s your weirdest writing-related Google search to date? Do you share your weird writing queries with a social media audience? What are the responses like? Let me know in the comments!