The Science of Good Writing: What’s the Missing Piece?

This post is part of a series on the “science” of good writing, based on the article “The Science of Scientific Writing” by Gopen and Swan. Want to start at the beginning of the series? That’s cool. Otherwise, keep on reading!

There’s this Youtube series from food magazine Bon Appetit called Gourmet Makes. In it, Claire Saffitz, a pastry chef, attempts to make gourmet versions of pre-packaged, shelf-stable treats–everything from Pop Rocks to Pringles. Through trial and error, Claire comes up with a recipe and procedure for that week’s gourmet treat. It’s a wonderful series and you should go watch it–after you finish reading this post, of course.

But why am I talking about Gourmet Makes on a writing blog? Because the whole crux of that show is Claire’s ability to guess her way into creating a recipe. She has this uncanny ability to try something, taste it, and then say, “It still needs X.”

In my last post, I wrote about how you can meet reader expectations by putting certain information in certain places–you put old information in the topic position and new information in the stress position, and you keep your subjects and verbs close together.

But sometimes, writing isn’t confusing because of how we arrange the sentences, it’s confusing because of what’s not in them. It still needs… something, but how do we know what it needs?

Take this sentence, for example:

I needed to go to the grocery store, but it was the day after Halloween.

Depending on your particular cultural context, your first thought may have been, “So what?” What about this sentence, though:

I needed to go to the grocery store, but it was Christmas Day.

If you’re from a country like the United States, where most stores are closed on Christmas Day, you immediately understood the problem of the second sentence. But if you’re from the United States, you may not have understood why it would be a problem to go to the store the day after Halloween.

In the United States, where I’m from, it typically wouldn’t be a problem to go to the grocery store on the day after Halloween. But in Luxembourg, where I currently live, it is. Luxembourg is a majority Catholic country, and November 1st, All Saint’s Day, is a federally recognized holiday. And most businesses, not just grocery stores, are closed on federal holidays. To fully understand the first example sentence above, you have to know all three of those things: that I live in Luxembourg, that the day after Halloween is a federal holiday, and that stores are closed on federal holidays.

When you write for an audience, there will always be some things your audience already knows that you don’t need to tell them. But it can be hard to know precisely what they do know and what they don’t know, especially if you’re an expert writing about a topic.

Luckily, sometimes we can figure out when something is missing–just like our hero, Claire–just by using the strategy we learned in the previous blog post. If we make sure that old information comes at the beginning of a sentence, in the topic position, and new information comes at the end of a sentence, in the stress position, we can figure out what information is missing.

Let’s take a revised version of the paragraph above, where I explained about November 1st, and see if we can figure out what’s missing. I’ll put old information in italics and new information in bold.

I currently live in Luxembourg. Luxembourg is a majority Catholic country, and November 1st, All Saint’s Day, is a federally recognized holiday. I can’t go to the store on All Saint’s Day.

Can you spot what’s missing? In each sentence, I used old information in the topic position and new information in the subject position, but that last sentence can still be confusing if you don’t fill out the missing logical leap–that most stores are closed on federally recognized holidays, unlike most holidays in the States.

These logical leaps can be confusing, and they can also be hard to spot! One way to find them is to look at all pieces of new information in your paragraph and to ask yourself, have I given enough context, enough old information, so that the new information will make sense to the reader?

Unfortunately, sometimes you can do all of these steps and still not spot a logical gap. And that’s why it’s important to have other people read your work when you can. But that’s a blog post for another day.

So, what do you think of the strategies from The Science of Scientific Writing so far? Have they helped you in any way? Let me know in the comments, and maybe share this post as well! Or maybe check out the other posts in the series:

Enjoy, and happy writing!

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!