The Art of Science Communication: William Zinsser on How to Write Well About Science
How to master the inverse pyramid of transmuting information into wisdom.
By Maria Popova
I have always considered writing a way of organizing reality — of organizing one’s own mind and, in recording that process, decluttering the reader’s understanding of some subtle or staggering aspect of the world.
Few writers have articulated the philosophies and practicalities behind this artful organization with more clarity and conviction than William Zinsser (October 7, 1922–May 12, 2015) in his 1976 classic On Writing Well: An Informal Guide to Writing Nonfiction (public library) — a masterwork partway, in both time and tenor, between E.B. White’s vintage bible The Elements of Style and psycholinguist Steven Pinker’s contemporary counterpart The Sense of Style.
With the hindsight of three decades, Zinsser — who had written the book in the early 1970s with nothing but “a dangling lightbulb, an Underwood standard typewriter, a ream of yellow copy paper and a wire wastebasket” — reflects in the preface to the 30th anniversary edition:
Computers have replaced the typewriter, the delete key has replaced the wastebasket, and various other keys insert, move and rearrange whole chunks of text. But nothing has replaced the writer. He or she is still stuck with the same old job of saying something that other people will want to read.
But Zinsser points out that while the job of the writer may have gotten easier as the computer became “an everyday tool for people who had never thought of themselves as writers,” the task of the writer — that ability to say something which “other people will want to read” — has gotten, in many ways, harder:
Any invention that reduces the fear of writing is up there with air-conditioning and the lightbulb. But, as always, there’s a catch. Nobody told all the new computer writers that the essence of writing is rewriting. Just because they’re writing fluently doesn’t mean they’re writing well.
Two opposite things happened: good writers got better and bad writers got worse. Good writers welcomed the gift of being able to fuss endlessly with their sentences—pruning and revising and reshaping — without the drudgery of retyping. Bad writers became even more verbose because writing was suddenly so easy and their sentences looked so pretty on the screen. How could such beautiful sentences not be perfect?
Even in the decade since the 30th anniversary edition, the technological barriers of entry for writing and publishing nonfiction online have gotten exponentially lower and the stakes of good writing and journalism exponentially higher — nowhere more so than in science, where bad writing is not only unpleasurable for the reader but also potentially dangerous.
Indeed, one of the most enduring and urgently important sections of Zinsser’s classic deals with the art of writing about science — something that often befuddles both writers and scientists. The most solid common ground between them, Zinsser playfully suggests, is built upon a shared panic at the prospect of writing — with the expectation of writing well — about science. He addresses this often irrational trepidation:
Writing is not a special language owned by the English teacher. Writing is thinking on paper. Anyone who thinks clearly can write clearly, about anything at all. Science, demystified, is just another nonfiction subject. Writing, demystified, is just another way for scientists to transmit what they know.
Scientific and technical material can be made accessible to the layman. It’s just a matter of putting one sentence after another. The “after,” however, is crucial. Nowhere else must you work so hard to write sentences that form a linear sequence. This is no place for fanciful leaps or implied truths. Fact and deduction are the ruling family.
To illustrate the importance of this sequential storytelling, Zinsser cites a science assignment he often gives to his writing students — the seemingly simple exercise of describing how something works: “how a sewing machine does what it does, or how a pump operates, or why an apple falls down, or how the eye tells the brain what it sees.” Reflecting on how this assignment plants the seed for good science writing, Zinsser touches on the essential function of writing as a tool for organizing reality:
Describing how a process works is valuable for two reasons. It forces you to make sure you know how it works. Then it forces you to take the reader through the same sequence of ideas and deductions that made the process clear to you. I’ve found it to be a breakthrough for many students whose thinking was disorderly.
This principle of science writing, Zinsser points out, applies to all nonfiction writing, for it teaches the writer to lead the reader, step by step, from knowing nothing about a subject to understanding enough to grow enchanted with its broader significance.
Zinsser illustrates this approach by outlining an inverse Maslow-style pyramid of informational needs:
Imagine science writing as an upside-down pyramid. Start at the bottom with the one fact a reader must know before he can learn any more. The second sentence broadens what was stated first, making the pyramid wider, and the third sentence broadens the second, so that you can gradually move beyond fact into significance and speculation — how a new discovery alters what was known, what new avenues of research it might open, where the research might be applied. There’s no limit to how wide the pyramid can become, but your readers will understand the broad implications only if they start with one narrow fact.
But as someone who thinks a great deal about the challenge of transmuting information into wisdom, I find myself inclined to push Zinsser’s model a step further and consider the importance of cultivating a layer of wisdom above the layer of “significance and speculation.” The difference might be subtle, but it’s an important one: After all, when one reads the very finest science writing — be it Oliver Sacks writing about the mind or Diane Ackerman about the senses or Stephen Jay Gould about lepidoptery or Robin Wall Kimmerer about moss — one walks away informed about the significance of these scientific phenomena, certainly, but more than that, one walks away elevated and enriched and illuminated with a new appreciation of our “strange and shimmering world.”
On Writing Well remains absolutely indispensable, exploring such essential aspects of the craft as the key to sophisticated simplicity, the core transaction between the writer and the reader, the art of the interview, and the most fruitful attitude for the writer. Complement it with Cheryl Strayed on the importance of faith and humility in writing, Susan Sontag’s advice to aspiring writers, Virginia Woolf on writing and self-doubt, E.B. White on the two faces of discipline, and Ann Patchett on why self-forgiveness is the most important tool of writing, then revisit this ongoing archive of great writers’ advice on the craft.
Published May 27, 2015