It’s one of those formal courses I took forever ago, and what do you know, it paid off, because truth be told, the most money per hour I ever made was doing contract science writing for a guy in OKC, did a biology course and a physical science for dummies course, and he paid me well to do it. The AP Biology thing I got paid next to nothing for, it was for a place out of Austin, but hey, it's been there on my CV for over a decade, so I guess it paid off, too. I'm still getting credit for that.
Thing is, that contract writing was a joy relative to real science writing, which is what I had been doing for the six years or so before that, working on my doctorate and publishing along the way. I was thinking about it last night, that if I pull up the methods sections on three or four papers I wrote, the methods describing the work that I did, and I promise you buddy, it was work, and the time frames in which all that diverse work was done, not to mention the study or two that we just did posters on, the amount of actual freaking scientific work that I did over about a 3 year period is just insane, just the sheer hours in data collection, not to mention processing and number crunching, manual SAS code, oh yeah, and then writing the things, well, to have to write such dry soulless descriptions of the agony and ecstasy of that work was kind of a bummer.
Really freaking dry. Mind numbingly so, nobody reads that stuff, nobody but grad students being trained in how not to read the mind numbing details unless they had to. The writing for the professions course taught that, when one’s profession is science, just the facts, you’re not an artist, you must at all times present your material professionally, in this format, yes, I can pull up a methods section in all of those papers, I had methods, and results, too.
I’m a scientist. Or not, damn, I think I disavowed that the other day. Damn.
No really, I’m a writer at heart, always have been, and I’m not sure you could pay me to read a paper published in a scientific journal these days beyond perhaps a really good note to Nature or something. I am occasionally tempted to write a paper, or a note to Nature, but I’d not need to actually read any of the papers I’d cite, I could do the run through the abstract, the search for what I want to say, and cite it.
I know how to write professionally.
Thing is, when I was contract writing, I also did stuff for 3rd graders, and 5th graders, science and math, really fun stuff. I did study guides and such, but it was textual explanation. One learns how to write at many different levels. Low levels are lots more fun.
In writing for the general public, in contract writing in any case, informative stuff, the goal is to keep it at about a middle school level. Having taught college students, including grad students for many years, I promise you, this is not unreasonable, at all. Use of jargon, no way, especially not if it might be confused. Short sentences, not too many big words. It's not hard to get the hang of.
Do I write for the general public? Not at all. I write for fun. I ramble, I do that fake words thing, intentional grammatical error, sometimes I use terms I know lots of folks don’t understand, sometimes I write about concepts I know not many people are familiar with, at all, and sometimes I just kind of babble stream of consciousness, but I almost always, always have an audience in mind. A very specific audience at times, a very general one at others. There are some grammatical things that are always accidents, and I hate them, but the brief stint I put in as an editor was painful, at least contract editing was. I didn't get to pick my writers.
Mostly what I shoot for when I write is effective communication. Of course sometimes, I rant, offer my humble opinion. That's a lot of fun, too.