What a scientific career teachings you about writing, and vice versa…

When I was at school, I couldn’t decide if I wanted to be a novelist or a scientist. And my teachers stuck to the fiction that the two were completely different. Since then, I’ve found out that success in academia required me to be at least 30% a writer (so far, I’ve been about 60% a scientist, 30% a writer and 10% a project manager).

From hanging around writer’s conferences, I’ve noticed that most fiction writers do not have a day job in science, and so, I think it gives me a unique view on what the hard bits of the publishing process in both science and fiction are. Worse still, many people seem to think that science and art are so far removed that doing both is unlikely.

So, this is (my) definitive list of the advantages.

How being a scientist makes you a better fiction author

  1. Fear of rejection? Every (academic) scientist’s career depends on publishing papers, and every paper gets at least 2 reviews (normally 3), and like most human beings, scientists do not always separate the critique from criticism, nor the professional from the personal. After receiving bad reviews on a scientific paper (that may well have been a labour of love and four years of your life), a simple, ‘no it’s not for us’ from an agent is nothing. After all, if agents don’t like your book, they don’t bother to call your entire career choice into question, and, agents and editors are not competing for the exact same stuff as you (scientists are competing for funding and pages in journals), so there’s no personal motive to reject you. I’ll add in here that most scientists have a bad review support network and a list of people to talk it over with.
  2. It you write sci-fi, you probably don’t need to do any research, you can just riff on what you do in your day job. Although, I did decide to miss out the citations for the cool inventions I put in my novel.
  3. You’ve already been involved in the publishing process, you know the stages you have to go through (and how long they take) before you can wave around that journal or chapter in a book
  4. You know about network effects and that things take time, so having spent too much time spamming google scholar to see if someone has cited your work in the last 5 minutes, you’re more relaxed at spamming your amazon page to see if you’ve sold any more books! (Actually, this is a complete lie, you know you shouldn’t check more than once a day, yet, you do…)
  5. You’ve probably written a PhD thesis. After that, writing fiction is much easier, especially if it’s speculative fiction, as you don’t need to stop and fact check every sentence. (That’s not to say you don’t do research for your novel, of course you do, but nowhere near as much).
  6. If you’ve worked as a scientific editor (I’ve been a scientific copy editor), or edited a journal or special issue, you already have an insight into the editing process.

How writing fiction makes you a better scientist:

  1. You’ve had to learn grammar properly. You’ve had heated discussions about Oxford commas and semi-colons with other authors. You will have read at least one style guide. You’re aware that grammar is not a list of rules, but flexible, and should be tuned to the message. And hopefully, you’ve gotten over that habit of writing inaccessible, overly complicated, jargon-filled prose just to sound clever. All scientists have to write, not all of them bother to sit down and really learn how to write.
  2. You’ve learnt about the blank page, you know the secret of writing is to just sit down and do it every day, and now you can draft a scientific paper quickly and with less fear.
  3. You write novels. For normal people. So, translating your science into publicly accessible prose is so much easier. Useful for public engagement or talking to the press.
  4. You know you need to pitch your work clearly. I spend my time when re-writing papers saying to myself, how can I say this more clearly? Is that exactly what I mean? More accessible and readable papers means more citations.
  5. You’re never stuck for the two sentence ‘where should this work be going next’ or ‘what is the possible impact of this work’, speculating on the future is something you’ve got down.


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