Monday, January 25, 2010

Science writing with Scheherazade

Tim Lougheed holding geological specimens during his last visit to Laurentian University for the Canadian Science Writers' Association conference. (Canadian Science Writers' Association)

Tim Lougheed has got science writing figured out. Our latest guest lecturer in the program, he was the former president of the Canadian Science Writers' Association and his work has appeared in a number of Canadian newspaper and magazines, including Arthritis News, Canadian Consumer, Canadian Geographic, Family Practice, Equinox, The Financial Times of Canada, Laboratory Focus, The Medical Post, Ottawa Business Quarterly, the Ottawa Citizen, and University Affairs.

Tim gave us a great presentation on writing great science articles and a glimpse into the career and life of a freelance writer. His advice was simple, including: have a great opening, keep your audience wanting to read and know how to find a story. The advice wasn't new or earth shattering, but each point he made deserved emphasis.

The point that stuck with me was that he compared science writing to the stories in "Arabian nights".

"The main frame story concerns a Persian king and his new bride. Upon discovering his wife's infidelity, the king, Shahryar, has her executed and then declares all women to be unfaithful. He begins to marry a succession of virgins only to execute each one the next morning. Eventually the vizier, whose duty it is to provide them, cannot find any more virgins. Scheherazade, the vizier's daughter, offers herself as the next bride and her father reluctantly agrees. On the night of their marriage, Scheherazade begins to tell the king a tale, but does not end it. The king is thus forced to postpone her execution in order to hear the conclusion. The next night, as soon as she finishes the tale, she begins (and only begins) a new one, and the king, eager to hear the conclusion, postpones her execution once again. So it goes on for 1,001 nights." (Wikipedia - 1,001 nights)

Imagine that! Imagine having to tell the beginning of a story each and every night so that someone doesn't kill you in the morning! THAT is how you need to think about writing stories! Your first line in a story needs to capture the imagination of your audience and motivate them to read the rest of the story. It definitely isn't an easy task, but gets easier through time, thought, and practice.

Tim has made a good career out of freelance science writing. If you are interested in this field, check out the Canadian Science Writers' Association.

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