A ‘lost tribe’ of writers

French entomologist Jean-Henri Fabre gets his writing game on. Photo via Thinkstock.

French ento­mol­o­gist Jean-​​Henri Fabre gets his writing game on. Photo via Thinkstock.

If asked to describe your house, what sorts of details would you include? I think I’d talk about the pink walls in my kitchen, the green tiles of my fire­place, the high ceil­ings, and the big windows.

In a lec­ture hosted by the Col­lege of Social Sci­ences and Human­i­ties on Tuesday, Massey Uni­ver­sity asso­ciate pro­fessor Lisa Emerson spoke of a math­e­mati­cian who, when he was a kid, wrote his house-​​description com­pletely in num­bers. It had x win­dows, x doors, x floors. He could have written any­thing, he reflected, but some internal com­pul­sion focused him on the quan­ti­ta­tive facts. “I had imag­i­na­tion in math, just not in words,” he explained.

For many stu­dents, math and sci­ence are the scary sub­jects. Every­thing is black and white, so you always have a 50 per­cent chance of get­ting the answer wrong. There’s no wiggle room, no “hand-​​waving,” as my chem­istry pro­fessor liked to call it. But it turns out that for many sci­en­tists and math­e­mati­cians, it’s writing that’s scary.

Every number, every symbol holds inside of it a world of his­tory, con­text, and impli­ca­tion, one sci­en­tist told Emerson. No amount of words could ever fully describe the truth con­tained in “1”, “=”, or “π,” he expa­lined and thus words are lim­iting for him.

Emerson is a writer but she’s inter­ested in sci­en­tists. Through her talk, she con­vinced me that there are two kinds of writers in the world: those who write about sci­ence and those who write about every­thing else. The latter group, Emerson said, enjoys a robust com­mu­nity that talks to itself about itself and about its process. But the former, the sci­ence writers, and more specif­i­cally the sci­en­tific writers, do not have that same priv­i­lege. She called them “the for­gotten tribe” of aca­d­emic writers.


There are too many con­ver­sa­tions about sci­en­tists being poor writers in need of reme­di­a­tion,” she said. But in the two-​​plus decades Emerson has worked with sci­en­tists, she’s found the com­plete oppo­site to be true. “They do care deeply about writing,” she said. And as such, she wanted to set the record straight, to bridge the gap between how sci­en­tists are por­trayed as writers and how they actu­ally expe­ri­ence the process of writing.

She began by asking how they develop their voice, what beliefs they hold about writing, and how they feel about being writers.

So far she has cat­a­logued the writing per­cep­tions, beliefs, and feel­ings of 130 math­e­mati­cians and sci­en­tists, including 55 senior researchers, cre­ating “lit­eracy nar­ra­tives” for each one. The nar­ra­tive is the revised tran­scrip­tion of her inter­views with these scholars, which cross a range of dis­ci­plines, insti­tu­tions, and countries.

She orig­i­nally went into the study with a hypoth­esis that sci­en­tists follow a “life­cycle model” of writing, she said. In the first stage, people learn to write. This takes place between ele­men­tary school and the end of col­lege. After that, they learn to write about sci­ence, a process that can last until the end of a post-​​doctoral appoint­ment. Next, they become leaders through their writing, offering broader per­spec­tives to an audi­ence of peers. Finally, they become end-​​of-​​career writers, fur­ther broad­ening their scope both in terms of impact and audience.

Of all the sci­en­tists and math­emeti­cians she inter­viewed, most said this was a lovely hypoth­esis and that it made a lot of sense…just not for them. Addi­tion­ally, they told her, such a model skews the public per­cep­tion of what a sci­en­tist is, by holding that only old sci­en­tists can have an impact on the com­mu­nity. “But sci­ence is not an old person’s game,” Emerson real­ized. And if we really want young people to take sci­ence seri­ously, they have to know that.

Through her research, which is ongoing (she hopes more sci­en­tists and math­e­mati­cians will talk with her about the process of writing), she has learned a few things so far:

  1. Most of the scientists she interviewed did develop within a community of individuals that are writing, but that community is not talking about writing. They're talking about science!
  2. The most significant influences on these scientific writers was not that community, but rather a single individual like a mentor or teacher.
  3. The two most sustained methods that the scientists she interviewed used to develop themselves as writers were imitation and practice.

There were a few North­eastern sci­en­tists in the audi­ence who spoke up about their process, and Emerson was delighted.

So, dear sci­en­tist readers, maybe it’s been many years since you had to describe your house in words, many years since you wrote off the idea of “becoming a writer.” But did you really escape that des­tiny? Have you not spent many waking hours writing grant pro­posals, research papers, and review articles?

As we con­tinue to plunge head first into a world dom­i­nated by infor­ma­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion, sci­en­tists need more and more to also be good com­mu­ni­ca­tors. So, how are you doing it?