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A Lesson from Writing Nonfiction

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I’ve been a writer for nearly all my adult life. Chemistry texts, books on metaphor in science, the authority of science in society, human influences on global climate, how to create conditions that promote effective interdisciplinary research. Of late, I’ve been writing fiction, and I’ve found myself in different territory.

Much could be said about the distinctions between fiction and nonfiction. I’m fascinated, though, by something they have in common: the role of story. In fiction, story is everything. Great dialogue, compelling descriptions, sharp observances and adroit stylistic technique will avail little if there’s not a good story there. It may come as a surprise to those who don’t read much science, by which I mean scientific journal articles or reviews aimed at scientifically knowledgeable readers, that storytelling also lies at the heart of good writing in this domain.

The most cogent way of viewing how stories are made in science is due to the great American Philosopher/Scientist, Charles S. Peirce (1839-1914). Peirce is best known as the earliest proponent of pragmatism, the first truly American gift to philosophy, but that’s another story. To our point, he also formulated what has become known as abductive inference, or simply, abduction. It works this way: The scientist makes an observation or set of observations. She tries to come up with a hypothesis, the simplest and most likely explanation. Her next step is one of logical inference: “If the hypothesis is correct, then when I alter the system in the following way, the following should happen.”

This is interesting, because abduction is grounded in story. A hypothesis is nothing more than a story about what must be going on. The first story the scientist tells about a new set of observations is likely to be pretty skimpy, but it gets her started in making new predictions. If it proves to be a poor predictor of what is learned next, it gets modified in what seems to be the right direction; further experiments are performed, new evidence is produced. The story is changed, or it’s thrown out and the scientist starts with a new story line. This if – then process is often referred to as inference to the best explanation.

Scientific papers that simply report a lot of data on a system, that lack a coherent story connecting those data with other work, other stories, are like fiction that lacks a strong story line. Both science writing and fiction demand good stories the reader will find compelling. This sets me to wondering: how might abduction be used as a writer’s tool for testing or improving fictional stories?

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science writer, novelist

Ted Brown is a retired Professor of Chemistry, and the Founding Director Emeritus of the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Engineering at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. In addition to authoring many chemistry textbooks, he’s authored books and articles dealing with the cognitive and social roles of science in society. Learn more about Ted here and here.

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6 Responses

  1. Tina Dietz
    | Reply

    Well put, Ted, and this topic is one that cannot be overstated. I would say that the biggest lesson nonfiction writers can learn from fiction is making sure the story is put into the lesson. Nonfiction writing, absent of story, is merely a report or a lecture. I recommend to all my authors-all of whom are nonfiction- that after they’ve drafted the first version of their book that they do an “aural edit” and read the book out loud to themselves and/or an audience. It becomes immediately obvious in this technique where narrative is working or lacking. Furthermore, errors that may not be caught by the eye are easily caught by the ear.

  2. Ann Henry
    | Reply

    Interesting connection, Ted. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Chris Coward
    | Reply

    A revelation that, once so cogently made, becomes obvious, as in , “Why didn’t I think of that?” Thank you.

  4. Ken Pelham
    | Reply

    I’ve been working on a nonfiction book, so this is quite timely for me. Lots to think about in that short article. Thanks!

  5. Jack Courtney
    | Reply

    Ted – You make several good points. In recent years I’ve taken several courses in what is now called Creative Non-fiction Writing and much of it is focused on using fiction writing concepts and techniques to improve non-fiction works such as memoirs and articles. I perceive its application to scientific writing as being less well developed. I suppose the reason is partly related to motivation. When I read a technical report I’m looking for an organized presentation of facts and data and formulas. On the other hand, the author of a memoir is more likely going to need to entice me to read it. Further, if the writing isn’t “lively” I’m not likely to finish it. Thanks again!

  6. Elle Andrews Patt
    | Reply

    Great connection, Ted! I read a lot of medical studies and the ones formatted in a way that connects the data dots like a fictional through line are the most useful and interesting to read 🙂

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