Interview with Carl Zimmer on the Art of Science Writing

Eric Michael Johnson in his blog The Primate Diaries at Scientific American:

Johnson: When you were first developing your voice as a writer, who were some of your most important influences? I know you were particularly fond of Melville and Faulkner as an undergrad at Yale. What did studying literature offer for developing your own style compared to the work of other science writers?

ScreenHunter_08 Dec. 21 10.49Zimmer: At the time I was reading Melville, Faulkner, or Mark Twain, I had vague ideas about writing fiction. That was my initial impetus for reading them. Gradually I realized that I was actually more interested in the natural world. It was at that point I began to appreciate really good science writing. I was reading people like Jonathan Weiner, John McPhee, or David Quammen, writers who could construct a sentence that left you breathless. But it was very important for me to have had that different experience in reading beforehand. It taught me how important it is to tell a story when you’re writing as well as all the different ways you can tell that story. These are elements you can bring into science writing to great effect.

The fact is there is a lot of science writing in great literature. I’m a big fan of Moby Dick, for example. Melville’s novel is probably a quarter to a third science writing. It’s the story of an obsessed captain going after a whale interspersed with long passages about marine biology, paleontology, even consciousness. It’s all science. But he writes about it in a style that can be quite humbling. When you read it you see how beautiful someone can make these descriptions of the natural world. I’ve always been frustrated with the flatness of a lot of science writing. I think that science writers should try to aim high rather than going for a lot of these clichés you often see both in magazines and in books.

More here.