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What science writers can learn from genre novels

A recap of the #SciOGenre session by @MarynMcK and @David_Dobbs at Science Online 2013 (#SciO13). All the excerpts used in the discussion can be found at


  1. We began, of course, with the all-important microphone fail.
  2. Awww.

    From there, introduction: Almost all writers experience the impulse to give the reader everything (Edward Bulwer-Lytton's infamous "It was a dark and stormy night," Paul Clifford), but we can seduce them if we are parsimonious with language and create mystery and tension (Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol).
  3. From those two initial examples, we considered six different categories of examples of what genre does well. First up, from Maryn: First lines, from JRR Tolkien, Lloyd Alexander, PD James.
  4. Key point: Readers come to genre novels (thrillers, mystery, romance, westerns, fantasy, sci-fi, etc.) with certain expectations — which we can honor, or subvert. An important consideration: In genre novels, we can see the machinery working more visibly than in literary fiction, and thus can copy and adapt it.
  5. Next up: Writing dialogue, from Dobbs (Elmore Leonard). Even though dialogue is always fictional in novels, and never fictional in science writing, fictional conversations have things to teach us: Compression, rhythm, placement of slang, expression of character via vocabulary.
  6. Third category of lessons from genre, from Maryn: descriptions (Madeleine L'Engle, William Gibson, Jacqueline Susann). Well-chosen adjectives and adverbs lean into the genre of the novel, adding atmosphere and emotional weight as well as sensory detail.