Becoming a science writer: a musical in three acts (guest post)

This is a guest post by Greg Crowther, of Everett Community College, in Everett, Washington, and it’s the latest installment in my “How I learned to write” series. Image: Greg performing “Have Yourself a Healthy Little Kidney” for the University of Washington Division of Nephrology (2017).

Take it away, Greg:

As a reader of this blog, I’ve enjoyed its guest posts on the development of scientific writing skills (entry 1, entry 2, entry 3).  I’d now like to add my own perspective, but with a twist. The writing I most enjoy doing is musical in nature — so, at the risk of seeming completely self-absorbed, I’m going to sketch out my development as a science songwriter, using seasonally appropriate examples.*

Act 1: Student, aiming for humor (1987-2002)

In December 1987, Mr. Welch and Mrs. Golubjatnikov, the 9th grade biology teachers at Rutland [VT] Junior High School, hold a contest in which their students rework Christmas songs to make them more scientific.

In a fit of inspiration one morning, I write:

You better watch out;
You better not sneeze.
You better not cough
‘Cause you’ll spread a disease.
Viruses are coming to town!

Subsequent lines provide all the virus facts known by 14-year-old me, but the overall tone is playful, not pedantic. I win the contest and take home the grand prize of a giant candy cane.

After that, my songwriting tendencies lie dormant (like a lysogenic virus?) for a few years. Eventually my college cross-country running team provides further inspiration, and then as a graduate student I pen musical tributes to scientific topics that I’m learning about. My audience is my friends, and my goal is to make them laugh, so my songs reflect this.

Act 2: Instructor, aiming for clarity (2002-2016)

When I cease being a student and move to the opposite side of the lectern, I start to explore whether music can be used as a teaching tool. I continue to write songs, but my style changes noticeably. Here’s an early example, to the tune of “What Child Is This?” (a.k.a. “Greensleeves”)**:

What cell is this in the microscope?
What form of life have I noticed?
Perhaps a plant or animal,
Bacterium, fungus, or protist.
But look, look at the chromosome!
Within the cell, there’s one alone.
And no, no organelles in sight —
It must be prokaryotic!

There’s still some playfulness and humor here, but the lyrics now have a serious job to do as well, i.e., deliver course content. My songs become more turgid (to use a favorite Heard word) so that I can justify their inclusion in my courses, and not be seen as frivolous. (Which sometimes happens anyway.)

Act 3: Artist, aiming for beauty (2016-present)

I make further progress on the technical aspects of songwriting, such as making lines more singable and using a greater variety of chords. Something is still missing, though. While I consider music a means of humanizing science and scientists, my own tunes do not generally elicit emotions other than a kind of nerdy mirth.

Then I write a (not-especially-scientific) song about the impending birth of my son, and it’s a good song, a real song expressing real feelings. And I wonder whether my science songs could be like that – whether they could move people as well as inform and amuse them.

So now I strive, at least intermittently, for this loftier goal.  I’m still better at listing the anatomical parts of the heart than I am at tugging at the heartstrings, but the two are related.  Most of my students are learning biology so that they can ultimately become health care providers who can apply scientific knowledge with emotional intelligence. Likewise, I’m trying to teach them biology in a way that is both rational and compassionate. And so, increasingly, I try to acknowledge this emotional side of science and science education.  A musical example of this is my version of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” a tribute to kidney transplants.

Discussion

Is my songwriting journey relevant those who produce prose rather than lyrics? I think so.

One take-home message is that after many years of writing practice, there is still room for improvement – so keep practicing!

Another take-home message is that it’s good to have good take-home messages. These are ubiquitous in music – you may know them as “hooks” or “riffs” or “earworms” – but they can also elevate the visibility and impact of other types of writing. Think, for example, of Jeremy Fox’s well-known phrase “zombie ideas in ecology,” which has taken on a life of its own in part because it concerns an important issue (why do some scientific ideas persist despite a lack of supporting evidence?) but in part because the phrase itself is evocative and fun.

A closely related point is that songwriting provides excellent practice in communicating compactly. The next time you’re struggling to reduce an abstract to 200 words, consider the plight of a poor science songwriter, who must shoehorn words like “Acrocanthosaurus” into lyrical lines of 15 syllables or less!

Finally, songwriting, like all writing, is a sort of negotiation between writers and readers.  Just as we should prioritize the goals of our readers, we should also prioritize those of ourselves, which may extend beyond accuracy and clarity. And if we endeavor to write with our hearts as well as our heads, we may discover that that’s what some readers want us to do. Again, this is not easy for me, but I’ll keep trying.  It will be a long time before the final curtain falls on Act 3.

© Greg Crowther (gcrowther@everettcc.edu) December 10, 2018

This is the fourth in an occasional series in which scientific writers share their paths and progress.  You’ll find previous contributions from Joe Drake here, from Rob Johns here, and from JC Cahill here.).  Do you have a story like this – but also, no doubt, different? Would you tell it here?  Drop me a line (Steve, not Greg; sheard@unb.ca).


*^These examples are based on Christmas songs — songs that I hope are familiar even to readers who, like me, are not Christians per se.  But most of my songs are neither Christmas-related nor parodies.

**^Steve here, admitting that Greg should bear no responsibility for the choice of Rod Stewart’s version here.  Since I’ve made fun of the wretched Maggie May elsewhere, it seems only fair to admit that Rod’s version of What Child Is This is a lot less awful than you might expect.

16 thoughts on “Becoming a science writer: a musical in three acts (guest post)

  1. Jeremy Fox

    I’d add one further lesson that I take away from your experiences, Greg: it’s ok to do what works for you, pedagogically. Even if it’s unconventional. I’m sure there’s only a modest amount of pedagogical research on the use of science songs in college classrooms, as compared to (say) the large amount of research on flipped classrooms. But there are other, perfectly-good reasons to do whatever it is you want to do in the classroom besides “the pedagogical literature told me to”.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
    1. crowther

      Ah, Dr. Fox — always willing to cut through the nonsense and ask the hard questions! I’ve made a couple of semi-recent attempts to grow what I call a “prof beard” (and that pic might have been taken during one of them), but the sides never come in well, so I’ve pretty much given up on that look.

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        1. crowther

          To me, a “prof beard” is full but neatly trimmed and not overly long. It conveys amazing in-depth knowledge of a subject, delivered with academic reserve and propriety. As opposed to, say, a hipster beard, a teenager beard, etc.

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  2. Jeff Houlahan

    Not to go too far astray on a rock’n’roll tangent but …Maggie May? Wretched!!?? You’re hurting me, Steve. Number 131 on The Rolling Stone top 500 songs – just behind Born To Be Wild and just ahead of With or Without You. Grammar and rock’n’roll never had much to do with each other…
    Can’t get me no…no,no,no,

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Well, it’s just possible that it’s a matter of personal taste. Except that mine is impeccable and yours, along with Rolling Stone’s, questionable. You’ll buy that, right?

      How do you feel about Kokomo? I have a post half-written about that song, and I’ll challenge you to guess what the connection to science might be….

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      Reply
      1. crowther

        Steve, you’ve GOT to finish that post ASAP. It is indeed a wretched song, but so full of material to unpack. I once used it as a key part of a commencement address (about how science works) that I gave at my old high school: http://faculty.washington.edu/crowther/Misc/Writing/RHS2003.shtml. It was an attempt to speak to the multi-generational crowd, since the parents would know the Beach Boys and the new graduates might know that recent-ish hit. Anyway, I’m wondering if your post relates to the line “By and by we’ll defy a little bit of gravity,” which I’ve always suspected was the ickiest possible way to refer to a certain aspect of the courtship process.

        Liked by 1 person

        Reply
  3. Jeff Houlahan

    Here we go…down the rabbit hole. Kokomo is, perhaps, the worst song rock’n’roll song ever written – they actually name check another terrible 70’s tune ‘Afternoon Delight’ – really, really, really horrible. Pina Colada Song, You Light Up My Life…in that territory.
    OK, science…something about island biogeography? Latitudinal gradients of diversity?

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      1. Jeff Houlahan

        Senescence? Even deleterious mutations can become fixed in a population? People using scientific words in a way that has nothing to do with their real scientific meaning? Places you wish you had chosen as field sites?

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  4. Pingback: Friday links: hermit crabs vs. game theory, the truth about peer review, activism vs. academic careers, and more | Dynamic Ecology

  5. Pingback: Why is writing hard, and how can we make it easier? | Scientist Sees Squirrel

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