12.13.2018

The Overloaded Explanation

In a civilization that increasingly progresses through scientific advances, a person who easily assimilates a body of knowledge in a scientific field can experience difficulties when he then tries to explain what he is writing about to a layperson. Twenty-first century, please meet the cave dweller. Perhaps the less gifted among us aren’t that bad, but the experience of explaining scientific terms can be a struggle. While many times this problem arises in nonfiction writing, any thriller writer who would like to emulate Michael Crichton is in the same boat. How do you smoothly lay out a process in which a term like NK-kB is easily understood?

The first thing to understand is that non-scientific minds really don’t get it, no matter how nice you are. I have edited (read: translated) dozens of science-based books, and I still feel a wall rise up in my mind when I see a term I don’t immediately recognize. You know, like the doors in the underground labs of James Bond movies? Sealed off, like that, knowing I belong in the stupid room. Now, could we try that again?

What I do as an editor dumbing down science is maintain consistency in approach. It is not enough to explain what the endothelium is in a blood vessel. You have to keep reminding the reader that it is a thin lining. Don’t then assume the reader will understand the adjectival form. I may have vaguely grasped how the endothelium is injured by junk food, but if you then casually throw in “endothelial dysfunction,” my mind freezes up. Couldn’t that be “injury to the endothelium”? If you keep the number of terms limited, we can sail on that shaky raft.

The same principle hold for multiple scientific terms in the same sentence. The lay reader may understand each of the terms, because you have explained each one individually, but that does not mean we will understand an entire conglomeration of them. For example, I tremble at a sentence like: “Formed from the amino acid L-arginine, oxygen and enzymes, nitric oxide is produced in both the endothelium and the smooth muscle cells to regulate the tone of smooth muscle within the artery.” I don’t really understand what amino acids are, what role oxygen plays, how enzymes work in this case, and nitric oxide conjures up memories of being terrible in high school chem lab. So try to keep it simple. If you use only one or a few terms per sentence, the reader won’t quit.

Finally, if you are writing a novel, don’t explain scientific terms in dialogue. In the first place, people don’t talk like that. More to the point, though, dialogue isn’t as precise as narrative. If you explain to the reader directly what the concepts are, you can write exactly the explanations that are needed for comprehension. Summarize what the doctor is patiently explaining to the cop, and the reader will feel far smarter.

“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”
—Benjamin Disraeli

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine




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