Begley Gives a Science Writing Clinic

by F.

Not intentionally, just by writing so brilliantly in Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain. Here are some things she does that I like:

She Doesn’t Talk Down to the Reader
She goes through a description of an experiment and then begins the next graph with “You can probably anticipate the results.” In other words, sometimes you see the conclusion coming. There’s no reason to create false suspense.

Takes up Different Points of View
She’s told us how a bunch of scientists wanted to go study some monks. Then she starts the next graph: “What we’d like to do, the scientists had written to the Dalai Lama in the spring of 1992, is measure whether, and how, thousands of hours of meditation alter the pattern of activity in the brain.” This puts us right in the story. “We” are asking the Dalai Lama something.

Sets up Dramatic Tension
After describing animal experiments she finishes a chapter by asking whether the same thing will be found in human beings:

Maybe human brains were different, Maybe once a human brain–regarded as the most complex entity in the universe–came into the world, nature knew to leave well enough alone, not to allow the brain to change as a result of something so seemingly insignificant as what its owner did.

The next chapter describes the experiments on human beings, of course. Standard stuff, but she has so many licks using this old one doesn’t bug me.

When a Character Speaks Broken English, She Transcribes it
The Dalai Lama’s English isn’t that good, and so we get “In these few decades, news from our own home, except for a few occasions, always sad.” There are a number of quotes like this. They add authenticity.

Personification of Chemicals (And Other Inanimate Things)
I love this, personally. When you think about the inanimate world, there’s no need to throw out your theory of mind–it’s the most powerful tool we have:

Before cells divide, they make a copy of their DNA. Needless to say, cells can’t conjure the double helix out of thin air. Instead, biochemicals snag the requisite ingredients from within the cell and assemble them. It turns out that one ingredient of DNA, called thymidine, is happy to let a radioactive hydrogen molecule glom onto it.

Wonderfully vivid. Is this misleading? Not in this context.

She Gives Exposition When Tension is Highest
She sets a typical “scientist on a quest” story out, and then, when the scientist is going to tell us something, explain something interesting, she cuts away and lays out some exposition—related, yes, but not necessary to resolving the (current) dramatic tension (“Will he find and tell us the answer?”)

When Describing Experiments, She Puts the Reader in the Lab
She describes the rationale for an experiment, then the actual protocol:

The stimulus she used was a simple flash of light, over to the side, so her volunteers–some with normal hearing and some who had been deaf since birth or early childhood–could see it only with their peripheral vision. Look straight ahead, she told them. Flash. Flash. Flash.

Very nice—when those flashes come, we are seeing them. We are the one being experimented on.

She Asks the Reader to Do Little Experiments
This is the most involving of all:

The more cortical real estate a body part claims, the greater its sensitivity (compare the sensitivity of your tongue to the back of your hand: the tip of your tongue can feel the ridges of your front teeth, but the back of your hand feels them only as a dull edge.)

As I read this, I ran my tongue over my teeth, then did the same with the back of my hand.