Janet L. Kayfetz

The art and craft of writing and speaking

Category: Thoughts

Learning to Tell the Story Behind Scientific Research

Adam Jorge is a first-year graduate student at UCSB’s Bren School of Environmental Science & Management. With undergraduate degrees in philosophy and political science, he has chosen to follow his heart and pursue work in environmental science.

So now he is writing science papers. A lot of them. And the way his new discipline shares ideas through writing is different from what he is used to.

“And to think I thought it would be easy…

I somewhat naively expected a balance between the disciplines, but upon arrival I was greeted with some heavy-handed readings, and some frighteningly scientific assignments.

The facts, figures, stats, definitions, and terminology leave me completely dazed. The content of written work is so different, and I lose my voice somewhere in the data.

Choosing an approach to my writing proved challenging, and I wasn’t sure why. This writing class revealed something very important about my writing style: My tone is my springboard—all of my work begins with my tone selection.

Tone and information go hand in hand; while data/information is almost self-developing, tone comes with the development of voice—my voice just so happened to be inhibited by a lack of experience interpreting the science.

But my favorite part of this class has been learning to tell the story behind scientific research.

Telling the story in philosophy, political science and public policy comes naturally; ideas within social sciences tend to be horizontal and sequential, as opposed to the vertical integration I see in the sciences.

Prior to this class, I assumed that scientific literature simply reports observations. Uncovering the words hidden in data, the importance of research, and the significance of implications now helps me weave the story behind the science.

Finding ways to layer and stack the depths of information on top of one another provides me with a new method for story building:

Telling a scientific story is less like a map, which directs a reader from one destination to another; it is instead more like building a skyscraper, where the reader navigates each floor, which both stands on its own and is dependent upon the floor beneath.”

Thank you Adam for these wonderful insights!


E.B. White’s Approach to Style

“. . . We approach style in its broader meaning: style in the sense of what is distinguished and distinguishing. Here we leave solid ground. Who can confidently say what ignites a certain combination of words, causing them to explode in the mind? Who knows why certain notes in music are capable of stirring the listener deeply, though the same notes slightly rearranged are impotent? These are high mysteries . . .”

“. . . There is no satisfactory explanation of style, no infallible guide to good writing, no assurance that a person who thinks clearly will be able to write clearly, no key that unlocks the door, no inflexible rule by which writers may shape their course. Writers will often find themselves steering by stars that are disturbingly in motion.”

E. B. White in The Elements of Style.


E. B. White and the Job of a Writer


What are your views about the writer’s commitment to politics, international affairs? You have written so much (The Wild Flag, etc.) about federal and international issues.


“A writer should concern himself with whatever absorbs his fancy, stirs his heart, and unlimbers his typewriter. I feel no obligation to deal with politics. I do feel a responsibility to society because of going into print: a writer has the duty to be good, not lousy; true, not false; lively, not dull; accurate, not full of error. He should tend to lift people up, not lower them down. Writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life.”


In a country such as ours, which has become increasingly enamored of and dependent upon science and technology, what role do you see for the writer?


“The writer’s role is what it has always been: he is a custodian, a secretary. Science and technology have perhaps deepened his responsibility but not changed it. In ‘The Ring of Time,’ I wrote: ‘As a writing man, or secretary, I have always felt charged with the safekeeping of all unexpected items of worldly or unworldly enchantment, as though I might be held personally responsible if even a small one were to be lost. But it is not easy to communicate anything of this nature.’

A writer must reflect and interpret his society, his world; he must also provide inspiration and guidance and challenge. Much writing today strikes me as deprecating, destructive, and angry. There are good reasons for anger, and I have nothing against anger. But I think some writers have lost their sense of proportion, their sense of humor, and their sense of appreciation. I am often mad, but I would hate to be nothing but mad: and I think I would lose what little value I may have as a writer if I were to refuse, as a matter of principle, to accept the warming rays of the sun, and to report them, whenever, and if ever, they happen to strike me. One role of the writer today is to sound the alarm. The environment is disintegrating, the hour is late, and not much is being done. Instead of carting rocks from the moon, we should be carting the feces out of Lake Erie.”

From “E. B. White, The Art of the Essay.” 1969. 

Bren Writers

The lagoon, UCSB

The lagoon, UCSB

Announcing a new blog!

BREN WRITERS — Environmentally-inspired snippets 

Inaugurated by the community of writers in the 2013 Writing Skills for Environmental Professionals – Advanced Class at the Bren School of Environmental Science & Management, UCSB.

Writing Letters

The name of my blog is “The art and craft of writing and speaking.”

I’ve focused my discussions mostly on the academic world. For writing, that includes looking at many of the things we need to think about when we write a formal academic text.

But what about other wonderful kinds of writing? Like the art of letter writing? I experience a different kind of joy when I pick up a pen and write a letter than I do when I use a keyboard to write an email or ecard.

Please enjoy this lovely piece on writing — and receiving — letters.


 “Yesterday morning, I sat at my desk, took out pen and paper, an envelope and a roll of stamps and began to write. No, I wasn’t mailing a check or returning an online purchase — or recreating a scene from a Jane Austen novel. I was writing a letter.

This activity has become a weekly ritual for me, as I keep regular correspondence with several faraway loved ones. It started last year, with a postcard that my mother sent me — I taped it up next to my desk as a reminder to write back. Over time, my address book has grown to include friends of many different ages and locations: a girl from my high school now attending college in Ohio, cousins and aunts in Montana, a woman who I know well who lives in my home neighborhood. My wall is now covered with a collage of bright postcard photos and pages full of curling dark script . . .

The vast majority of students probably haven’t written and mailed a letter since the days of post-birthday-party thank-you notes. It’s true that our culture has fully shifted away from this by now — and of course, this is partially for good reason. It’s impossible to deny that it’s actually much faster and more effective to keep in touch with people via text, email or Facebook. But there’s still something to be said for keeping actual physical correspondence, intentionally choosing to forego the ease of the computer in order to have a more meaningful exchange of ideas.

Writing a letter isn’t something that you can just dash off in a few minutes, replete with misspellings and abbreviations — you have to actually grab a piece of paper, sit down at a desk and think a bit first. The simple act of choosing to write a letter already shows an investment in your interaction with the person to whom you’re sending it, that you have something worthwhile to say and have taken the time to do so in a full and complete manner.

And there’s something to the materiality of a letter, the thrill of unfolding the piece of paper and knowing that another set of hands far away has held it too. Unlike emails, letters aren’t in danger of disappearing into cyberspace with one false click. My mother still has a box full of the letters she sent to her parents in college, which she let me look through over the summer. Leafing through the pages, I could see the development of the handwriting, as well as of the woman who wrote with it. Somehow a folder of emails just doesn’t have that same effect . . .

[There’s] just something about opening my P.O. box each week to find a stack of thick, handwritten envelopes, which no high-pitched ping or Facebook notification tone will ever be able to match. And it would be irresponsible of our generation to sacrifice this simple pleasure entirely, for the sake of mere convenience.”

From A Weekly Ritual, by Emma Fallone. In The Yale Daily News, Nov. 8, 2013. http://yaledailynews.com/blog/2013/11/08/fallone-a-weekly-ritual/

Poetry — and Medicine

“John F. Martin [professor of cardiovascular medicine at University College London and adjunct professor at the Yale School of Medicine] is, in no particular order, a cardiologist, transatlantic academic, specialist in gene therapies for treating heart attacks, clinician, and published poet . . .

One of Martin’s preoccupations is a fear that medical students are at risk of becoming ‘intellectually brutalized.’ For years before matriculating, he believes, they’re conditioned to focus upon the microscopic at the expense of the holistic.

‘Very few students are able to think of the physiology of the way the body works, how the big systems of the internal cosmos function. Medicine on both sides of the Atlantic is becoming a factory system. So what can we do to stop this brutalization of the medical students’ minds and souls? The thing that occurred to me was let’s encourage them to write poetry.’”

Dr. Martin and his colleagues at U.C.L. and Yale designed a poetry competition for the medical students at the Yale U.C.L. Collaborative.

“Simple rules: one page maximum, two poems maximum.”

Read more about this wonderful idea in Poet, M.D. by Mark Singer in The New Yorker: October 14, 2013.

Words and Pictures

Here is something to think about when you are writing about visuals, or when you select visuals to highlight your written story.


“Reflecting on the art of picture book story-telling, Maurice Sendak (Where the Wild Things Are; In the Night Kitchen) shares his strong opinions about the interplay between words and pictures:”

 “An illustration is an enlargement, and interpretation of the text, so that the reader will comprehend the words better. As an artist, you are always serving the words.

You must never illustrate exactly what is written. You must find a space in the text so that the pictures can do the work. Then you must let the words take over where words do it best. It’s a funny kind of juggling act.”

(From Eric Carle in.Artist to Artist: 23 Major Illustrators Talk to Children About Their Art, 2007.) In this week’s Brain Pickings – www.brainpickings.org. 

Annie Dillard on Editing

I love the blog Brain Pickings, especially when the subject is writing. Here is something interesting from today’s edition — excerpts from the writer Annie Dillard (from Ms. Dillard’s book The Writing Life) on

editing while you compose and

editing after you compose.

 “The reason to perfect a piece of prose as it progresses – to secure each sentence before building on it – is that original writing fashions a form. It unrolls out into nothingness. It grows cell to cell, bole to bough to twig to leaf; any careful word may suggest a route, may begin a strand of metaphor or event out of which much, or all, will develop. Perfecting the work inch by inch, writing from the first word toward the last, displays the courage and fear this method induces.


The reason not to perfect a work as it progresses is that, concomitantly, original work fashions a form the true shape of which it discovers only as it proceeds, so the early strokes are useless, however fine their sheen. Only when a paragraph’s role in the context of the whole work is clear can the envisioning writer direct its complexity of detail to strengthen the work’s ends.”

Read the entire entry here.

William James on Education

Students in UCSB Senior Capstone Design in Computer Science 2013

Students in UCSB Senior Capstone Design in Computer Science 2013

“Let no youth have any anxiety about the upshot of his education, whatever the line of it may be. If he keep faithfully busy each hour of the working day, he may safely leave the final result to itself. He can with perfect certainty count on waking up some fine morning, to find himself one of the competent ones of his generation, in whatever pursuit he may have singled out.

Silently, between all the details of his business, the power of judging in all that class of matter will have built itself up within him as a possession that will never pass away.

Young people should know this truth in advance. The ignorance of it has probably engendered more discouragement and faint-heartedness in youths embarking on arduous careers than all other causes put together.”

(Pioneering psychologist and philosopher William James, from Habit [1887].)

Maeve Binchy

I fell in love with Maeve Binchy’s beautiful, visual, relevant writing. This wonderful writer died this past Monday. If you love excellent, readable writing, and you would like to get a feeling for Ireland and the Irish heart and soul, read Maeve Binchy’s books and stories.

“Maeve Binchy, who was one of the most popular and critically acclaimed authors in contemporary Irish literature, selling more than 40 million books, died Monday at a Dublin hospital after a brief illness, according to Irish media. She was 72.”


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