What’s Neuroscience Got To Do With Writing?

(Reed’s Playlist for the occasion: The Number of the Beast by Iron Maiden, Chase the Devil by Eagles of Death Metal)

I’m typing this from in lab, where me and my partner are waiting in between experiments.

Yeah, I’m a science nerd. Who knew? Certainly not me in high school; I thought I wanted to be a teacher (I still do).

But it’s got me thinking about science and writing, and how they’re more connected than most people think. In fact, I was trying to consider this exact question – why does being a scientist make me a better writer? – on a job application I plan on sending out soon.

The answer came out when I was trying to think of a quippy cover letter. The way I see it, I’ve always been a tinkerer. Even when I was little, I would be playing with puzzles and games, observing how pieces and moves and strategies fit together, trying to find the exact right way to do things.

When I got started in neuroscience, the brain became my new puzzle. I would watch other students rush towards an end in class or in lab, without really giving due consideration to the process. Why were we doing these things in this specific way? What was the best way to achieve the results we wanted? Sometimes, the answer would be a completely different method than we were actually utilizing (especially in lab).

Meanwhile, I was writing for fun but I didn’t really understand how to write well. I read a lot of fantasy, and the dense, bloated novels were always circulating in my mind as examples of how to do things right. But when I started to examine them from a literary perspective, I noticed they suffered from a lack of conciseness that, while characteristic of the genre, made them inferior in the eyes of literary snobs.

(Side note: I don’t buy into the idea that there’s any single way to write a novel. If people like it, people like it. Screw convention.)

Regardless, I started looking at writing the way I might look at an experiment. Were my dorky attempts at fantasy novels good? They were decent, but they lacked some subtle pacing I couldn’t seem to get down. I realized it was the fantasy mindset keeping me from writing in a way that was terse and engaging to readers.

Not that I’m doing that much better now (as we can see from this long post). I guess what I’m trying to say is that science and writing both rely on similar processes. To be good at them, one just has to follow a formula written out long ago. To be great at them, one has to always be examining the methods, the tools, the craft itself, to find a better and more precise way of doing things.

(Once I finish the job application, I’m going to post my cover letter – which says all this in a much more eloquent and pithy way – on here, so you can examine it for yourself.)

How does your career/other passion fit into your writing? Let me know in the comments below!

Faithfully yours,

-R.R. Buck


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