Category Archives: current activities

Words in the forest

Settler letterI snuck down to Pemberton in the southern forests of Western Australia for a few days. It’s been a while since I visited the area. Towering karri trees dominate the landscape. It’s stunning. I breathe. Relax. Walk.

Walking around Big Brook Dam I overheard a woman talking to her husband. “Go and read the information signs,” she said. “They tell the story of the forest from all different perspectives. It’s like pages from different diaries. It’s very clever.”

I couldn’t help but smile as I walked past. There’s no author’s name on the information panels she was talking about but if there was it would be mine. I wrote the text for the Karri Forest Explorer trail when it was put in years ago. It was a great job. Lots of fun. The brief was to show that the views of the forest have changed over time and that the forest means, and has meant, different things to different people. I was given complete freedom in how I would do that and came up with the approach of using a range of voices – an early settler writing letters home to her mother, a forester filing reports, a ranger making notes of observations, a protester sending postcards home – all written in first person, but clearly identified as being different people. Each viewpoint is different, and the style of writing, the perspective held, the words used and the observations made, reflect who they were and the time they were writing. A graphic designer carefully crafted my words into panels using different fonts and styles for the different voices, and illustrated them with photos, drawings and relevant objects.

Revisiting this month, I was pleased to see the work is standing the test of time. The panels still look good and they still work as a way of telling some of the forest’s many stories. I’m especially pleased that people are still enjoying reading them. Satisfying work indeed.

Ranger notes

On Writing Well

On Writing Well“If the reader is lost, it is generally because the writer has not been careful enough to keep him on the path.”

This gem is from Willian Zinsser’s classic book ‘On Writing Well’, which I’m re-reading and can’t recommend highly enough. My copy is old and yellowing, showing the signs of having been consulted often during the several decades it has sat on my bookshelf. Originally published in 1976 as ‘On Writing Well: An informal guide to writing nonfiction’, it was republished last year as ‘On Writing Well: The classic guide to writing nonfiction’. It well deserves to be called a classic. Zinsser’s advice is as timely now as it was when he first wrote it. I concede that in my old copy there are a couple of chapters about writing with word processors that now sound quaintly outdated, but his basic principles about what constitutes good writing are still bang on target. If anything, his advice is more needed today than it was when first written.

Bureaucratic language, passive sentence structures and meaningless strings of qualifiers seem to creep into many reports these days. They become so prevalent that as readers we often forget that it needn’t be so. Worse still is the tendency to inject extra words into sentences in the mistaken belief that it will make the writing sound better. It doesn’t. Simplicity wins out every time.

Zinsser doesn’t say that it’s easy to write well. He expects writers to work hard at the craft of writing and words to work even harder:

“Every word that serves no function, every adverb that carries the same meaning that’s already in the verb, every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure of who is doing what – these are the thousand and one adulterants that weaken the strength of a sentence.”

Zinsser’s advice is to write clear, uncluttered sentences. He stresses the need to take care with every word, to ensure that sentences cannot be misinterpreted. He’s a stickler for details:

“A small detail, you may say – not worth bothering about. It is worth bothering about. The game is won or lost on hundreds of small details.”

On Writing Well - simplicityI can’t find anything significant I disagree with in ‘On Writing Well’. I still seek to follow his advice in my own writing and in the courses I teach. I like Zinsser’s vision of good writing:

“Good writing has an aliveness that keeps the reader reading from one paragraph to the next, and it’s not a question of gimmicks to “personalise” the author. It’s a question of using the English language in a way that will achieve the greatest strength and the least clutter. Can such principles be taught? Maybe not. But most of them can be learned.”

Write Course’s flagship course Write Well provides participants with an opportunity to learn the principles of good writing. Check out the scheduled courses page for details of courses and dates. Write Well suitable for anyone who cares about the words they write, whatever the context in which they write.



Buzzing with enthusiasm for headlines and practical experience

Getting practical with bees_LRThere are some things that just lend themselves to corny headlines and clichéd lines. Most stories about bees seem to fall into that category. I’ve been fortunate enough to write about ChemCentre’s research into certifying monofloral honey (that’s honey from one flower species, such as jarrah or karri) in this story: ChemCentre puts honey on the menu. And I’ve previously written about international bee research for Farming Ahead magazine – ‘High tech bee research aims for sweet success’ (Farming Ahead, January 2016).

I find the whole topic of bees and honey fascinating, so when I had the opportunity to begin to get some practical experience helping friends’ out in their beehives, I flew at the chance. There’s nothing like real world experience to put theory into perspective and to add colour to your writing. With bees that perspective can pack a punch or, more accurately, a sting. In my case, on my second foray into a hive, I ended up with three bees buzzing around my head on the wrong side of the veil; the wrong side being the same side as my face.

My friend and beekeeping mentor Helen managed to squish one of them before it stung me; but the other two stung – it’s tempting to say that I was stabbed in the back but took it on the chin, as that is exactly what happened; one stung me on my chin and one on the back of my neck. Stings aside, the experience was a good one. I’m pleased to say that I wasn’t sufficiently daunted by the stings (nor by the weird looks I got down the shops the next day when people noticed my swollen, misshapen face) to stop my exploration of beekeeping. I’ve been back into the hives again since and have plans to continue my apprenticeship. Reading and writing about bees and honey research is always interesting, but there’s nothing quite like sticking my head in a hive to find out what bees are really like. I could wax lyrical about their busy little lives, although I feel that could come to a sticky end.

The pointy end of this blog really is that sometimes a well-placed cliché and even a little bit of corniness may make a tasty subject even sweeter; I think it depends on the audience, but tread carefully lest you get stung.

Lessons in science communication

Telling science storiesProfessor Ian Ritchie used to stop in the middle of his chemistry lectures and tell a joke. He didn’t try to hide it nor to fit it in with the subject matter of the lecture; he simply stopped talking at the half way mark, clapped his hands, said ‘joke time’ and proceeded to tell a joke. I don’t remember any of them (it was 30 years ago!) but I remember that he did it – every lecture.

This year, I have had cause to recall professor Ritchie as I was writing a story about the Ritchie scholarship for ChemCentre  and more recently about ChemCentre’s annual staff awards. I came across some background on the late Ian Ritchie, written by former colleagues, and was struck by a sentence that read: his lectures shone out from all the rest as interesting, challenging, and, particularly, fun!

It made me smile; reminding me of what a fabulous lecturer Professor Ritchie was. I realised that he had inadvertently given me some very valuable lessons in science communication that have stood me well in the years since.

Firstly, he had shown that humour can work, even with serious subjects, if done in the right way and timed well.

baby-1531060_640Secondly, I recalled a lecture professor Ritchie gave in a course on chemistry in the life sciences. He showed us a picture of a new-born baby and told us that birth was the culmination of the most amazing series of chemical reactions. It was a different perspective to anything I’d ever heard and certainly made me think. I suppose it made me see the real relevance of chemistry to the life sciences which, given that I was a biology major, was a very important thing for me to realise early on in my university career. The long-term lesson for me in science communication from that experience was the importance of giving a subject direct relevance to the intended audience.

There were of course also lessons in there about the value of telling a story with pictures. And, of course, I learnt these things from him by his demonstration of good practice – by his walking the walk, rather than just talking the talk. RIP Ian Ritchie.