емкость is great (or: what I learned at the Writing Scientists Workshop)

This semester I did something I’ve been meaning to do for a long time: I ran a writers’ workshop, modeled after the many many fiction workshops I attended in college and at the Writing Seminars. But this one wasn’t about crafting a short story that exquisitely limned the emotional landscape of people almost exactly like me and my friends; it was for early-career scientists, and it was aimed at writing the 1000-word general-audience science article, the kind of thing I’ve mostly been writing since I gave up prose fiction a couple of decades ago.

And it worked! Not thanks to me so much as to the committed, insightful, extremely-willing-to-think-hard-about-craft group of eight students I had working with me, on Zoom, from around the US and in a couple of cases elsewhere.

Why did I want to do this? Because over the years a lot of young scientists have asked me how they can get into science writing and how they can combine it with a career in research. And the answer is not so much “here’s an editor you can contact” or “here’s what goes in a pitch letter,” it’s “learn to write a very specific kind of 1,000 word chunk of prose.” And that’s what we worked on.

I will probably do this again. It was really fun. And my real hope is that, just as Math Circles went from being a thing a few devoted Russian expats did in Cambridge and Oakland to something that every self-respecting math department runs, there will be Writing Scientists Workshops that don’t involve me at all, where groups of grad students and postdocs get together and read each others’ work seriously and reflectively and train themselves to be outward-facing scientists.

With that in mind, I wrote a pretty thorough account of how I ran the workshop, what we did, what things might usefully be changed, and what we spent our time talking about, here:


I got a lot of useful feedback from the participants, but maybe my favorite was the student who sent back a bullet-point list of all the advice about writing I’d given, filtered through her paraphrase. She’s a Russophone, and one of the bullet points was “емкость is great.” What is емкость? I’ve been asking all my Russian friends. It seems to mean something like “putting a lot of meaning into a few words.” That is, indeed, what the WSW is going for, and it is, indeed, great.

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