Carl Zimmer on writing: “Don’t make a ship in a bottle”
Talking about complex ideas is tough. But for this NYT columnist, doing it well is the key to greatness.
If you want to get a handle on what’s happening at the frontier of biology, Carl Zimmer is your man. He’s the author of numerous books, including Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea, writes a regular column on science for the New York Times, and his award-winning blog, The Loom, is part of National Geographic’s Phenomena collective.
We asked him how he writes.
What’s the one thing you’ve learned over time that you wish you knew when you started out?
I wish someone told me I shouldn’t be making ships in a bottle.
To write about anything well, you have to do a lot of research. Even just trying to work out the chronology of a few years of one person’s life can take hours of interviews. If you’re writing about a scientific debate, you may have to trace it back 100 years through papers and books. To understand how someone sequenced 400,000 year old DNA, you may need to become excruciatingly well acquainted with the latest DNA sequencing technology.
Once you’ve done all that, you will feel a sense of victory. You get it. You see how all the pieces fit together. And you can’t wait to make your readers also see that entire network of knowledge as clearly as you do right now.
That’s a recipe for disaster. When I was starting out, I’d try to convey everything I knew about a subject in a story, and I ended up spending days or weeks in painful contortions. There isn’t enough room in an article to present a full story. Even a book is not space enough. It’s like trying to build a ship in a bottle. You end up spending all your time squeezing down all the things you’ve learned into miniaturized story bits. And the result will be unreadable.
It took me a long time to learn that all that research is indeed necessary, but only to enable you to figure out the story you want to tell. That story will be a shadow of reality—a low-dimensional representation of it. But it will make sense in the format of a story. It’s hard to take this step, largely because you look at the heap of information you’ve gathered and absorbed, and you can’t bear to abandon any of it. But that’s not being a good writer. That’s being selfish. I wish someone had told me to just let go.
If somebody asked you for tips on becoming a better writer, what’s the one thing you’d tell them?
I get asked this question a lot, and there are many ways to answer the question. Don’t use the passive voice if at all possible, for example. Make sure the reader always knows where you’re headed. Get enough sleep to think clearly. Have joy in your heart. Outline.
But all these sorts of answers are really secondary to the fundamental answer, which is to write. That’s what writers do, and it’s how writers get better at it. Find time to write at least a couple hours a day, every day. And I mean real writing, not dithering on the Internet telling yourself you’re doing “research.” Get a blank notebook and a pen if you have to. It’s in those long stretches of time with your own words, sentences, and paragraphs that you come face to face with all the great challenges of writing, and you find the solutions.