Literary Science Writing: A Return to Narrative

We do have literary and narrative science writing before World War II: Rachel Carson, Joseph Mitchell, John Steinbeck, etc. After mid-century, the change from private to public science had enormous consequences, and one of those was the birth of science writing as a distinct field (Franklin).

There also was a change in literature at this same time, a proclaimed “death of fiction,” of the great novel. Some argue that nonfiction writers stepped in to fill the void: Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, Joan Didion, Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson. Meanwhile, John McPhee started writing for The New Yorker.

So, what is literary journalism, narrative, creative nonfiction, etc.? You can lump these together or tease them apart. In essence, the forms of writing are often said to “borrow the tools of fiction” to craft true stories. Others would argue that true stories are the original stories. Here are some elements that can make your science writing “literary.”

Scene-by-scene construction

Immersion: participate, listen, learn, bear witness.

Voice/Narration: voice of self, of others.

Interdisciplinary perspective: “The liveliness of literary journalism comes from combining personal engagement with perspectives from sociology and anthropology, memoir writing, fiction, history, and standard reporting. Literary journalists are boundary-crossers” (Sims).

Investigative journalism


Complicated Structure (essay, digression, threads).


Story (Narrative Arc, Mythic Journey, Hero’s Tale): Stories are collaborative–the listener paints the backdrop. Narrative isn’t merely a technique for communicating, its how we make sense of the world. The human brain has evoloved to enable the construction and comprehension of narrative (Achenbach). Story is the fundamental unit of communication. Humans tend to believe story and reject data. People compare their story to ones that are presented, and favor the story the most resembles their own. (Goodman).


Achenbach, Joel. 2009. The Vestigal Tale. Washington Post, 29 October.

Dillard, Annie. 2005. “Introduction: Notes for Young Writers” in In Fact: The Best of Creative Nonfiction. New York: W.W. Norton.

Franklin, Jon. 1986. “Humanizing Science through Literary Writing” in Scientists and Journalists: Reporting Science as News. New York: The Free Press.

Goodman, Andy.

Gutkind, Lee. 2006. “Creative Nonfiction: A Movement, not a Moment” in Creative Nonfiction Issue 29: The ABCs of CNF.

Kanigel, Robert. 2006. “The Science Essay” pp. 145-150 in A Field Guide for Science Writers, Second Edition. New York: Oxford University Press.

Kramer, Mark. 1995. “Breakable Rules for Journalists” pp. 21-34 in Literary Journalism. New York: Ballantine Books.

Shreeve, Jamie. 2006. “Narrative Writing” pp. 138-144 in A Field Guide for Science Writers, Second Edition. New York: Oxford University Press.

Sims, Norman. 1995. “The Art of Literary Journalism” pp. 3-20 in Literary Journalism. New York: Ballantine Books.

Zinsser, William. 2006. “Nonfiction as Literature” pp. 95-99 in On Writing Well, 30th Anniversary Edition. New York: Collins.


Reading Literary Science Writing

I’ve selected one or two articles for each student to read. Please come to class prepared to discuss your reading and read your favorite paragraph aloud. You can write up your response as your journal entry for the week. In your journal and your presentation, think about how the story is different from what you’ve been reading in your news outlet. Questions to consider include:

Where and when was the story published?

Who wrote the story?

Does the author have a science background?

How does the story begin?

What is the point of view? (first person “I”, “We”; second person “You”; third person)

Do you like the story? Why or why not?

Here are the articles:

Annie Dillard. “Spring” from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, 1988.

Elizabeth Kolbert. “Stung” from The New Yorker, 2007.

Lisa Couturier. “A Banishment of Crows” from The Hopes of Snakes, 2005.

Rebecca Skloot. Excerpt from The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, 2010.

Rachel Carson. “Undersea” from Atlantic Monthly, 1937.

David Gessner. “Learning to Surf” from Orion, 2006.

John McPhee. Excerpt from Basin & Range, 1982.

Hank Steuver. “What Exit? Fifty Years Later, the New Jersey Turnpike Finds a Little Respect,” 2001; David Remnick, “The New Jersey Turnpike: A Love Story,” 1984, both from The Washington Post.

Jon Franklin. “Mrs. Kelly’s Monster,” from The Evening Sun, 1978.

Jennifer Lunden. “The Butterfly Effect: Finding Sanctuary in Butterfly Town, USA,” Creative Nonfiction, 2010.

Robin Cody. “Miss Ivory Broom,” University of Portland Maagazine, 2003.

Alan Weisman. “Earth without People,” Discover, 2005.

Michael Pollan. “Dream Pond: Just add water,” in The New York Times, 1998; “Natural Narratives,” Nieman Narrative Digest, 2007.

Barry Lopez. “A Presentation of Whales,” Crossing Open Ground, 1985.