December workshop report: Going deep—the ethics and methods of immersion

What happens when, as we research and write, we take a really deep dive—especially into subject matter that might be outside our expertise, or into a complicated real-world situation, or even into the minds of the people we're writing about? What ethical problems arise for us as writers? What writing techniques can we use? How can we draw our readers into feeling immersed, too?

Ethics of field work

This month we started our workshop with a personal essay. In the essay, the author traced a lifelong love of creative scientific writing back to a research project the author had done in ethnography. Ethnography—the scientific description of the customs of individual peoples and cultures—exemplifies a problem in research and writing. Ethnography tends to require the researcher to spend so much time "in the field", among the people and subjects being studied, that the researcher can end up identifying with their subjects personally.

This personal involvement can, in turn, give rise to questions about the researcher's objectivity, as well as to ethical dilemmas, and to particular writing challenges. Similar problems exist in journalistic research and writing, including in science journalism and even in science writing more generally. (The great immersion journalist Ted Conover has even taught a graduate seminar at New York University called "Ethnography for Journalists".)

In our workshop discussion, we asked how the essay could illustrate more concretely the ways the author came to personally identify with the people and topic they were researching, so that we could then appreciate the usefulness to the author of creative writing as a way to explore this entanglement. Creative-writing techniques provide many ways to reflect on social, psychological, and emotional entanglements between writer and subject—an approach used by many of the most popular science writers.

For scientists, when trying to communicate with the public, the common instinct may be to take an objective, dispassionate stance, and try to just "explain the science". However, the longtime former director of NeuWrite in New York City, Tim Requarth (who also teaches at New York University), has recommended instead that scientists may have more success by talking with the public about their personal and even emotional involvement in the scientific work they do—see Tim's widely-read article on about this in Slate. Check out more of Tim's science writing here.

Making readers feel immersed

Next we workshopped a piece of dramatic fiction about science. The author was seeking ways to immerse the reader more deeply into the story, especially by using scenes with dialogue—a technique that can also be used in narrative nonfiction about science. One technique we discussed is to write in "close third person," or as The New Yorker magazine's literary critic James Wood calls it, "free indirect style". In his book How Fiction Works, Wood explains and provides examples:

A novelist’s omniscience [in other words, the writer’s ability to know everything about the story and characters] ... becomes a kind of secret sharing; this is called “free indirect style,” a term novelists have lots of different nicknames for—“close third person,” or “going into character.”

He looked over at his wife.
“She looks so unhappy,” he thought, “almost sick.”
He wondered what to say.

This is direct or quoted speech (“‘She looks so unhappy,’ he thought”) combined with the character’s reported or indirect speech (“He wondered what to say”)—the old-fashioned notion of a character’s thought as a speech made to himself, a kind of internal address.

He looked over at his wife. She looked so unhappy, he thought, almost sick. He wondered what to say.

This is reported or indirect speech, the internal speech of the husband reported by the author, and flagged as such (“he thought”). It is the most recognizable, the most habitual, of all the codes of standard realist narrative.

He looked at his wife. Yes, she was tiresomely unhappy again, almost sick. What the hell should he say?

This is free indirect speech or style: the husband’s internal speech or thought has been freed of its authorial flagging; no “he said to himself” or “he wondered” or “he thought.” ... This is ... another definition of dramatic irony: to see through a character’s eyes while being encouraged to see more than the character can see.

To understand what Wood is saying about “dramatic irony”, it’s useful to remember that in literature, “irony” can have a specific meaning: “A literary technique, originally used in Greek tragedy, by which the full significance of a character's words or actions are clear to the audience or reader although unknown to the character”. This kind of irony is part of what makes a story satisfying to the audience, because an audience can feel more knowledgeable than the characters while empathizing with them at the same time—and this helps readers become immersed in the story.

Techniques like this from fiction can be freely borrowed when writing nonfiction about science, as long as the writer has immersed themselves sufficiently in the research—in the field work of science writing—to get to know the real-life characters at a deep enough level that the writer can also make the reader feel immersed. Thus questions about immersion in the two texts we workshopped were connected.

At the same time, some literary journalists advise against using dialogue too much as a tool for explaining technicalities to readers. Use dialogue, they recommend, to give a feel for the situation and people in the story. Beyond that, though, sometimes it's more effective to find your own words as a writer to translate technical details into everyday language—for example, by coming up with good metaphors.

—Trevor Corson

Resources & references

The following came up in our discussion or were relevant to the workshop texts or theme:


Image: Irina Kryvasheina, Vecteezy

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