Wednesday, 9 October 2013

In Which Mineralogy Gives Me A Writing Lesson

Mineralogy is far-and-away the most difficult class I've ever had to take. We need to learn the properties of minerals, how to identify them, and how they interact with different geological processes. Somewhere along the way, we're learning the principles of writing scientific papers. Want to know a secret? 

They're boring. 

That's write, scientific papers are purposely written dry and dull, full of facts and observations but little else. And you know what? That's good. It serves the purpose. Flowery prose isn't what a reader needs in a scientific paper. 

But that makes it difficult for me, because I want to write things prettily

My mineralogy professor is aware of this, and gave us all a bit of advice that not only applies to scientific papers, but every kind of writing. 

"Listen to Bob Dylan songs," he said. "If there's anyone who knows how to write succinctly and get his point across, it's him. His songs are simple, concise, and convey a lot of information." 

Sure enough, when I got home I looked up a couple of his songs. This one stood out to me - Ballad of Hollis Brown. I won't post all the lyrics here, but here's the beginning: 

Hollis Brown
He lived on the outside of town
With his wife and five children
And his cabin brokin' down.

You looked for work and money
And you walked a rugged mile
You looked for work and money
And you walked a rugged mile
Your children are so hungry
That they don't know how to smile.

And the song continues on like that, and conveys an extremely compelling and tragic tale. He uses repetition to great effect, and creates an atmosphere that instantly transports the reader into the story. And foreshadowing? He's got it down: 

Your grass is turning black
There's no water in your well
Your spent your last lone dollar
On seven shotgun shels.

So what do you think? Is there a particular trick he uses? Is there something his writing conveys that you wish you could mimic? I wish I could create an atmosphere like this song does!



Misha Gericke said...

I love the way Bob Dylan writes.

Can't really tell you how to write that way, though. Everyone has their own individual style.

Good luck with mineralogy. :-)

Paul Tobin said...

I'd agree with your tutor- Bob Dylan can get a message across succinctly. There's something cinematic about his later writing too.