The writing process: feedback, feedback, feedback and how to find good metaphors
I deliberately chose to not use any scientific vocabulary in the story. Because I wanted to keep the story itself free of jargon, I had to come up with lots and lots of metaphors. At the end of the story the reader (which I assume are kids, but mostly their parents) can dive deeper into the scientific base to understand all the metaphors I’ve chosen.
For example, I chose to talk about darts instead of antibodies.
Why darts? Well, I needed literal translations- metaphors which would be understood and relatable.
Antibodies stick to their target. That’s the main thing they do. Once they attach themselves to their target immune cells react to them. This labelling, so to speak, makes them a potent weapon against an enemy.
Darts also just stick. If you hit for the red- in darts terms, the bullseye- in the middle of a dartboard you get the most points. You then hit your target with the highest precision.
That is exactly what an antibody aims for. Hitting the red in the middle.
I figured that every kid would have an idea of what darts are and how they work.
If I’d use the real word, antibodies I risk losing their interest and their understanding of things.
All I want is that the young reader understands the concepts and not the vocabulary that is attached to it.
I guess for us grown-ups it often works similarly with math formulas. Unless you’re a mathematician and your heart beats faster when you see these, the average person zooms out or is even scared.
I’m not particularly scared, but I often ask myself what this formula now adds for my understanding. Considering that it would take me a substantial amount of time to truly understand it before I can even embed it into the bigger picture.
So better leave it out.
One thing I realized really early on during my writing process is that the writing gets better with feedback. The more the better.
As I mentioned earlier, I knew that language is not really my strength. So, I figured I better get feedback soon, to improve faster.
I’m a very impatient person. This idea therefore was primarily born out of impatience.
And I told you already that my parents don’t know a thing about biology. Which is only great, if you want to test your audience’s general understanding of your writing.
So, my parents read even the roughest draft of my stories, all the way from the beginning to now. They are a fantastic mirror. They can tell me, honestly, if they get it and most importantly what they associate with the metaphors I chose.
Long and numerous discussions followed about what they liked about and what they thought I should change. The good thing about feedback from parents is that you can still take them of leave them. I guess that applies to other people’s comments on your work too. But once it gets into professional comments, such as a writer would get from an editor, it’s harder to choose for yourself what you take in and what to refuse.
So, I saw these conversations always as a chance to improve. As an informal thoughts exchange.
It definitely made the story a lot better. Step by step.
Another person who was involved right from the get-go, was a good friend. Again, she had no previous knowledge of biology except maybe the common high school basics.
I let her read pretty much all the rough drafts too. I was really happy that she was willing to take her time to look at this.
In fact, she helped me finetune the metaphor of darts which I used for antibodies. Because in my first version I chose to talk about swords instead.
Thinking about different forms of weapons, I thought I needed something powerful, metallic.
She told me, that swords cut things. At the very least poke things.
If you think about swords in action figuratively, I realized, that that she was totally correct.
Yet, antibodies don’t cut their target and they also don’t poke it. In fact, they don’t really actively harm their target at all. Their target gets damaged by immune cells (and other components) which detect this now labelled target.
“Well, then you should pick another metaphor”.
So true. And I would have not seen this myself.
This is how I came up with a dart missile, thinking hard about what antibodies really do.
Of course, I also showed the story to scientist’s friends. After all I was still concerned that they would not be correct. That I missed important facts here and there.
But that was not the cause. After all, I do seem to possess the skills to do thorough scientific literature research and write something down which is scientifically correct. After years of scientific training I at least can be sure about this now.
Often when you have finished your PhD or you’re into your first years of working as a scientist after your PhD (as a postdoc) you still have no idea what your own skills are.
This is not how academia often works. Nobody tells you this: "You’re good at this. Well, you need to work more on this." This kind of feedback is so valuable, yet not really found.
If you’re lucky you have followed a personal development course or plan to do it at some point. So you can stand still and analyze your own strengths and weaknesses.
I learned to value my strengths and skills more during the time that I was working in industry. Working in an interdisciplinary environment you often realize this faster than if you’re surrounded by likeminded people. And I also took courses.
Throughout the creative journey of writing a book, I often stand still and ask myself what am I good at? What comes naturally and what do I still need to learn?
And maybe, what will I never learn?
I figured that writing is a skill I can learn. I already knew how to write scientific manuscripts quite well (after all I was working as a scientific writer at a company before). Now I had to learn how to write for children. A daunting experiment.
One that I thought I’d get better in it faster with lots of feedback.
And what could be the most ideal feedback? Now that my parents, my friend and a scientist had looked at it?
A child in the same age range as what I’m writing for.
Fortunately, my friend’s son (10 years) volunteered to that. Lock-down was in that sense also an ideal situation for it. She was busy with her kids’ education and she is a scientist herself.
I asked her if her son would be interested to read it and give me honest feedback and he did.
We had a hilarious 10-minute conversation about the story of Didi in the lungs.
He liked it and asked if I would write another one (oh, you can’t get a better comment than that?).
I asked him if he thought the story was too gruesome as I was a bit worried how kids would take the fact that cells do die because of the viral infection. After all, I had personified them as little people and now let them die in the story. He said no, not at all.
Funny enough I had ‘forgotten’ one scientific vocabulary in the text.
I mentioned the windpipe and the smaller and smaller tubes which lead to the round chambers of the lungs, the alveoli. The place where you can exchange oxygen with carbon dioxide. The place that lets you breathe.
He asked about this funky word and what it meant.
This was really a confirmation of my decisions to keep out any scientific vocabulary from the story. He got so confused by it, it threw him off. He didn’t remember the actual word either, because it is too complex for his age.
In essence, I adjusted lots of small and big things in the story after receiving valuable feedback.
I learned that a degree of openness can save you a lot of time. It can really make your work better. If you have good friends and family and they are willing to invest the time, then take them along in the creative process.
I realize that it’s probably not for everybody to be that open about your work if you are not fully finished and happy about it. But try to push your own boundaries. And of course, you have to be willing to accept critique. Seek feedback which is constructive and not destructive.
Do you have any experience with this? Have you ever asked for feedback in the middle of a creative process? How did that go? What did you learn from it?