And for all their power and speed, today’s digital machines have shown little creative ability. They can’t compose very good songs, write great novels, or generate good ideas for new businesses. Apparent exceptions here only prove the rule. A prankster used an online generator of abstracts for computer science papers to create a submission that was accepted for a technical conference (in fact, the organizers invited the “author” to chair a panel), but the abstract was simply a series of somewhat-related technical terms strung together with a few standard verbal connectors.
Similarly, software that automatically generates summaries of baseball games works well, but this is because much sports writing is highly formulaic and thus amenable to pattern matching and simpler communication. Here’s a sample from a program called StatsMonkey:
UNIVERSITY PARK — An outstanding effort by Willie Argo carried the Illini to an 11-5 victory over the Nittany Lions on Saturday at Medlar Field.
Argo blasted two home runs for Illinois. He went 3-4 in the game with five RBIs and two runs scored.
Illini starter Will Strack struggled, allowing five runs in six innings, but the bullpen allowed only no runs and the offense banged out 17 hits to pick up the slack and secure the victory for the Illini.
I'm gradually managing to cram my mind more and more full of things. I've got this beautiful mind and it's going to die, and it'll all be gone. And then I say, not in my case. Every idea I've ever had I've written down, and it's all there on paper. And I won't be gone; it'll be there.
Study nature to find your voice. One reason the natural history genre thrives today is the tremendous variety of voices it makes possible: the wild exactness of Annie Dillard, the calm thankfulness of Terry Tempest Williams, the scientific precision of Bernd Heinrich. But again, this is not just the province of professional writers or exceptional talents. No matter how dry or literal an amateur naturalist’s field notebook might be, sooner or later it begins to fill up with descriptions of her experience; also her theories and suppositions, her value judgments, her wild flights of fancy. She can push this further, if she wants to. Like describing nature itself, attempts to capture our own experience, interpret what we are seeing scientifically, clarify our value judgments or create new imaginative worlds, are endlessly fascinating. One gets better at them as one goes along.
This book is crammed with original ideas—very few of them my own. Science writers become accustomed to the feeling that they are intellectual plagiarists, raiding the minds of those who are too busy to tell the world about their discoveries. There are scores of people who could have written each chapter of my book better than I. My consolation is that few could have written all the chapters. My role has been to connect the patches of others' research together into a quilt.
Mostly when I think of pacing, I go back to Elmore Leonard, who explained it so perfectly by saying he just left out the boring parts. This suggest cutting to speed the pace, and that’s what most of us end up having to do (kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings)...I got a scribbled comment that changed the way I rewrote my fiction once and forever. Jotted below the machine-generated signature of the editor was this mot: “Not bad, but PUFFY. You need to revise for length. Formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%. Good luck.