How to write about your science
Tips from Marina Joubert on how to switch from writing for science to writing about it — and reach a much wider audience.
As a scientist, you'll have mastered technical language and the impersonal style of scientific journals. But most people find science-speak indigestible and boring — it is guaranteed to turn non-specialist readers off.
Yet scientists are increasingly asked to reach wide audiences, so making science understood and appreciated is a sought-after skill. Writing for the public brings many rewards: it gives a higher profile that impresses funders, garners public support and attracts top-quality collaborations.
But gripping a popular audience is no mean feat and requires an entirely different approach to wowing fellow scientists. This guide gives you some of the dos and don'ts.
Most scientists get into popular writing because they enjoy it, though others may want the rewards or be told to 'engage with the public' by their funders.
It's easiest to start writing about your own research — so long as you can step far enough back from it.
To get published the first time, try an internal university or corporate magazine. Research councils publish magazines, such as the South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research's ScienceScope, as do science academies and societies.
Whether you approach a publication or vice versa, put some work in. Think carefully about the topics a publication covers and the target audience. What 'style' does it use — relaxed or more formal language?
Media outlets are often pleased to get your stories, particularly if they fit their format and interests. Pegging a piece to a particular event, such as World Water Day or the International Day for Biological Diversity, can also increase its chances of publication.
It's important to read popular science. You'll learn how others structure their stories, and immersing yourself in the language will show you what is and isn't appropriate. Reading will also familiarise you with outlets in your country (and beyond) that might welcome your stories.
Pick the right publication and get in touch with the editor — by phone or email. And find out about deadlines — how long in advance do you need to submit something for a monthly magazine versus a weekly or a daily?
You must become a consumer of popular science writing
Give it structure
How you structure your article will depend on its type — is it a news story about a scientific advance or are you attempting in-depth coverage? Or is it a commentary piece, i.e. your opinion? Each type has clear conventions.
For example, news stories begin with a short, sharp description of the main finding. News stands a scientific paper on its head, putting the conclusions first. Features draw the reader in, setting the scene with more creative, colourful prose.
In all cases, turn your research, or a scientific development, into a story with a narrative. The opening paragraphs must entice the reader to carry on reading – if it's difficult to understand from the start, readers will give up right away.
The body contains the details and facts. These should follow a clear thread, making it obvious to the reader why one paragraph leads to the next in a logical sequence. When writing features, find a way of turning the facts into a narrative and weave some excitement and adventure into the storyline.
The closing paragraphs of feature or commentary articles should sum up the essence of the story or point to future developments. You might leave the reader with thoughts to ponder, or it could be a call to action. Give them something to think about before letting them go.
Not 'dumbing down' but 'clearing up'
Think carefully about who might read your piece. How can you relate it to their personal experiences? What are they likely to know about this subject and why should they be interested in your story?
This imaginary reader is all-important. Do not think about other scientists. You are not writing to impress them (a point brought home in this blog post from scientist Stephen Curry).
Put yourself in your readers' shoes and let go of all your knowledge and experience. Cover the basics, but don't be condescending — there is a fine line between alienating people and empowering them. People will grasp complex ideas, as long as you use words they know.
The tyranny of jargon is the single biggest barrier separating science from everyday life. I recently interviewed someone researching school feeding schemes. I asked for a 'plain English' summary of his research, and his reply included: "Optimum nutrition is the physiological basis for effective education". A much better way of putting it is: "You can't teach a hungry child"; or even "if you eat well, you learn well".
Firmly eliminate the jargon, acronyms, short cuts and formalities that you use when writing for scientists. What is common knowledge to them will be alien to most readers. Describe abstract ideas and complex numbers in everyday terms and relate them to everyday experiences.
Analogies and metaphors that your readers can relate to may help. Most people, for example, will be able to picture a meteor impact crater 'the size of ten soccer fields'.
Keep sentences short and stick to the active voice wherever possible. Use quotes, case studies and real-life examples to add interest.
Writing about science in everyday language gets easier with practice. For me, translating jargon-infested 'science-speak' into plain language is like untangling matted fur on a dog. It is difficult at first and even painful. But patience and perseverance gets rid of all the knots and tangles (the jargon, acronyms, long sentences and passive voice).
Try to avoid 'the tyranny of jargon'
Lift the fog
I've found the Gunning-Fog index useful for measuring clarity. It calculates how many years of formal education a reader needs to understand your text easily with one reading.
If the text has a fog index of 12, your reader would need 12 years of education. Most scientific writing scores 40 or more.
You lower the fog index by making sentences shorter, writing in the active voice, and axing long words. Try this fog index calculator.
Most people are not that interested in how you found something out. They want to know what your findings mean to them. You have to answer the "so what?" question. Focus on what research could mean to people's daily lives, or how it could influence society.
Where your research has the wow factor or is cutting-edge, make it obvious. And remember, people respond to things that are close to them — so use any local or regional hooks.
Don't tell your reader everything you know; instead pinpoint the essence of your story in one sharp sentence, then test it on a few people before writing.
If you are giving your own opinion — in a commentary article, for example — you don't have to be neutral or objective. It is even acceptable to speculate a bit. If you are enthusiastic, excited or concerned, say so. You can use humour too.
And while people are less interested in the daily research processes, they are interested in your human side — what obstacles did you have to overcome? How did you feel? Portraying a 'real person' breaks down barriers, bringing the reader closer to science. Convey your excitement and pride, but don't hype and never lie.
In this piece for The Guardian, Brian Cox, professor of particle physics at the UK's University of Manchester, uses his personal experience of working at the European Organization for Nuclear Research to explain the science of the Large Hadron Collider.
Writing popular articles gets your science out of the lab
Flickr/IITA Image Library
A picture is worth a thousand words
Pictures can glue eyeballs to a page, so submit images and captions with your story if you can — it may make the difference between getting published or rejected (and it may guard against a picture editor choosing something completely inappropriate). But if you can't, don't be put off. Publications will find an accompanying image.
As you write, think creatively about images and captions. Science offers beautiful and unusual images that can help readers visualise what you are writing about. Spend time on catchy and informative captions — they are indispensable entry points into your story.
Once you have written your article, turn your imaginary reader into a real one. Ask a non-scientist friend to read the piece and to point out parts they don't understand. You will soon begin to find the level you need to be writing at. And if you spot a yawn or they lose interest half-way, remember that nobody is obliged to read your story. If it is technical, dull and boring, not even your friends will!
And unless your story is read, it has no meaning and can't fulfil any purpose. The reader — whether you meet them or not — is always king.
Marina Joubert is a science communicator from Pretoria, South Africa.