Science for the Public and more…

Archive for May, 2016

Writing Science for the Public #3

1-It is about the people. Let’s say that your topic is Chlamydia. I know and you know that you can write something perfectly interesting about Chlamydia without mentioning people, but the truth is the article will be more interesting if includes people. Readers want to hear about people. If your story is about Chlamydia, it is really about Chlamydia and people. If you don’t know anyone with Chlamydia find someone who does, or, perhaps less awkwardly, find out who revealed the biological story of Chlamydia (seems to be this amazing and rarely written about fellow–http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stanislaus_von_Prowazek).

2-Your story needs a happening part. If you string together paragraphs of facts, you have not written a story. You have written a textbook and for as much as teachers tell students otherwise, textbooks are boring. Something needs to happen in the story and then either resolve or conspicuously fail to resolve. What happens can be funny. It can be serious. It can be funny and then serious and then funny again, but it has to happen (Conspicuously, I have given this advice in post in which absolutely nothing happens).

3-It is easier to write a simple story. Look, while you are reading this you are thinking of ways around my suggestions. “Oh,” you might think, “I could write a compelling story without mention of people or characters in which absolutely nothing happens. It will be about a rare beetle.” I bet you could. I believe in you. But to do so is to do things the hard way. Just a piece of advice here. If you are just starting in science writing, you might want to avoid always doing things the hard way.

4-Nouns not adjectives. The temptation in writing a story is to use piles of adjectives to describe the beauty, awe, tininess, sublimity, grandness and awkward bumbling of whatever it is you are writing about. Don’t. Use strong nouns and verbs. Write simple sentences.

5—Sound like you. Your voice should be your own. If you are writing what someone else could write, well, you can take it easy and let them do it.

6-Be relevant. Scientists are trained to study marginal topics. Suggest to a PhD candidate that they might focus on a common relevant species and they will, with a natural inevitability, disappear into the rain forest to study something obscure instead. Perhaps it is reasonable for scientists to focus on the obscure; in the margins we hope for big discoveries others missed. It is not reasonable for writers, unless, in that obscure, the reader can see a broader story, a story relevant to millions of people.

7-Tell the readers what they want to know (Pity the reader).Write for the readers. When I talk about ants, people almost always ask, “what should I do about ants in my kitchen?” It took me a decade to realize this was my listener/reader saying, “this is the only way your topic was even remotely interesting to me.” You don’t have to give readers the answers they want, but if the reader has a natural reason for caring about your topic, don’t avoid it. Your goal as a writer is to engage as many people as possible in ways that might affect their lives. This stands in contrast to your goal when writing scientific papers which is, as near as I can figure, to write a paper that appeals to thirty people and, in doing so, avoid affecting them in any real way (lest they give you an unfavorable review).

8-Even if it is not about people, it is about people.

9-If you write about scientists, make them human. This doesn’t mean make them seem ordinary if they are not. Scientists include ordinary people. Now that I’ve said that, let’s be more honest, they also include a fair number of folks incapable of navigating the aisles of the supermarket. Tell it like it is—I know a scientist who walked to work wearing two different shoes and only realized it on the way home (OK, that was me, but I digress)—but even odd scientists have ordinary struggles. By making scientists human you let the readers know scientists have daily struggles, problems buying cars, issues finding the right the schools for their kids. You want your reader to relate to the characters in your story.

10-Know your stuff. You need to know a story better to write about it for the public than you need to do to write about it for scientists. To write about a story for non-scientists you need to capture the big story and explain complex topics in ways intelligible to folks for whom the topics are new. Don’t shy away from complex ideas, but explain them with clarity. Doing this requires you to know the details AND the broad picture. Imagine you are trying to figure out things about the field you are writing about that the experts missed.

11-Tritrophic is not a real word. Your reader does not know the words tritrophic, ecological assemblage, genomics or parthenogenesis. That is not because your reader is dumb. It is because scientists made up those words and never told anyone but other scientists. Don’t underestimate the intelligence of your readers. Readers can be very clever, but it is not their job to know all of the words that you and the twelve people you call colleagues made up.

12-Share your joy. You are writing about science because you like science. Your reader is reading about science because he or she likes science. If you share your joy in a piece of the scientific world the reader may well feel joy too. If they do, they might send you a letter and you will feel joy again (After thinking, “I’ll be dammed, an actual paper letter.).

13-Your story can turn at the end in a way that changes the perspective of the reader. It is a great sensation if, at the end of the story, we see the topic you are writing about in a new light. In a short article, this turn is most easily made in the last paragraph. If you are writing a book, well, you have bigger problems.

14-Delete. Cut mercilessly (says the guy who has just written a 1300 word list). Cut extra words. Cut paragraphs. Be wariest of sentences and paragraphs you love; they have a tendency to stick around even when they don’t help. As Arthur Quiller-Couch said, murder your darlings. Delete whole essays. Winnow. Writing improves with practice and winnowing is part of practice. Fill your trashcans with attempts. Fill them with whole books. Share what is left over, the cut stone of a story, a stone that anyone would agree shines. Then start over, and when you do, remember it is about the people.

Writing Science for the Public

It’s no secret that science has a PR problem. Scientists, it seems, are generally viewed as cold and competent but not warm and trustworthy. According to social psychologist Susan Fiske of Princeton University, a person’s perceived warmth strongly influences how much they are trusted. This presents a problem for scientists, especially in an era when funding, research impact, and science literacy rely so heavily on communicating effectively with a broader audience. Even when seeming warm and trustworthy could help their message be heard, it can be hard for scientists to shake the “cold and competent” stereotype. The authoritative and unemotional way that scientists are taught to write for journal articles usually is not appropriate when communicating with a general audience. Learning the principles of journalistic nonfiction often requires scientist authors to step away from an academic writing style that has come to feel intuitive. Nevertheless, using these styles can make the scientist’s work more relatable, memorable, and trusted.

Here are some tips:

  1. Write for the readers—Scientists tend to aim their writing toward what they think their colleagues want to read. This is a natural reflex—after all, that’s the audience they’re accustomed to thinking about when they write journal articles and grant proposals. But a scientist’s colleagues will be a minority of the readership of a magazine article. Try to step back, review your own assumptions, and broaden your view of who your audience really is.
  2. Use your audience’s lexicon—Introduce only the terms essential to your story and no more. Even certain words likely to be familiar to readers, like “dynamics” or “mitigate,” should be avoided just because they sound jargony and can have different meanings in different fields. Look for alternatives that are more direct. At the same time, avoid talking down to your audience. Sometimes scientists try too hard to make sure everyone is on board. It sounds like they’re talking to middle schoolers, a big turn-off to most readers.
  3. Your first sentence must be indelible—Leave your impression early. Many academics start with something more like a broader impacts statement or an obvious foundational concept in their field, as they would in a journal article. But if you tell readers something they already know in the first sentence, they are likely to think you have nothing to say that they don’t already know. You risk losing readers right then and there. If your article contains news of major breakthroughs, many of your readers will completely miss it.
  4. Know where you are taking the reader first and then tell themShow them—within the first page, provide them with a story that illustrates what is at stake and sets the scaffolding for your thesis. Your reader is busy and has lots of other things to read. They will not read your article unless you immediately let them know why they should, and fine prose is one of the quickest ways to focus your reader’s attention.
  5. Each subsection and paragraph is a potential pathway into the text for a scanning reader—Each paragraph should introduce an interesting new idea with a topic sentence.
  6. Questions generally make poor topic sentences— Framing the topic as a question can be a hard habit to break. But in narrative nonfiction, posing questions instead of stating the topic outright risks leaving out crucial information, such as who is asking the question, why that individual cares about it, and how it was first raised. Introducing how the line of inquiry arose in the first place is usually an important part of a science story.
  7. Each subsection needs to transition the reader from one idea to the next— As a section concludes it should signal why the next section follows. Transitions are the key.
  8. Stop listing things—just stop!—Try instead to figure out the narrative tying the pieces of a list together. Used profusely in academic and government writing, lists are an efficient way of communicating points or variables. But they’re dry and can be a real slog for a reader. All too easily, they become the place where readers’ eyes will glaze over and they will start flipping to another part of the magazine or return to scanning social media. A more intuitive way to communicate such ideas is to talk about how the objects of the list are connected to one another. It might take an extra sentence or two, but the reader will grasp the concepts more readily and remember them better.
  9. Use the first person—Even though the desire to avoid the first person often comes from a sense of humility, text that is essentially autobiographical but avoids first person doesn’t necessarily sound humble. It just sounds impersonal. Readers will stop reading quickly if they don’t feel connected with the people or places in the story.
  10. If you want people to understand that a problem addressed by your research affects real people, you need to illustrate the problem by telling a story about real people—When scientists rattle off statistics but do not talk about how they connect to people’s lives, they risk coming off as cold and distant. Anecdotes may not have a place in science writing, but they are absolutely essential to journalistic and literary nonfiction.
  11. Avoid passive voice and clunky sentence structures—Although passive voice is not uncommon in scientific journal articles, it sounds distant, abstract, and stuffy. Today’s readers have very little patience for slogging through wordy writing because you’re competing with short communication in the social media.
  12. When you feel you are done writing, don’t just stop in your tracks once you’ve added the last bit of information you’d planned to include—Any article needs a conclusion, but one very different from the kind you might write for a typical journal article. Narrative nonfiction conclusions return to the intrigue, suspense, or line of inquiry the writer established to draw the reader further into the article, providing a sense of closure and wrapping up any loose ends. The conclusion is not just a repetitive summary of everything the article has just said. Try to find some forward-looking insights that show greater context for your work.

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