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Posts tagged ‘science writer’

How to Write a Good Sentence

Joan Y. Edwards (my favorite blogger)

It is imperative to have a subject and a predicate to make a complete sentence. In other words, your sentence has to have a noun and a verb.

I love the quote from Joyce Griffith, Griffith Publishing “How long should a sentence be? As long as it needs to be, but no longer.”

Two of my blog articles listed below have memorable lines from movies or books. It is a great idea to find good sentences and share them in a blog post or with your writing group(s). I am excited that Shannon Doyne and Holly Epstein Ojalvo said, “Make a collection of your favorite sentences from anywhere.”

I think it’s a good plan to note the book, magazine, newspaper, movie, television show, or person who said them. For comparison and to help you recognize when your sentences aren’t up to par, list bad sentences and sentence fragments. Share them in a blog post or with your writing groups.

I have heard people say to learn to write a picture book, copy the words of your favorite. My granddaughter, Kylie Hackett, says she can write better when she writes things in her own handwriting. Many writers swear to this technique.  They write their first drafts with pen or pencil and paper.

Try writing down at least 3 of your favorite sentences from best-selling books in longhand. It may unleash your senses and make connections with your brain to create wonderful sentences. Then write your own sentence about your story and your characters using that same pattern.

Here’s a sentence from a best-selling book, Middle Passage by Charles R. Johnson. I like its structure and sound:

“Of all the things that drive men to sea, the most common disaster, I’ve come to learn, is women.” I found it on Ranker.com. It has listings of first lines, videos, and links to buy, too.

I rewrote this sentence to fit two of my current works in progress: I didn’t use longhand. I typed them into the computer.

Of all things that drove Lisa to thoughts of death, the most serious one was her pregnancy.

Of all things that enticed Aunt Sophie to make biscuits, the most effective one was a smile.

Another webpage I recommend to study sentences is Story Starters.  When you click on the button in a box on the page, it shows you a great opening line for a story. Try it. It’s number 12 in the Related Articles. Each sentence is original and clever.

If you have 50 good sentences and one bad sentence on a page, it ruins your credibility with readers. The readers may close the book. You say, “Not just for one error.” You may be right. However, if there are more than three bad sentences on one page, I believe the reader will close the book.

There’s one thing that might keep them in regardless of the errors, that is curiosity about what is going to happen to your main character. Make your writing intriguing and coherent. Put all parts of the story together in a logical order that makes the story easy to understand. Each sentence in your story must be necessary to highlight character, plot, problem, solution, setting, or weather. If the sentence doesn’t move the plot or story along, cut it out and save it in a ‘Great writing but not necessary for this story” folder.

There are many places where it is essential to have strong sentences that hook the readers:

  • At the beginning of the book in the first chapter.
  • At the beginning of each chapter.
  • At the end of each chapter. It has to lead readers to wonder what will happen on the next page.

Unless you are writing flash fiction, it is important not to put your whole story in one sentence. Charles Dickens had extremely long sentences with 100 words or more. I noticed one page had only two paragraphs on it. A manuscript page has 250 words. If each sentence had 100 words in it, one paragraph might take up more than one page. Most of the J. K. Rowling Harry Potter books have sentences of 40 words.

Here’s a lesson to learn from these two writers. Not all of their sentences were long. Some were short, others were middle length. They varied their sentences in the descriptive text and in the dialogue. A sentence with punch is usually a short sentence or a phrase of dialogue that might not be a complete sentence. They put short sentences to add tension and punch to their stories. They put long sentences in between crisis situations. That made it seem like everything was going along smoothly.

Do that with your writing, too. Vary the length and structure of your sentences to keep your reader’s attention.

Radio likes simple sentences, rather than compound or complex. Simple for the ear. You don’t have to put the whole story into one sentence. However, flash fiction tells a story in as few words as possible.

What do I mean by structure? A sentence is simple, compound, or complex.  Here are examples:

  • A simple sentence has one subject and one verb.
    John ran to the store.
  • A sentence can have a compound subject.
    Harry and John ran to the store.
  • A sentence can have a compound verb.
    Jill cut and pasted the labels.
  • A complex sentence has one independent clauses and one or more dependent clauses.
  • A phrase is a group of related words that does not have both a subject and a verb
  • An independent clause is a group of related words with a subject and a verb and can stand by itself.
  • A dependent clause does not express a complete thought. It does not have a subject and a verb. A dependent or subordinate clause standing alone is a common error known as a sentence fragment.

Phrase (Sentence Fragment): The town in the center of the state
Phrase (Sentence Fragment): Lemon merengue pie on the shelf
Phrase (Sentence Fragment): In the corner

Compound sentence: The eagle landed and it shook its feathers.
Complex Sentence: Before the eagle landed, it shook its feathers.

Compound sentence: The skies darkened and the town slept.
Complex sentence: When the skies darkened, the town slept.

Compound sentence: The clock stopped and the people died.
Complex sentence: Once the clock stopped, the people died.

Good sentences keep your readers in the book from the beginning to the end. Good luck with your writing.

Related Articles:

  1. Dena Harrison, Northern Writing Project Nevada and Writing Fix.com “Little Red Riding Hooks:” http://writingfix.com/PDFs/Writing_Tools/Little_Red_Riding_Hooks.pdf
  2. Ehow.com. “How to Write a Main Idea Sentence:” http://www.ehow.com/how_2063892_write-main-idea-sentence.html
  3. Ehow.com. “How to Write a Topic Sentence:” http://www.ehow.com/how_5489760_write-topic-sentence.html
  4. Geoffrey Williams.
  5. Holt, Rinehart, and Winston. Elements of Literature, Second Course, “Varying Sentence Structure:” http://go.hrw.com/resources/go_mk/la/latm/EOL807SW.PDF
  6. Joan Y. Edwards. “First Lines from Non-Fiction Best Sellers:” http://joanyedwards.wordpress.com/2012/04/25/first-lines-from-non-fiction-best-sellers/
  7. “How Many Words Should Your Sentences Contain?” http://joanyedwards.wordpress.com/2010/09/20/how-many-words-should-your-sentences-contain/
  8. Joan Y. Edwards. “Memorable First Lines:” http://joanyedwards.wordpress.com/2012/04/18/memorable-first-lines/
  9. Joyce Griffin. “How Long Should a Sentence Be:” http://jgwritingtips.wordpress.com/2010/02/17/how-long-should-a-sentence-be/
  10. Margot Carmichael Lester. Elance.com. “Punching Up Your Copy:” http://www.elance.com/q/blog/2010/punching-up-your-copy.html
  11. My English Teacher.net. “Sentence Fragments:” http://www.myenglishteacher.net/sentencefragments.html
  12. Newswriting for Radio.com. “Broadcast Sentence Structure:” http://www.newscript.com/sentence.html
  13. Northern Writing Project Nevada and Writing Fix.com. “Story Starters: Powerful Sentences:” http://writingfix.com/right_brain/Story_Starting_Sentences1.htm
  14. Ranker.com. “100 Famous Novels with Catchy First Lines:” http://www.ranker.com/list/100-famous-novels-with-catchy-first-lines/info-lists
  15. Ranker.com. “Middle Passage.” Read more at http://www.ranker.com/review/middle-passage/7105436#iSiCdfPAxRr8flPI.99
  16. Scholastic Professional Books. Step by Step Strategies for Teaching Expository Writing. “Main Idea Story Starters:” http://ch086.k12.sd.us/Science%20Fair/main_idea_sentence_starters.htm
  17. Shannon Doyne and Holly Epstein Ojalvo. “Sense, Sensibility and Sentences: Examining and Writing Memorable Lines:” http://learning.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/03/22/sense-sensibility-and-sentences-examining-and-writing-memorable-lines/
  18. Sheila Allee. Ragan.com. “Add Punch to Your Speeches in 6 Easy Steps:” http://www.ragan.com/Main/Articles/Add_punch_to_your_speeches_in_6_easy_steps_45218.aspx#
  19. WritingFix and the Northern Nevada Writing Project. “Story Starters: Powerful Sentences:” http://writingfix.com/right_brain/Story_Starting_Sentences1.htm

 

Self-publishing; Is the Stigma Disappearing? Should It?

 

            Self-publishing has always had a stigma attached. Why is this? Mostly because we were taught in school that anything published has been thoroughly checked and edited by “those who knew more than we did, specialists of some kind.” That may have been true of our textbooks, which were written and edited by specialists in their fields.

As we became adults and, at least some of us, became teachers, writers and editors, we tried our hand at publishing and found out how hard it was to attract the eyes of a publisher, let alone land a publishing contract. Some of us continued to butt our heads against that publishing wall until we were, at least, moderately successful. Some gave up, thinking it wasn’t worth the effort. The third segment saw the modern availability of publishing technology as a way to go around the traditional publishing roadblock. It afforded low cost publishing (CreateSpace and many others), free way to get public attention (Amazon—you and several million other authors) and you kept all the profit and didn’t have a garage full of inventory and shipping to handle. A sweet deal, right?

Not so fast. You are a specialist in the subject you are writing about, right? You researched the topic extensively beyond your bookshelf and the local public library, right? (No offense to public libraries here.) You had someone besides your best friend or your grandmother edit your work, right? You have a marketing and business plan, which goes beyond Amazon, right? You have a brand, right? A what?

Let’s look at these issues in the order they are listed:

  • You are a specialist in the subject about which you are writing. You don’t have to have an advanced degree in the topic about which you are writing unless you a claiming your work to be the final word on the topic. Be sure you acknowledge somewhere your limitations.
  • You researched the topic extensively beyond your bookshelf and the local public library. There is nothing wrong with using the resources you have on hand—just don’t stop there. Your local librarian will give you suggestions as to where to get more information on your topic. Beware of the internet. Use it with caution. Much information is there, unfiltered and unchecked—anybody can put anything there, whether or not it is valid.
  • You had someone besides your best friend or your grandmother edit your work. Your best friend and your grandmother are fine people and they have your best interest at heart. However, they are probably not editors and, even if they are, they are biased to see your work as better than it actually is. Choose someone, better to ask two or three people, who are experienced writers, editors or English teachers to read your work critically. You should welcome criticism—it means you are on the way to having a quality piece of work.
  • You have a marketing and business plan, which goes beyond Amazon. Amazon is great at what it does. It makes works available to anyone who can get near a computer and has a few bucks to buy a book. But that’s as far as it goes. How will anyone know your book is there, except your family and friends who have heard you talk about it every chance you get? They won’t. You are competing with at least a hundred million other titles, admittedly not all on your topic, but that won’t make your book any easier to find.

Your marketing plan will provide a roadmap for you to follow to get attention for your book and should include some or all of the following:

  1. Your website,
  2. Your blog,
  3. Your other social media sites (Facebook, twitter, Tumblr, Instagram)
  4. More traditional materials, such as bookmarks, business cards, postcards, flyers,
  5. Radio and TV spots,
  6. Other signings and speaking engagements.
  • What is this brand of which you speak? Your brand is your personae as a writer, specifically as the writer of your particular book on your particular topic. You must make yourself known by what you have written. Everything in the list immediately above works together to brand you. Acknowledge it, work with it, use it.

Does this sound like more than you are capable of doing? It may be. It is a lot of work. Even the large publishers require more promotional work from their authors than they used to. It’s a fact of life.

Now, what about the stigma? It isn’t as bad as it once was. Does that mean self-published works are better than they were at one time? Yes and no. Yes, some experienced authors are going the self-publishing route. What they learned from being associated with higher quality editing and their natural maturity as writers has paid off, for them as writers and us as readers.

Yet, in large part, one often can spot a self-published book within the first page or two. Layout is strange, sometimes disjointed with lots of white where there should be print; typos, spelling and grammatical errors appear with distracting regularity. (CreateSpace does not edit the work). Yes, you do see typos in works published by the large publishers but nowhere near as many.

There you have it, my take on self-publishing. You self-publish at your own risk. If you are hoping for the next best seller, better get a large publisher.

Published in: Outdoors Unlimited August/September 2016

Five Ways to Make a Sentence More Concise

Expressing oneself clearly and concisely in speech is a challenge because one has so little time to order one’s thoughts and choose one’s wording carefully, but writing is easily improved with even the briefest review. Always read over what you have written (whether it’s a tweet or a book manuscript) before you distribute or publish it—not only to adhere to the mechanical basics of grammar, syntax, usage, and style but also to check for narrative flow and conciseness. The following sentences, and the discussions and revisions that follow each one, include advice for paring unnecessary words and phrases.

1. As you establish your policies, it is recommended that you develop a comprehensive list of business activities.

When offering recommendations, avoid overly polite entreaties, and simply state the advice as an imperative: “As you establish your policies, develop a comprehensive list of business activities.” (Other words that signal an expendable phrase are advised, suggested, necessary, and imperative.)

2. Nearly all of the processes and steps conducted during this phase were planned in the early stages.

In “all of the” phrases, of is almost always optional, and the can often be safely omitted as well: “Nearly all processes and steps conducted during this phase were planned in the early stages.”

3. IPO activity has increased over the past few years, and that presents a great advantage for the company.

Be alert for opportunities to condense sentences consisting of two independent clauses into a simple statement. Here, what was an introduced observation is recast as an acknowledged phenomenon, changing the subject from “IPO activity” to “the increase in IPO activity”: “The increase in IPO activity over the past few years presents a great advantage for the company.”

4. Organizations can realize tremendous value from risk management in a cost-effective and efficient way.

The presence of way (or manner, or basis, or any similar vague noun) at the end of a sentence signals a sentence in need of abbreviation. Simply dismantle the phrase that ends with the noun and convert the adjectives that precede the noun into adverbs: “Organizations can cost-effectively and efficiently realize tremendous value from risk management.”

5. There are core sets of critical activities and critical communications that must be performed at this stage.

When a sentence or clause begins with an expletive (“There is/are” or “It is/They are”), consider omitting the phrase and beginning the sentence with the noun or noun phrase that follows (and delete the now-extraneous that that follows the subject): “Core sets of critical activities and critical communications must be performed at this stage.”

Taking Conciseness Too Far
Be cautious, however, about overzealous conciseness, as in the case of multiple nouns and noun phrases stacked in a dense swarm of words. Relaxing a sentence can be just as effective as tightening it in improving a sentence:

Overly concise: Executive management and board of directors’ expectations about scalability can be unrealistic.
Relaxed: The expectations of executive management and the board of directors about scalability can be unrealistic.

From: Daily Writing Tips

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.

Quick tip: how to write a good cover letter

1. Check the journal’s Instructions for Authors,
2. Check to see if the journal’s Instructions for Authors have any requirements for cover letters, e.g. disclosures, statements, potential reviewers.
3. Then, write a letter that explains why the editor would want to publish your manuscript.
Common phrases:
a. Please find enclosed our manuscript, “[manuscript title]” by [first author’s name] et al., which we would like to submit for publication as a [publication type] in [name of the journal].
b. To our knowledge, this is the first report showing…
c. We believe our findings would appeal to the readership of [journal name].
d. Please address all correspondence to:
e. We look forward to hearing from you at your earliest convenience.
4. All cover letters should include these sentences:
a. We confirm that this manuscript has not been published elsewhere and is not under consideration by another journal.
b. All authors have approved the manuscript and agree with its submission to [insert the name of the target journal].

Finding a Reliable Source Near You

The quintessential scientist, Carl Sagan, once said, “We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.”
Never has it been more crucial for the lay public to be scientifically literate. That’s where outdoor writers, using science, come in. In nearly all fields, outdoor writers deal with scientific facts from time to time. It is extremely important that writers get the facts right! Outdoor writers are often perceived by the public as authorities on fish, wildlife, and environmental issues. The writer has a responsibility to be accurate, as well as interesting and entertaining. The credibility of the writer will be judged on the accuracy as well as the readability of his/her work. The writer who has a reputation for accuracy and readability will sell more articles.
The goal is to make your product as scientifically accurate as possible, while still interesting and entertaining. “Where does the writer find the information necessary to produce an accurate yet interesting article?” You need to find experts.
Experts, “Who needs ‘em and why do we need ‘em?” you might ask. The short answer is: “We all do.” We call on experts all the time in our daily lives. Every time we visit our family physician, go to a hair stylist or take our cars to the repair shop we are seeking the services of an expert. Why shouldn’t we consult an expert when we’re communicating science to the public? Few of us as writers have the expertise necessary to explain adequately how cancer cells invade surrounding tissue or how an e-mail message travels on the internet.
In general, an expert is described as someone who is recognized by his or her peers or by the public as a reliable source of knowledge, information, and/or abilities. Just the fact that someone hunts, fishes, or photographs wildlife does not mean that person is an expert on fish and wildlife; it may mean, however, that a person is an expert on where to hunt, fish or find wildlife to photograph or what equipment is best for a particular site. We need to consult experts in the natural history and biology of the animal we’re writing about. How do you distinguish among real experts, pretenders, and ambitious individuals who want to use you to publicize their work and ideas? Finding an expert is not hard. Finding a credible expert with the proper credentials is a different matter.

Experts; Why do we need them?
One reader questioned a 2010 Smithsonian article on “Our Earliest Ancestors” presenting evolution as a fact, and not a theory. There is an equal body of scholarly work that supports the creation theory (i.e., The Institute for Creation Research). My problem with the article is NOT in its publication, it is in its presentation as absolute fact, which is not the case. What would prevent Smithsonian from presenting BOTH theories objectively, and allowing the readers to come to their own conclusions? Would that be any less scholarly?
What is the confusion here? Evolution as fact or theory…

What is the difference?
We know what a fact is, right? “The sun rises in the East”, that’s a fact. You can’t argue it—it happens all the time. But, what is a theory?
In technical or scientific use, theory, principle, and law represent established, evidence-based explanations accounting for currently known facts or phenomena or for historically verified experience: the theory of relativity, the germ theory of disease, the law of supply and demand, the principle of conservation of energy. Often the word “law” is used in reference to scientific facts that can be reduced to a mathematical formula: Newton’s laws of motion. In these contexts the terms theory and law often appear in well-established, fixed phrases and are not interchangeable.
Where we run into trouble: In both technical and nontechnical contexts, theory is often used synonymous with hypothesis, a conjecture put forth as a possible explanation of phenomena or relations, serving as a basis for thoughtful discussion and subsequent collection of data or engagement in scientific experimentation(research) to rule out alternative explanations and reach the truth. In these contexts of early speculation, the words theory and hypothesis are often interchanged “this idea is only a theory” when it’s barely a hypothesis.
Pasteur’s experiments helped prove the hypothesis that germs cause disease. Certain theories that start out as hypothetical eventually receive enough supportive data and scientific findings to become established, verified explanations. Then, and only then, does the hypothesis become a theory, the thought/hypothesis has evolved from mere conjecture to scientifically accepted fact.
Conventional wisdom also can be a big problem when presenting science to the public. Yes, even scientists can be guilty of accepting something as fact when it is not fact, or is an interpretation of facts that still have substantial uncertainty related to them. This problem has become particularly troublesome with respect to environmental issues. Ecology and environmental issues related to ecological matters generally involve greater uncertainty than the so-called hard sciences (physics and chemistry). An example is the statement that “fire is an ecological necessity”. This statement is accurate only if a particular stage of ecological succession must be maintained. In the absence of fire, succession will proceed in a different direction. It is more accurate to say, “Fire is natural, but it is not absolutely necessary”. Finding reliable sources that can and will distinguish between organizational policy or conventional wisdom and scientifically valid information may be difficult, but it is well worth the effort.
The credibility of the communicator, the media and, ultimately, the scientific enterprise itself, is at stake in our coverage of risks to human health and the environment. Many readers and listeners look to the media for some guidance in understanding the risks that we face and how to deal with them. Sometimes the best we as communicators can offer is the simple truth that science currently has no clear answer, so we need to learn to live with uncertainty. This fact, in itself, is not easy to communicate. We owe it to our audiences to provide more sophisticated, balanced reporting that goes beyond the “fear factor” approach. It is extremely important that writers get the facts right, and that they interpret these facts appropriately!

Who and Where are These Experts?
Colleges and Universities are full of ‘em. Government agencies, such as the County Extension Agent, and state agencies such as the state fish and game agency and even high school teachers can be experts. Successful business people can be experts, though this expertise may have been gained the hard way—by trial and error, not considered research.
A word of caution however, be careful when relying on specialties. Not every aquatic biologist is an oceanographer. In this age of interdisciplinary research, the boundaries between fields are often blurred. And always, remember that a scientist speaking may not be speaking as a scientist. Rely on them only when they are speaking within their area(s) of expertise. Really good scientists will tell you when they are expressing personal opinions or when your question is outside of their area.
Now that you have a few good sources, how do you interpret the scientific information to make it understandable and interesting the public? First, be sure that you understand the topic and the information you have collected. If you don’t have a complete understanding yourself, you will not be able to communicate the information accurately. Being a good science writer doesn’t require a college degree in science, however, it does require some healthy skepticism and the ability to ask good questions about things that can affect research studies and other claims. To separate truth from trash, you will need answers to these questions:
1. Was the study done, or claim made, on the basis of evidence only? How was the study designed and conducted? Was it laboratory research, field collections or observations?
2. What are the numbers? Was the study large enough to reach believable conclusions? Are the results statistically significant? That phrase simply means that based on the scientific standards, the statistical results are unlikely to be attributable to chance alone.
3. Are there other possible explanations for the study’s conclusions?
4. Was the study conducted free of any form of bias, unintentional or otherwise?
5. Have the findings been checked or replicated by other experts? And, how do the findings fit with previous knowledge on the topic?

What You Need to Know about Science
You must understand five principles of scientific analysis to find answers to these questions. They are the basis of scientific inquiry.
1. Some Uncertainty is Acceptable. Science looks at the statistical probability of what’s true. Conclusions are based on strong evidence, without waiting for an elusive proof positive. But science is always an evolving story, a continuing journey that allows for mid-course correction. This can confuse the public, especially when preliminary information is reported as fact. Scientists then are accused of “changing their minds or flip-flopping.”
2. Probability and Large numbers. The more subjects or observations in a study the better. A commonly accepted numerical expression is the P (probability) value, determined by a formula that considers the number of events being compared. A P value of .05 or less is usually considered statistically significant. It means that there are 5 or fewer chances in 100 that the results could be due to chance alone. The lower the P value, the lower the odds that chance alone could be responsible. Science writers don’t have to do the math, they just have to ask researchers: “Show me your numbers.”
3. Is There Another Explanation? Association alone does not prove cause and effect. You must be able to distinguish between coincidence and causation. A chemical in a town’s water supply may not be the cause of the illness there. A study’s time span can be very important so that normal cycles are not confused with study results. Ask the researcher and yourself: “Can you think of any alternative explanations for the study’s numbers and conclusions? Did the study last long enough to support its conclusions?”
4. The Dimensions of Studies. For costs and other reasons, all studies are not created equal. Old records, statistics and memories are often unreliable, but sometimes used. Case studies involving only one or two subjects usually are not considered a basis on which to draw broad conclusions. Far better is a study that follows a selected population for the long term, sometimes decades. Ask researchers in all scientific fields: “Why did you design your study the way you did? Is a more definitive study now needed?” Nevertheless, always bear in mind, exceptional claims require exceptional evidence.
5. The Power of Peer Review. The burden of proof rests with researchers seeking to change scientific conclusions. Science is never accepted until confirmed by additional studies. Science writers should look for consensus among studies.

In Summary
Above all, have fun. Science is intriguing, funny and essential to everyday life. If you write too loftily, you lose some of the best stories and the ones to which your readers most relate. You must:
• Know your topic. First, do some old-fashioned library research.
• Find an expert.
• Schedule a face-to-face interview if possible. Phone conversations and email questionnaires are OK if the expert is not local.
• Be sure you understand the FACTS before you begin to write,
• Check again with the expert, if you feel unsure.
Being a non-expert will not make someone a good science writer. But it’s not the kiss of death either. If you pay attention to detail, ask good questions, and aren’t afraid to admit how little you know, you can actually turn your ignorance to your advantage. I’ve found that if I can get an expert, often my husband— who has a doctrate in zoology, to explain something to the point where I can understand it, then I’ll be able to explain it to anyone else.
Remember: your credibility will be judged on the accuracy as well as the readability of your work. The writer who has a reputation for accuracy and readability will sell more articles, as well as provide greater service to the public.

 

Further Reading

Altimore, M. 1982. The social construction of a scientific controversy: Comments on press coverage of the recombinant DNA debate. Science, Technology & Human Values 7: 24-31
Ananthaswamy, Anil. 2011. Why I Write: Writing about Science—A Way to Pay Attention to Nature. http://www.nwp.org/cs/public/print/resource/3658
Blum, D., M. Knudson, and R. M. Henig. 2006. A field guide for science writers; the official guide of the National Association of Science Writers. 2nd edition. Oxford Univeristy Press, New York, NY.
Crettaz von Roten, F. 2006. Do we need a public understanding of statistics? Public Understanding of Science 15(2): 243-249.
Clarke, George “Woody”. 2009. Justice and science: trials and triumphs of DNA evidence. Rutgers University Press, Piscataway, NJ.
Coyne, Jerry A. https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2012/08/11/caturday-felid-how-do-falling-cats-right-themselves/ Science video
Dingwall, R. and M. Aldridge. 2006. Television wildlife programming as a source of popular scientific information: a case study of evolution. Public Understanding of Science 15(2):131-152.
Duke University. 2000. https://cgi.duke.edu/web/sciwriting/
Gardner, Daniel. 2008. The science of fear; why we fear the things we shouldn’t—and put ourselves in greater danger. Dutton, New York, NY.
Gould, S. J. 1999. Rock of ages: Science and religion in the fullness of life. Ballantine Publishing Group, New York, NY.
Hilgartner, Stephen. 2000. Science on Stage: Expert Advice as Public Drama (Writing Science). Stanford University Press, Palo Alto, CA
Laudan, L. 1982. Commentary: Science at the bar — causes for concern. Science, Technology, and Human Values 7(4):16–19.
Lewenstein, B. 1992. The meaning of ‘public understanding of science’ in the United States after World War II. Public Understanding of Science 1:45–68.
Losse, J. 1993. A historical introduction to the philosophy of science. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, New York, NY.
Miller, S. 2001. Public understanding of science at a crossroads. Public Understanding of Science 10:115–120.
Nickum, Mary. 2009. Experts: Who needs ‘em and Why? Outdoors Unlimited May, 2009
Nickum, Mary. 2009. Anatomy of a Science Article. Outdoors Unlimited April 2009.
Nickum, Mary. 2008. Sell Biology 101; Accuracy, readability form backbone of bankable science article. Outdoors Unlimited 69(1):1, 6.
Nisbet, M C, D. A. Scheufele, J. E. Shanahan, P. Moy, D. Brossard and B. Lewenstein. 2002. Knowledge, reservations, or promise? A media effects model for public perceptions of science and technology. Communication Research 29:504–608.
Pardo, R. and F. Calvo. 2002. Attitudes toward science among the European public: A methodological analysis. Public Understanding of Science 11:155–196.
Peters, H. P. 2013. Gap between science and media revisited: Scientists as public communicators. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 110 Suppl 3:14102–14109.
Prewitt, K. 1982. The public and science policy. Science, Technology & Human Values 7: 5-14.
Taleb, Nassim Nicholas. 2007. The black swan: the impact of the highly improbable. Random House, New York, NY.
West, Berndadette, M. Jane Lewis, Michael R. Greenberg, David B. Sachsman, and Renee M. Rogers. 2003. The Reporter’s Environmental Handbook. Rutgers University Press, Piscataway, N J.
Wynne, B. 1992. Misunderstood misunderstanding: social identities and public uptake of science. Public Understanding of Science 1:281–304.
Wynne, B. A. Irwin and B. Wynne, eds. 1996. Misunderstood misunderstandings: Social identities and public uptake of science. Pages 19–47 In Misunderstanding science? : The public reconstruction of science and technology. Cambridge University Press, London, UK.
Wynne, B. 2002. Public understanding of science. Chapter 17 In Jasanoff, S., G.E. Markle, J.C. Peterson T. J. Pinch, eds. Handbook of science and technology studies, revised edition. Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks, CA.
Yankelovich, D. 1982. Changing Public Attitudes to Science and the Quality of Life: Edited Excerpts from a Seminar. Science, Technology & Human Values 7: 23-29.

Additional Websites
http://casw.org/ Council for the Advancement of Science Writing
http://www.nasw.org/ National Association of Science Writers
http://www.chemistryviews.org/details/education/4190081/Mind_your_Language_A_Very_Brief_Guide_to_Language_Usage_in_Scientific_Writing_2.html

 

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