A quickie Saturday post with a brief answer to the question: how do I become a (better) science writer?

It’s reasonable, I guess.  My day job has me running what I can confidentyl say is one of the best science writing programs in the country.* So I often take part in some version of this email conversation I had recently with a graduate student in one of the physical sciences.

This student told me that “Though I am currently studying experimental science, one career path I am interested in is science writing or journalism.”

To which I said, in effect, “Great!”  We need good science writers more than ever, and someone committing to the field from a base of advanced training as a bench scientist is a clear win, from where I stand.**

The next question is the one they always ask…beyond or until they can sign up for a class or a program, “If you have any other advice as to how I could learn more about this field I would greatly appreciate it.”

So, just in case anyone out there may also wonder, here is what I wrote back, the short form of a theme on which I expand (as my students can certainly tell you) at much greater length when I have a captive audience:

The most immediate way to learn about writing about science for the public is to read a lot of it.  I’d go to the “Best American” series of science writing — there are actually two, Best American Science Writing and Best American Science and Nature Writing, published every year. While one can argue about some of the selections, the worst of the pieces there are not bad, and some are superlative.

Read like a pro — don’t just focus on the content, what you are learning — but try to analyze how the pieces are written. What’s the structure involved.  How do the different writers use sentence length and rhythm; what kind of voices do different writers employ.  How present are they in the piece — how present do they demand their audiences be — and so on.

You could pick up a copy of A Field Guide For Science Writers, edited by Deborah Blum, Mary Knudson, and Robin Marantz Henig.  That gives you a  good overview of the field and some basic techniques.  Though it is a bit long in the tooth, I like Elise Hancock’s Ideas Into Words. Follow the Knight Science Journalism Tracke, http://ksjtracker.mit.edu/ — a good aggregator blog that offers some commentary on good and bad science writing.

I’d add that there a bunch of excellent science blogs out there on which one can see others honing their craft (and talking a ton of science).  But actually, I think blogs are better to read as you write one, or are working on traditional articles.  I’d say that for someone first trying to get one’s ear and eye in on the forms and styles of good writing about science it’s better to read pieces crafted with a view towards a longer life than a blog piece.  Perhaps this is just projection, for though I do spend quite a bit of time on much of my writing for this blog, I also know that I don’t work the prose the way I do when I’m writing a book or an article intended to stand on its own, without the fabric of the ongoing conversation of the blog to sustain it.

But in any event, the core message is to read and read and read — but always like a pro.  There’s an old joke:  Q: What do writers talk about when they converse among themselves?  A: Money.  What else?

Within that truth, this one — writers as writers don’t read for pleasure.  They read to learn, to steal.  If you want to be one, in any genre, start taking apart your pleasure.  It will be less short-run fun to open a book, but much long-term gain to come.

And now, off to drink a very nice bottle of wine with a couple of very smart Harvard Med types…and talk a little science.

*Actually, of course, I’m sure it is the best, full stop — just as I know my son is the most wonderful boy in the world and that my cat is a prince among felines.  These are beings under my care, and if my connection to them is more immediate than that of an institutional responsibility, still, the same emotional logic applies.

**Though some of you know from my exchanges with Bora among others that I don’t think that such advanced training is a requirement for science writers.  This is a long conversation, but the gist is that whether you enter this field as a turn from the bench or towards it, there are distinctive strenghts you bring with you, and particular weaknesses as well.

Image:  Gerald Dou, “Portrait of an old woman reading (also, Rembrandt’s mother reading),” c.1630.

Explore posts in the same categories: good public communication of science, Reading, science writing, Writing

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3 Comments on “A quickie Saturday post with a brief answer to the question: how do I become a (better) science writer?”


  1. Thanks for the free advice, Professor. I’m using some of my sick-time to be a little more disciplined and have already read through A Field Guide for Science Writers. Should probably also read Newton and the Counterfeiter while I’m infirm as well.

    And since you mentioned wine, I might also direct your readers toward a Levenson classic that I had the honor of curating about a year ago – a richly-written treatise on approaching one of the world’s richest wines: Because It’s There by Thomas Levenson. I still get about a comment a month from those who want to share their experience.

  2. Jim Bales Says:

    Tom,

    Thank you for the suggestions. I will track down both the “Field Guide …” and “Ideas into Words.”

    When I was writing my dissertation oh-so-many years ago, I was helped immensely by comments from two friends.

    The first pointed out to me that writing and editing are two distinct tasks, and that computers make it too easy for us to start editing a sentence even before we finish writing it. (To help me keep these tasks separate, I wrote out my entire PhD dissertation longhand; with the first editing pass occurring as I typed it into the computer.)

    The second friend pointed me to William Zinsser’s “On Writing Well”. Of particular help was the two-page spread presenting his marked-up manuscript of the very passage I was reading, showing the dramatic improvement between the earlier draft and final text. I was amazed that almost every change Zinsser made to refine that passage was a deletion.

    Lesson learned–Strong, vigorous prose is lean prose.

    Best,
    Jim

  3. Chad Orzel Says:

    The one time I read an entire Best American Science Writing anthology, I was pretty disappointed. The pieces were all very competently written, but they were horribly formulaic (blog review here). I haven’t read the subsequent editions in detail, though I have glanced through them in the bookstore, and it seems to be a consistent pattern– the vast majority of the pieces they select are a specific sort of profile article.

    I agree that students could do much, much worse in terms of finding examples to work from, but they really ought to learn from a broader range of sources than just that. I’m not sure what to suggest as a convenient generally available supplement, though– maybe some collections of pieces by people like Carl Zimmer and Jennifer Ouellette?


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