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Science writing simplified

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BY MARY NICKUM
It’s one thing to understand the science in a story, it’s another to convey that to readers with varying levels of understanding of the topic.
Your goal is to write in a way to capture the reader’s interest, while still correctly conveying the facts in an accurate and understandable way. This is totally different than the writing you’d do for a scientific paper or for scientists to read.
For inspiration read Carl Sagan. He provides great examples of how to explain complicated subject matter to the masses. And for those new to science writing, follow the tips below. They serve as a good refresher for seasoned writers as well.

  •  Your first sentence must be indelible. If you tell readers something they already know in the first sentence, they are likely to think you have nothing new to say. You risk losing readers right then and there.
  • Know where you are taking the reader and then tell them, then make sure you take them there. Laying out a clear road map also helps you structure your story.
  • Questions generally make poor topic sentences. 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.
  • Each subsection needs to transition the reader from one idea to the next. Transitions make the story flow.
  • If you want people to understand that a problem addressed by the 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 academic science writing, but they are absolutely essential to journalistic science writing.
  • Talk like a normal human being. Introduce new terms only if they are essential to the story. You should even avoid certain words readers might know like “dynamics” or “mitigate,” because they sound jargony and can have different meanings in different fields.
  • Don’t forget the ending. Remember you aren’t just pouring information onto the page, you are telling a story and that means it needs a proper conclusion that provides a sense of closure and wraps up any loose ends.
  • Avoid passive voice and clunky sentence structures. The subject matter is already complicated. The sentence structure shouldn’t be.
  • Write for the readers. You aren’t writing for scientists. Think about your likely and target audience.  ♦

— Mary Nickum is a writer and editor of books and articles about science. She is an active member of OWAA. Visit her website at www.allthingseditorial.com

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