Judges' science writing inspiration

How do you write a good science story? Inspiration for entrants of the Science Communication writing competition.

How do you write a good science story? This is a question we posed to the UWE Bristol SCU Science Writing Competition judges and this is the advice they gave us.

Hopefully their thoughts will provide inspiration as you put together your entry for the competition.

Professor Gail Cardew
Chair of Science, Culture and Society, and Director of Science and Education, the Royal Institution

Here at the Royal Institution we love telling stories about science. We spend around four months developing the storyline for the CHRISTMAS LECTURES. We take time to show science in new and surprising ways, instead of simply telling the audience about it with lists of facts.

When coming up with a science story you should remember:

  • A strong arc that continues to develop throughout the story, weaving its way through various twists and turns, unafraid to explore mini-dead ends as long as a slight back-track doesn’t confuse
  • A few ‘wow, I didn’t know that’ moments. These are the shareable moments you want the reader to remember and tell their friends
  • It sounds obvious, but bear in mind your intended audience. Is it someone who knows a fair amount of science already or someone new to it? The latter does not mean you necessarily have to compromise on depth, but you might need to be more imaginative, have more explanation and reduce jargon
  • Make sure you explain to your reader why this story matters. Show why you have spent time writing it, and more importantly, why you think someone should bother to read it.

Finally, there are some great writers out there, from Jo Marchant to Ed Yong. Read as much as you can and analyse how the best journalists allow a story to unfold through a piece. 

David Shukman
BBC’s Science Editor

Think how satisfying it would be if your article is not only praised by friends who are studying science but also by friends who are not. Imagine the pleasure of hearing an art student or music scholar say that they had learned something so new and so fascinating from your piece that they were now inspired to see science in an entirely different light.

So the top priority is to engage the largest possible number of readers. Remember that many people find science difficult and off-putting. So using clever terminology may impress your tutor but will lead many others to turn the page. Your success will depend on one thing: convincing your readers that you are a trustworthy and friendly guide who is on their side.

First, entice them with an opening line so startling that they will be eager to know what follows. Next, make sure you clearly lay out the facts of your story and explain the context of the new development. Then, help the readers to understand why any of this matters.

Finally, run a ‘clarity’ test: show your work to your younger brother or great-aunt. Only when they get it should you press ‘send’.

Dr Justine Alford
Science Communicator and former News Editor of IFL Science

Science isn't something that requires selling – it's a fascinating subject all on its own, so you don't have to sensationalise it to write a good story. That's actually the worst thing you can do, because people don't buy it. Instead, you have to keep at the front of your mind why you think what you're writing about is awesome, and your enthusiasm will inject itself into your words. And that's what keeps people reading.

You then have to remember your audience – who are you pitching the story to? That'll dictate the kind of language you use, and how nitty gritty you can get. If you're addressing the masses, you have to strip the subject back to its bare simple bones and ditch the jargon. Because even if you can explain extremely complex topics well, the intimidating words will put people off. If you're gearing it towards scientists, no matter what they may believe –they don't know everything, so don't assume knowledge.

And if that wasn't enough to think about, something you need to ponder over is the bigger picture, and why people should care. Involve the reader – how does this affect them, or their lives? What does this mean for the Everyman, the industry, or the world? Get them thinking, asking questions, and wanting to know more.

These are the basic ingredients for science writing – alongside, of course, doing your research – but what goes on the page is down to you.

Daniel Bennett
Acting Editor, BBC Focus magazine

  1. Tell a story.
    We all love a good yarn. It’s why an hour of Netflix can easily descend into an 18-hour TV bender. A great narrative compels an audience to keep watching, to keep reading. Use this to your advantage. Seek out the stories within science: speak to the researchers, visit the labs and find good case studies. It’ll bring your work to life. Jon Ronson is a master of this.
  2. Pick up a phone
    I want to shout this at every young journalist that comes through the Focus offices, but instead I usually find myself muttering this mantra under my breath. So here’s my soapbox moment: Want to interview someone? Pick up a phone. Want to check a fact? Pick up a phone. Want to get an invite? Pick up the bloody phone!
    You’ll make contacts – the lifeblood of a journalist – get answers in seconds and, if they still ask you to e-mail in your request, the person on the other end will recognise your name when it lands in their inbox. And finally, only ever interview people via email as a last resort. E-mail interviews tend to lead to dull, characterless quotes that will provide little insight or originality to your piece.
  3. Make your reader feel smart
    Avoid phrases like “simply put” or “in layman’s terms”. It’s a polite way of saying, “let me dumb this down for you, thicko.” Great science writing will leave your reader feeling enriched, not stupid. This can be tough, especially if you dare to pen something on quantum physics. But do your best to write clearly, simply and in plain English. It’s a cliché, but less can definitely be more.
  4. Get a jargon detector
    It’s an easy to slip into scientific language (we’ve all done it) when you’re reading journals and talking to scientists all week long. For example, I’ve read psychology articles littered with phrases like “the participants exhibited maladaptive behaviors”. This is the language of scientific journals, not a good piece of journalism. It will put people off your work, and make for dull reading.
  5. Enjoy yourself
    Few disciplines allow such variety within one career and are as stimulating day-to-day. Today I learned that there’s thought to be more life-forms in a teaspoon of soil than there are people on the planet (I’m going to fact-check that). Science is perpetually mind-blowing, so revel in it!

Graham Southorn
Consultant Editor, BBC Focus

Regardless of the topic, you’ll write a much better article if it follow the rules that apply to all journalism. Luckily those rules are really simple, and by following them you’ll write something that makes people want to read it. You’ve got to start with a good introduction that gets to the point quickly. Somehow it’s got to capture my attention and make me want to read on –perhaps by surprising me. The paragraph after that, and all subsequent ones, should have logical links to the next. You can achieve that by ensuring that the opening sentence of each paragraph relates to the previous paragraph while introducing something new.

One way of doing that is to make your headline a question – for example, “How will dinosaurs be brought back to life?” You can always change it when you’ve finished writing.

Once you’ve done some research, write a bullet-point list containing as many different aspects of the topic you can think of, and make sure some of it is recently published science. By the end, the article will have comprehensively answered your headline question. Before you start typing, read at least two long magazine or newspaper articles to see these ideas in action. Good luck!

Andy Ridgway
Senior Lecturer in Science Communication, University of the West of England

You can’t write well about science unless you know who you’re writing for; good science writing starts, begins and ends with your ‘audience’ – your readers. If you have a clear mental picture of your reader when you’re developing your story, you’ll know how to grab their attention, how to keep them hooked and whether they are going to be interested in what you have to say in the first place.

Knowing your reader involves far more than broad-brush descriptions, such as the fact that they are interested in science. The best position to be in is to have so clear a picture of them in your mind, that you can have a conversation with them in your head throughout the entire process. Are you interested in this? Do you get this sentence? What do you really want to know about in this story?

Get this right, and your reader will feel excited about what you’ve told them – perhaps even a little more brainy by virtue of the fact that they’ve instantly understood something that, on the face of it, is quite complex. Get it wrong, and your story will leave them feeling confused, or – and this is just as bad – patronised.

These days, a publication will often provide details of who their reader is online (or who their readers are – there may be more than one ‘profile’). You can usually get a pretty good feel by reading the publication too. If you’re lucky, someone you know may fit their profile – be it your sister, or a friend from work. It’ll then make life easier when you are having that internal conversation with them.

So above all, get to know your reader well and talk to them. Lots.

Dr Emma Weitkamp
Associate Professor in Science Communication, UWE Bristol

Making conceptual and intangible scientific ideas accessible to the general public is no small feat and a key facet of excellent science writing. Plain, simple and clear writing are essential; readers easily get lost in convoluted arguments and overly complex sentences. But this is not enough to bring your writing to life and may fail to convey aspects of science such as scale, impact and relevance.

How can you effectively communicate and bring to life the destruction of a tree species, research into the evolution of the solar system, or the rise of Ebola? One approach is to look for effective analogies, similes and metaphors. Jacob Aron on the Guardian blogs calls these the fork trucks of writing because they do the ‘heavy lifting’ work of explanation.

Consider this metaphor from a New York Times article on Ebola ‘In some of the worst luck in epidemiological history, this outbreak occurred at the bustling intersection of three of the world’s poorest and least developed countries.’ Clearly this is not a real ‘bustling intersection’, but the metaphor manages to suggest the challenge of containing the spread of contagion in such a context.

Similarly, this quote from an article in Nature gives a sense to the reader of the challenge of working from fuzzy astronomical photographs, by equating these to fuzzy vision: “The resolution is like somebody with a strong glasses prescription getting drunk and going to look at the Moon,” says Eliot.

War metaphors are common in science writing, think of battles with cancer, but I like this example from the Lansing State Journal that draws on both science (we know what the epicentre of an earthquake is) and war (invasion): ‘Yack was acting as a guide, offering his best guess about a point of entry, the epicenter of the invasion, the place where the emerald ash borer, the most costly and destructive forest insect ever to gnaw its way across the North American continent, first arrived from other shores.’

Metaphors, analogies and similes are powerful tools in the writer’s arsenal, but they should be used with care. Too many and reading becomes heavy work. Too common and your writing reeks of cliché. But get it just right and Goldilocks will not only read on but find she understands the science too.

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