Tips for great science writing

Writing tips for entrants of the Science Communication writing competition from judges.

Writing about science is not easy. There’s so much to think about – how do you grab your readers’ attention? How do you explain the science clearly? We’ve enlisted the help of some fantastic writers (including the winner of the 2015 UWE SCU Science Writing Competition) to provide you with some ideas.

Hopefully their tips will guide you as you put together your entry for this year's science writing competition.

Simon Singh, Author, journalist and TV producer

Science writing is about much more than writing (and science).

The first challenge is to find a story worth writing. Second, you have to realise that you have found a good story. Third and fourth, you have to work out who is best placed to publish your work and then successfully pitch the idea. Finally, you have to write the damn thing. And, to be honest, the writing is easy if you have put lots of time and effort into the first challenge. In other words, writing a blog or a book based on a brilliant idea is fairly straightforward, and the main challenge is to avoid messing it up. On the other hand, trying to write something interesting and engaging about an intrinsically dull topic is a deeply painful process.

I spend most of my time writing books, which means that I do not need to find good ideas very often, but those rare ideas do need to be exceptionally good. I had the idea for "Trick or Treatment?" back in 2006, and I had the idea for my most recent book, "The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets", back in 2005. In short, I have not had a really good idea for a decade.

Good luck.

Dean Burnett, Writer on neuroscience and psychiatry for The Guardian and stand-up comedian

When it comes to writing about science, I always assume the following: that the reader is at least as smart as I am, but doesn’t know what I know. I’ve found that this simple premise can make your writing so much more approachable and memorable, and increase the likelihood of people wanting to share it with others. Science has a reputation for being dense and impenetrable, and scientists have an (often unfair) stereotype of being aloof and patronising. Both of these things obviously put people off.

But if you assume that the reader is at least as smart as you, it’s less likely you’ll end up coming across as superior and condescending. But if you also assume they don’t know anything you know, then you’re more likely to cover all the important details and not bombard them with unfamiliar jargon that you take for granted.

You might argue that the reader may not be as smart as you, and that’s correct. But what harm can there be in assuming otherwise? It presents a friendlier, relatable approach that, with luck, can draw in those who have a fledgling interest in science but haven’t had the chance to pursue it, and have felt daunted about doing so.

Mun-Keat Looi, Commissioning Editor, Mosaic Science and Senior Editor at Wellcome Trust

When you’re really into a topic, it’s easy to think that everyone else will be and it’s hard to narrow it down to just a few aspects – everything is so fascinating. I have to cover all the bases to do it justice. (This counts double if you’re coming from an academic background).

Take a few moments before you start writing to think: what is my story really about? What is the one take home message that I’d want a reader to get from my story, even if they only skimmed it or read a bit? If you were to sum up your story in a sentence or two to explain to a friend or your mum – what would that be?

In film and business, they talk about the ‘Elevator pitch’ – you catch the executive in the lift, and in the one minute between floors you succinctly pitch your idea – enough to give a taste of what the story is about, what’s fascinating about it, why it’s important and how you’re approaching it – why it’s worth them investing. It’s the same principle in writing.

More than anything, it helps you, the writer, stay focused and clear on the purpose and point of your story, in your writing, research and interviews. Your readers – and editors – will be thankful for it.

Emily Coyte, One of our winners in the 2015 UWE SCU Science Writing Competition and now a freelance script writer for SciShow

Take time to explore your chosen topic broadly. A few extra days in the ‘research phase’ will add depth to your final piece through context and connections you may not otherwise consider.

Pre-submission proofreaders are vital, but you can get others involved even before your first draft. Find a friend, verbally pitch your idea and gauge their reaction. If you get the ‘raised eyebrow of curiosity’, explore why they’re intrigued and what questions they have. Alternatively, if you’re met with a baffled stare, perhaps reconsider your idea, or at least the way you sell it.

Stumbled across a fascinating fact? Jot down the source, even if you don’t use it immediately. Keep a running record of notes and links, because you never know what’ll need dredging up further down the line. It’s more work at first, but you’ll thank yourself during final fact checking.

Science is not a passive process that manifests on newsfeeds automatically. It’s done by real, hard-working people. Don’t be afraid to reach out to a researcher whose work inspired you. Carefully considered questions are often answered with valuable insights, so be curious.

It’s fine to have doubts. The trick is to harness them. Use them as motivation for improving weak spots, not an excuse to give in. You can do it.

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