Writing Science for Non-scientists

ASCB member at computerASCB PhotoWhen I started reading it, my head felt foggy and my eyes glazed over. My PhD in biology did nothing to help me understand. I realized how my mom felt when I told her about my latest western blot results. Without a particle physics expert to come up with a metaphor, there was no way I was going to understand the original Higgs boson paper1.

Then I thought about words like transcription or translation, which mean something completely different outside my sphere of cell biology. Scientific lexicon, which is different even between physicists and biologists, is partly to blame for the divide that exists between the many amazing discoveries scientists make and the few that make it into the public sphere and get non-scientists excited about them too.

Scientists do want to share their research with the public. Recent polls show that a majority of scientists agree that dissemination of their discoveries to the general public is part of their duty2. Plus, 75% of biomedical scientists report having at least one contact with a journalist in their careers. But a majority of the polled scientists agreed that, “The public is not well educated enough to really understand scientific findings.” I wonder, is this a problem of educating the public or a problem with scientists using terms that require years of postgraduate education to understand?

I believe a big part of the problem with the public’s lack of understanding of science is an issue with scientists not being able to explain their findings in simple words. As Yasmeen Hussain recently discussed in this blog, it is not easy to describe our research without the use of scientific jargon. However, once we find a way to explain our projects to mom, everyone can get excited about scientific discoveries, which will help sustain research in the long run.

One way to effectively communicate your science to the general public is by writing. Writing allows you to reach a wide audience and allows you to communicate at your own pace and on your own time. Plus, if you end up loving it, you could build a career around science writing. So, how does a regular student/postdoc become an amateur science writer?

In the words of one of the best science writers on planet Earth:

From time to time, I get letters from people thinking seriously about becoming science writers. Some have no idea how to start; some have started but want to know how to get better. I usually respond with a hasty email, so that I can get back to figuring out for myself how to be a science writer.— Carl Zimmer (read the full article here)

Bearing in mind there is no recipe to become a science writer, here are three tips seasoned science writers agree on:

1) practice, practice, practice, 2) read other science writers, and 3) take a writing class.

Practice, practice, practice

If you are curious about science writing start small. Try your hand at small tasks such as answering science questions online. Many community-driven Q&A forums have biology sections where you can find questions like: What is a somatic cell? Is fruit juice cell cytoplasm? What are dendritic cells? Why do cells die? Check out Stack Exchange, Quora, or the Ask Science section in Reddit to practice your science writing by answering the questions in simple, clear and accurate terms. You can also try contributing to a page on your favorite topic on Wikipedia. Also, send your posts to your science and non-science friends and family. Ask them for honest feedback and learn from the experience.

Once you are ready to graduate to the next level you can start a science blog or contribute to established science blogs. (Find the guidelines for submitting to the ASCB Post & COMPASS blog here).

Read other science writers

The best way to learn how to be a successful writer is to learn directly from the great science writers out there. Read their blogs and articles and analyze how they present their stories. Great examples of science writing can be found at Discover Magazine, Popular Science, Nautilus, ScienceBlogs, LabLit.com, and redOrbit, to name just a few.

Take a writing class

If you want to step-up your writing, take a night class in journalism or non-fiction writing in the English department on campus. You’ll quickly learn simple techniques to improve your writing. Online workshops are also available, like this 10-week magazine writing workshop. Short on time? Try reading the Science Writers’ Handbook.

Once you have fallen in love with writing about science, you can start thinking whether this is something you want to do on the side or whether you’d like to pursue it as a career. For more information on pursuing a career in science writing, visit the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing and the National Association of Science Writers. Also check out Ed Yong’s article On the Origin of Science Writers where he has close to 150 stories of how science writers became science writers, complete with links to their blogs and/or twitter accounts.

To learn more about the process of writing as a career, visit The OPENNotebook, a non-profit that provides tips on many practical aspects of writing, such as how to make pitches or how to find great ideas.

But of course, the first and also most difficult step is to write for the first time. So, take a deep breath, grab one of your many ideas, and hit that keyboard!

1. Peters HP. (2013)Gap between science and media revisited: Scientists as public communicators. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 110 Suppl 3, 14102–14109.

2. Higgs PW. (1964) Broken symmetries and the masses of gauge bosons. Physical Review Letters 13, 508.

About the Author:

Laura Diaz-Martinez is Associate Director of the Campus Office of Undergraduate Research Initiatives and Research Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences at The University of Texas at El Paso. She is also an active ASCB member and former member of ASCB’s COMPASS.