Writing as a scientist: a skill for life

In today’s intense research environment, scientists must become effective communicators in order to gain a competitive edge and to make a difference in their communities. Explaining science to the public is an essential skill for any scientist, whether it is to engage with the public through outreach opportunities, to educate students, or to communicate with patient advocates on grant panels and at fundraisers. If you are looking for a nonacademic career after graduate school or your postdoc, learning how to write about your work is an even more essential skill. Being able to explain to future employers what you have done as a scientist is really essential—and writing is perhaps the most in-demand transferable skill you can boast when transitioning from the bench to a desk. Most jobs involve some aspect of writing; what’s more, communicating complex concepts accurately, simply, and engagingly is a highly sought after skill in all lines of work.

Here are a four (plus one) key suggestions you can put into practice to refine your science writing skills:

1. Keep your science writing and scientific writing separate
Science writing is writing about science for the public. Scientific writing is writing about science for other scientists. You may find the former in magazine articles, newspapers, press releases, patient outreach websites, and so on. You may find the latter in scientific papers, posters, etc. Do yourself a favor and keep these separate. While most scientists know to keep their papers, presentations, and posters professional in tone, it can be tempting when writing for a general audience to try and address your colleagues at the same time as the general public. However, mixing science writing and scientific writing will not result in a compelling piece that successfully targets the intended audience because it does not have a specific audience in mind. While writing, it is a good idea to always have a very clear picture in your mind of whom you are writing for. Your audience is the single most important part of your brief!

Once you are done writing, read over your piece and test yourself. Pick a random paragraph and try to objectively assess whether it is addressing its appropriate audience. Watch your language and the words you choose to use; technical jargon is best left out of all science writing, unless you have the time and word count to properly explain what it means. Your tone and style are also important to consider when making sure that your piece is appropriate for a nonscientific audience. Dramatic pauses and nonconventional style choices are not appropriate while writing a scientific paper, but can be very powerful tools to engage a lay audience. Same goes for humor, which is not really appropriate for scientific writing (even though I personally feel it should be!), but can be quite a good idea in some pieces of science writing.

2. Write, write, write

The best piece of advice you will ever receive as a writer is to write, write, write! Practice does make perfect. Find ways to practice your science writing and other forms of communication and make sure that you do so at least a couple of times a month. Find out whether your institution has a blog or magazine you could write for and just go for it. Find outreach opportunities that get scientists in touch with children and the general public and engage with nonscience strangers. Talk to them about your work and listen to their questions! Find the best way to explain what you do and see what lessons you can learn from what confuses your audience. Outreach opportunities also offer plenty of writing opportunities, from outreach pamphlets to posters.

Other science writing opportunities can come through your scientific work. If you are involved in publishing a scientific article, there are plenty of outlets that will ask you to publish a lay-person summary of your work. Many journals require you to submit a summary for the general public, and there are websites dedicated to scientists explaining their papers. Your lab website may need an update—and your boss is quite likely to allow you to spruce it up with some excellent science writing (it’s free labor!). Last, but certainly not least, keep in mind the option of starting your own blog or even contributing to the ASCB COMPASS blog. While blogging can seem quite intimidating, with monetization and social media marketing seeming like a full time job, you can keep it simple and just write for yourself. Every time you click “publish” you will have practiced and will be a much better writer for it!

3. Read, read, read

Reading, as well as writing, is how we form an idea of what is good versus bad science writing. Therefore, make a habit to read some good science articles in the news on a regular basis. Observe what you like and what you dislike about them and keep track of your style and structure preferences. Do you like informational lists? Do you like articles that are funny? Do you like infographics? You can try out different styles in your practice writing and see whether they are for you.

As well as reading great writing by amazing professionals, keep an eye open for bad writing by not-so-amazing writers (often found in lower-quality newspapers and a variety of kooky websites). In fact, there is almost as much to be learned by other people’s failures as by their triumphs. Every time you come across something that is confusing or poorly explained, take a step back and ask yourself why. Is it confusing because of the language it uses, is the grammar bad, or is it just not very graceful? Spot patterns of bad writing and start looking for them in your own writing. You will learn how to edit yourself just by reading over other people’s bad articles and mentally editing them. If you know something of the underlying science, ask yourself whether these articles are accurate enough. Most importantly, do they convey just how cool the experiments they describe are? You can learn from all of these mistakes and make your writing stronger.

4. Get a little help from your (non-science) friends

It is very, very difficult to think as a nonscientist if you have spent a few years embedded in the world of science. Thankfully, you probably have at least a few non-science friends. If you don’t (and it happens!), you may have non-science family. Make use of your contacts and ask them questions. People love to help with science, especially if you emphasize how important being able to explain your work could be. Send drafts to your non-science friends and ask them for advice, or simply ask them if they are familiar with what a certain term means. You would be surprised to find how few people actually know what a cell is! Be prepared, however, to accept non-science criticism from non-scientists. While your science may be well up to snuff, you may find that you need to work on your style to make your pieces engaging and fun to read.

Your non-science friends may also point out that your science articles are too science-y—that is, they have too much scientific detail in them. It is very natural for scientists who are used to repeating themselves over and over with lists of experimental detail to lose the knack for editing themselves. Keep in mind that science writing is never going to have as many details in it as scientific writing covering the same topic. In fact, you may find that it is best to leave out information that seems important to a scientist but does not really add any value to a nonscientific audience. For example, scientists often like to show the same results in a variety of ways, such as showing the importance of a signaling pathway by gene knock-down, gene over-expression, and treatment with an agonist and with an antagonist. All this information can be condensed in a single sentence.

5. Bonus: If you are going to be at ASCB|EMBO 2018, come to our Science Writing Session!

Last, and perhaps least, if you are going to ASCB|EMBO 2018 (and if you can you should!), consider joining us for our career enhancement session “Writing Your Science Story: How to Get Everyone Else Excited about Your Work.” We are going to feature some exciting activities to help you think about the way you write about your work, and you will be able to hear from some truly amazing panelists who work as writers in a professional capacity. You will be able to ask our panelists your own science writing questions and perhaps be inspired to start writing more, or change the way you write altogether. You can follow us on social media at #writeyoursciencestory for more updates!

What are your science writing tips? Are you excited about the 2018 ASCB|EMBO Annual Meeting? Let us know in the comments below!

About the Author:

Gaia obtained her PhD from King's College, London working on melanoma cell plasticity and how it affects metastasis and patient survival. She has since moved to the United States, where she is currently a lecturing fellow at Duke University. Her work focuses on understanding how breast cancer metastasizes to the bone and manipulates the tumor micro-environment. She loves writing about science and communicating her passion for all things biology. You can find more of her writing here: https://time4science.wordpress.com/