Science writing 101: Everything you need to know to get published

Sarah Wild explains how to write science copy.

Sarah Wild explains how to write science copy.

Many scientists are daunted at the idea of writing for a non-science audience, and you may think that squeezing your masters or doctoral research into under 1 000 words is impossible. So here are a few pointers on how to start, and how to go about writing your submission for Science Voices.

  1. Don’t assume your audience is stupid because they are not scientists
    Someone contacted me about Science Voices, asking whether their submission should explain the merits of their research for a scientist or a general overview for a popular audience. When I responded that it was the latter, they glibly replied, “Okay, so I’ll just write as though I was explaining to a 10-year-old.” Just because your reader is not a scientist does not mean they are stupid. Personally, I find it incredibly irritating when someone patronises or talks down to me as though I was a child, and so I try not to do that to my readers. Just because your reader has never heard of angular momentum or RNA polymerase does not mean that they are not capable of understanding it; they have simply not been exposed to it yet.
  2. But what do I write about?
    There is something about your research that fascinates you: one thing that you are trying to understand, the crux of the question. What is it? Once you identify it, say it aloud in a sentence. It may not be the focus of your field as a whole or the most topical issue, but there is something about your research that gets under your skin, and that passion and interest is usually what makes writing come alive.
    Also, you don’t need results. You may have just begun your masters or PhD and don’t have data to back up a hypothesis. That doesn’t matter. What are you looking for, why is it important, how will understanding this one thing inform your field?
  3. Referencing
    In journalistic writing you need to reference where someone else’s ideas and previous research comes from, but not to the same extent as with a journal article. You don’t put things in brackets after the statement, or have footnotes or graphics. You also need to be selective of the references that you use: you don’t want your piece to be a collection of references strung together. Refer to the example below.
  4. Format
    I have always thought of science journalism as telling a true story: it is a narrative about trying to understand a piece of the world. It could be about how a virus behaves in a body (animal or human), creating new polymers or piecing together how they behave, the jets of radiation from pulsars, carbon capture in the Southern Ocean, or the transcription of DNA in cells into RNA. All of these things and many more are parts of the story of how things work. Your research is a part of that story.

    These stories can take on different formats:
    • You may choose to start with a lyrical introduction, putting your research into context. Betony Adams from the University of KwaZulu-Natal has done that in her piece about quantum effects in bird migration; and
    • you may want to start with a hard introduction, an in-your-face approach – state out the outset what you’re planning to tell your reader.

    Read an example below from a piece I wrote earlier this year:

    “South Africa plans to eradicate malaria inside its borders by 2018, but the changing climate may be one of its greatest obstacles. The country is one of the world’s success stories in the fight against the deadly mosquito-borne disease. Between 2000 and 2012, malaria incidence and mortality decreased 89% and 85% respectively: from 64,500 to 6,847 malaria cases and from 460 to 70 deaths. However as the “malaria belt” widens, new climate research shows that changing temperatures and rainfall patterns may be a major challenge to South Africa’s ambitious eradication target.”

    Whichever format you choose, your story needs to include these aspects: what is the research you’re doing? How does it complement other research in the field? Is it contested by other academics? Are there other hypotheses about why/how it happens? And importantly, why is it relevant? 

    My former editor at Business Day, Peter Bruce, had the “so what?” test. If you went to him with a story, he’d ask you: “So what?” If you couldn’t answer him, your story wouldn’t be published. But don’t be disheartened. I’d often go back to my desk, drink a cup of tea and then return with a “so what” that would get my story published.

  5. Jargon and acronyms

    Jargon and acronyms are the kryptonite of popular writing. They are off-putting, confusing, intimidating and unnecessary. You don’t want your reader glued to the internet to look up the terms you are using; chances are that they will stop reading.

  6. Tone

    The best way to understand journalistic tone is to read science journalism. Some of my personal favourite writers include Ed Yong, Ian Sample, Carl Zimmer, Virginia Hughes, Kate Wong. An important thing to note is that many of them were full-time scientists before they turned to science journalism.

    But since your life is probably divided between the lab/field and caffeine-fuelled writing sessions right now, there is little time to dedicate to reading science journalism. So here are some pointers:

    • Keep it brief. Don’t use 100 words to say something you can write in a sentence;
    • avoid using “I”. It can sometimes work in opinion pieces, but it takes a while to be able to use it without sounding self-indulgent. “I feel”, “I believe”, “I did”. It can also erode the authority of your piece; and
    • try to stay away from qualifiers unless absolutely necessary: “One could possibly postulate that the allegedly unproven hypothesis … ” It’s wordy and confusing.
  7. Examples

    This was taken from an article published in Science last year, by Norbert Juergens. It works as an article published in a journal, but would not be published in a newspaper.

    Fairy circles (FCs) are large, conspicuous, circular patches devoid of vegetation in the centre but with perennial grasses at the margin. These patches occur inlarge numbers in the desert margin grasslands of southern Africa (Fig 1, A and B). Early observers considered poisonous plants, ants, or termites as causal factors; however, most of these early hypotheses were systematically tested and rejected (1, 2). It has also been proposed that an unknown semi-volatile substance in the soil might be responsible for the absence of grass within FCs (2, 3). In fact, a wide range of volatile compounds are found in FCs (4). Measurements of carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons in the soil led to the proposal of a geochemical origin of FCs (5). Carnivorous ants (6) and “self-organising vegetation dynamics” (7) have also been considered as causes for FCs.

    Fairy circles are enigmatic and have captured people’s imaginations, but you wouldn’t know it from reading this journal excerpt. Read a journalistic piece published on the topic last month. Can you see the difference, even though they both deal with the same topic?

    In the journalistic piece:

    • There is a narrative;
    • there are no footnotes or graphics;
    • technical terms are explained (I have underlined phases or words that would need to be explained, although the explanation shouldn’t be more than a sentence);
    • a phrase isn’t turned into an acronym (such as FCs); and
    • there are words used in scientific discourse (in bold) that don’t have the same weight of meaning in common parlance, such as causation versus correlation. In the example of fairy circles, the question of causation is intrinsic to the mystery: what is causing it? There is a great deal of correlation, but no definitive proof of causation. But your average reader may not be aware of the importance of causation/correlation and you need to be aware of that in your writing.
  8. Spele chek is ur frend (sic)

    One of the most important rules of writing: always spell-check your work before you send it through.

Sarah Wild

Sarah Wild

Sarah Wild is a multiaward-winning science journalist. She studied physics, electronics and English literature at Rhodes University in an effort to make herself unemployable. It didn't work and she now writes about particle physics, cosmology and everything in between.In 2012, she published her first full-length non-fiction book Searching African Skies: The Square Kilometre Array and South Africa's Quest to Hear the Songs of the Stars, and in 2013 she was named the best science journalist in Africa by Siemens in their 2013 Pan-African Profiles Awards. Read more from Sarah Wild

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