/ 22 May 2014

Tips for aspirant science writers

Unfamiliar territory: RNA polymerase is something the average reader knows almost nothing about
Unfamiliar territory: RNA polymerase is something the average reader knows almost nothing about

The first of June is drawing near, and with it the deadline for the first Mail & Guardian Science Voices science writing competition. Science Voices aims to give South Africa’s postgraduate science students an opportunity to tell the country about their work.

We will select 25 of the entries and I will work one on one with those students on a piece of writing that will be published in a collection of the country’s best postgraduate science writing.

With only a week left, the emails I have been receiving are becoming increasingly panicked. So here are some guidelines to writing about your science for a popular audience. They work if you are a postgrad entering Science Voices, or a seasoned researcher wanting to get your writing published in the media.

Many scientists are daunted by the idea of writing for a nonscientific audience, and you may think that squeezing your master’s 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:

Don’t assume your audience is stupid because they are not scientists.
Someone got in touch 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. Upon hearing 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. It can be incredibly irritating when someone patronises or talks down to you as though you are a child, so try not to do that to your 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.

But what do I write about?
There is something about your research that fascinates you, one thing that you are trying to understand. What is it? 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 are usually what make writing come alive.

Also, you don’t need results. You may have just begun your master’s 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?

In journalistic writing you need to reference where someone else’s ideas and previous research come from, but not to the same extent as a journal article. You don’t put things in brackets after the statement, or have footnotes or graphics. You also need to be selective about the references that you use: you don’t want your piece to be a collection of references strung together.

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. Also, if you’re not careful with your use of acronyms, your writing will look as through it is littered with those incredibly secure passwords: a series of letters and numbers that are almost impossible to remember.

The best way to understand journalistic tone is to read good science journalism. Look out for pieces by Ed Yong, Ian Sample, Carl Zimmer, Virginia Hughes and Kate Wong, for example. An important thing to note is that many of them were full-time scientists before they turned to science journalism.

Here are some tips:

● Keep it brief. Don’t use 100 words to say something you can write in a sentence.

● Avoid using “I”. It can 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”. Also, it can erode the authority of your piece.

● Try to stay away from qualifiers unless absolutely necessary: “One could possibly postulate that the allegedly unproven hypothesis …” It’s wordy and confusing.

Think of science journalism as telling a true story: it is a narrative about trying to understand a piece of the universe, whether that is how a virus behaves in a body, 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 universe. Your research is a part of that story.

These stories can take on any number of formats: you may choose to start with a lyrical introduction, putting your research into context. You may want to start with a hard introduction, an in-your-face approach. You can state at the outset what you’re planning to tell your reader.

Whichever format you choose, your story must include these aspects: What is the research you’re doing? How does it fit into 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.

For more information about Science Voices, visit sciencevoices.mg.co.za.