How to write about science

You live and breathe science. You spend your days trying to understand the inner secrets of nature. You dream of your next paper and your science making a real difference to the world. But you have forgotten that the people that matter do not read dusty journals or obscure monographs. They don’t even read Nature or Science despite what your boss says. But instead they catch up on the latest finds through blogs and articles that distill the excitement of new finds into small manageable and understandable chunks. No more 20-page method section but instead a whole new style of writing that us twenty first century scientists must master.

So take a deep breath and plan your first popular science article.

Stage 1 Where to publish it

Never write a single word until you know exactly where the piece is going. This goes as much for popular pieces as for journal articles. As each publication or online blog has its own style and approach which you need to appreciate and respect. Newspapers (eg The Guardian), specialist magazines (eg New Scientist) and popular blog platforms (eg The Conversation) you need to pitch your idea for the piece and convince a hard-nosed editor that people want it read about your science. Even supportive blog platforms which nurture PhD student and early career researchers such as SciSnack (https://www.scisnack.com/) and your own Department website it is best to contact them first before you start to write.

Stage 2 Plan the article

Remember you only have about 800 words maximum.  So pick a single idea and make sure you stick to your area of expertise. Do not try and tell the whole story of your research as that is way too much and really people are only interested in the exciting findings. Always structure your piece including the title, the diagrams, the pictures and the words.  Together they must tell a story as that is what gets people interested and involved in your writing. And remember one key fact you have 3-5 seconds to make an impact on social media before people switch to someone else’s article or picture of a cute cat.

Stage 3 Writing the article

Once you have a structure and you are happy with it – write the piece but remember to write with clarity, use simple straight forward English and use mainly the third person with an occasional add ‘I’ and ‘We’ to make it more accessible.  Do not try and get down with the youth and write in text speak like – ‘Think b4 u rite, rite! :>)’ as this alienates everyone including the young people you want to engage with.

Always ensure your work pays credit to the ideas of others – no need to use references but hyperlinks are excellent at allowing you to connect the reader to colleague’s work which may agree or disagree with your findings. Also get as many friends, colleagues and even family to read your popular article – because the more feedback the better your piece will be.  Because writing is hard and writing for a popular audience with an attention span less than that of a goldfish is really difficult – but amazingly rewarding because if you get it right the feedback is great.  It has even improved my academic science writing and even changed my science as comments from the blogsphere made me think differently.

Last piece of advice – structure is so important in popular writing – so plan, plan, and then plan your writing again! Good luck.

MarkMaslin

Professor Mark Maslin is the Director of the London NERC Doctoral Training Partnership, author of ‘The Cradle of Humanity,’ a geographer, geologist, global historian, palaeoclimatologist and entrepreneur.

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