Many of us are used to writing essays or op-eds, or doing journalism or reported features. While these are well-known and understood forms of writing, writing about science in these forms adds an extra layer of complexity: you have to be able to accurately share the science you’re talking about. This craft piece covers the basic tenets of how to write about science, which can be applied across journalism, essays, op-eds and creative nonfiction.
1. Do I need to have a science degree to write science stories?
No—you just have to be willing and able to read and understand scientific articles and know what questions to ask scientists in your interviews. It can help to be a scientist who is trained in reading the scientific literature and communicating with scientists, and your pitch might be more solid if you share your background knowledge of the topic. It can also help when interviewing scientists if you have an inside understanding of their research to begin with. However, speaking from experience, it can also be difficult to switch from writing like a scientist to writing like a journalist or to writing creative nonfiction.
2. Generate an idea.
Science writing stems from a scientific idea that you find interesting and decide you want to write about. Generating those ideas can be difficult, however, if you don’t know where to look. The key is to sign up for regular emails that share new science news. For example, EurekAlert!, run by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), collates news releases about new science across disciplines. You can subscribe to their RSS feed of news releases to get new science ideas in your inbox all year long. You can also sign up with your country’s science media centre. Here in Canada, I’m a subscriber to the Science Media Centre of Canada’s weekly email. There are similar science media centres in Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and the UK (efforts are underway to develop one in the USA). You can also sign up to receive press release emails from organizations like the American Geophysical Union. Also, consider attending scientific conferences and reporting on research you learn about there. A conference can generate some interesting science ideas, not just from the presentations themselves, but from the informal chatter during coffee and lunch breaks.
Sometimes it can seem like everyone is writing about the same hot science topic from EurekAlert!, so some writers branch out into a niche that’s not as well-covered so they’ll have more success with pitching stories on that subject. To do so, you can pick a particular niche, like water or agriculture, then find scientific journals that cover those topics and sign up for weekly table of contents alerts that will bring new science ideas right to your inbox.
3. Learn to read scientific papers.
This is a basic skill that will be helpful when you’re writing about science because it’s all based on research published in journal article form. Most journal articles follow a set structure: an introduction in which they talk about their research question and put it in the context of previous research, a study site section (for environment-related papers) that describes the location at which the research took place, a methods section that outlines how the research was done and why, a results section that outlines what the outcomes of the methods were, a discussion section where the authors discuss the results in the context of current and future research, and a conclusion that wraps it all up.
Scientific articles are like a story in and of themselves, as the researchers are telling a story about a project they did and expecting the reader to follow along. One key point about reading research papers is to make sure you understand the math and statistics. For a good guide to reading scientific papers, see this comprehensive blog post from the London School of Economics. Read the journal article on which your idea is based, and then read a few complementary articles that are similar but cover different aspects of the research. It can also help to read articles that put the ideas in one you’re writing about into the context of the research field as a whole.
4. Look for the story.
So you have an idea from following up on a research paper you first heard about via a conference or your national science media centre, and you’ve read the journal article it’s based on, plus a few other related journal articles. Now it’s time to turn that idea into a story. For example, I read a paper about wolves eating beavers, which gives me a basic idea. But the story from that idea could be: does this predatory behaviour have an impact on landscapes, as it kills beavers that would otherwise be building and maintaining dams? Here we’re taking that basic idea and asking additional questions to flesh out what this idea might mean for beaver populations.
Other ways to turn an idea into a story as outlined by Dr. Anna Funk include finding a news hook to link it to the present, finding science stories that walk the reader through a process of discovery, developing stories around the scientists who did the work as though they’re a cast of characters, and looking into the future consequences of these research results.
5. Put together your interview questions.
Interviewing researchers is important because it’s when you’ll collect stories and anecdotes from the people who do and understand this work, which you’ll include in your piece. Start with the technical questions. One way to make sure you understand the research is to paraphrase it back to the scientist and make sure they agree that’s correct. But don’t forget to ask personal questions as well. To go back to the wolves eating beavers example, you could ask:
- What did you think when you got this result?
- What were some of the interesting things that happened while you were doing this research?
- Were there obstacles to overcome or field incidents that add to the story?
- What are you working on now that’s related to this topic?
- Have you had a lot of feedback from colleagues on this work?
- What do your results tell us about the bigger picture of wolves and beavers on the landscape?
- Are wolves changing the landscape by preying on landscape engineers like beavers?
- What was the best/worst part about doing this research?
Remember that no questions are “stupid.” They are all important in making sure you understand the science properly and can generate stories for your article. Remember to also ask what else they’re working on, which could give you ideas for future stories.
6. Pitch your story to an editor.
You might want to do this before you come up with interview questions, but sometimes coming up with those questions helps you flesh out a pitch. There are many venues for science-focused pieces, including Undark, bioGraphic, Wired, OneZero, and other outlets, each of which usually have their own pitching guidelines that you should check out.
7. Talk to the scientists.
Once you’ve successfully pitched the piece to a science outlet, the next step is to talk to the scientists themselves. You’ve educated yourself about their research by reading their journal articles, and you’ve come up with a list of questions that you think will help you tell a story. Usually, writers interview two or more scientists who have published the research in question, and another one or two scientists who work in a similar field but weren’t involved in the actual research itself. This allows you to flesh out the pared-down version in the journal article, while also getting an outside perspective from people who didn’t do the research. This step is critical because you need that outside perspective to make sure the research is valid and relevant.
You can contribute to diversity in science writing by making sure to interview women and BIPOC for your piece. If you’re having trouble finding them, ask the sources you already have who else you should interview, or check resources like the 500 Women Scientists Request a Woman in STEMM database. Talking to PhD students is also a good idea—they are experts in their research and often don’t get the exposure their supervisors get, even when they’re doing the research. If you’re having trouble getting responses from sources, you can contact the PR department of the institution at which those sources are located and see if they can be a bridge between you and the scientists you’d like to speak to.
8. Write your article.
You’ve generated an idea, read the scientific paper(s), turned your idea into a story, come up with some questions, found an outlet, and interviewed the relevant scientists. Now it’s time to write your article. Start with a compelling scene, as it will draw the reader into the story quickly and effectively. With the beavers and wolves example, we could start with a scene about something interesting that the researchers observed while collecting their data. Maybe they caught a wolf on camera eating a beaver, or they just missed collaring a wolf to track its movements around beaver dams.
Then write about the research itself and what it means. You can add quotes from the researchers who did the work, then add complementary quotes from the researchers who work in the same field but weren’t involved in the research. Then you can use information from your interviews to talk about why this research is important and what the scientists are studying next.
There are many ways to structure your article, and it will depend on who your audience is, what outlet you’re writing it for, and the genre. If you’re looking for tips on how to write your article, check out the Open Notebook’s Storygrams, in which they break down popular science stories to show how the writing works and why. This particular example shows how the author uses a unique anecdote to start his article, avoiding the pitfalls of a stereotypical beginning.
9. Avoid jargon and write in plain language.
It’s easy when writing about science to get caught up in the jargon that scientists use to communicate with each other, but readers want to be able to understand and engage with your piece. One way to do this is to read your article out loud and, if you stumble over certain words or sentences, consider rewriting for clarity. Also, consider your use of complex terminology—is it necessary to the story or does it just provide a speed bump for the reader to navigate? Remember that writing in plain language isn’t “dumbing down” science—it’s making it accessible to a broader audience.
10. Don’t let interviewees read your piece before publication.
Some interviewees might ask to read your piece before it’s published so they can ensure they’ve been properly represented. In most cases, this is a no-no, as the piece is meant to be written independently of the scientist. The best way to deal with this is, as I mentioned above, to paraphrase their research back to them to make sure you’re on the same page. You can also offer to send them specific quotes of theirs that you plan to use. Always remember to send your sources a link to the article once it’s published.
- A Field Guide for Science Writers: The Official Guide of the National Association of Science Writers, edited by Deborah Blum, Mary Knudson, and Robin Marantz Henig
- The Science Writers’ Handbook: Everything You Need to Know to Pitch, Publish, and Prosper in the Digital Age, by Michelle Nijhuis and Thomas Hayden
- The Science Writers’ Essay Handbook by Michelle Nijhuis
- The Craft of Science Writing, edited by Siri Carpenter
- The Open Notebook also has many resources for science writers, from storygrams that get into the nuts and bolts of why a story works, to a pitch database to help you produce a stellar pitch, to resources on equity, diversity, and inclusion in science writing.
Sarah Boon, Ph.D., FRCGS writes about nature, literature, and women in science for Catapult, Narratively, The Rumpus, Longreads, Literary Hub, Alpinist Magazine, and more. She is working on a memoir about her field research experiences.