Just like a bad first date, a good first sentence is best kept short. Dr. Evelyn Strauss, science writer and editor, shared her writing secrets as a guest speaker for Professor Mimi Koehl’s graduate seminar, “Communicating Science to the Public.” With experience in writing for magazines and journals such as Science, Scientific American, and Current Biology (just to name a few), Dr. Strauss expertly divulged the challenges of science writing and techniques that we, as scientists, can harness while taming our own science-writing beasts. May your readers make it to the second date, id est the second paragraph.
Dr. Strauss revealed what personal characteristics paved her path as a science writer: for instance, she enjoys learning about topics beyond her field of expertise. Her uncanny ability to write about science in layman’s terms makes it to understand. Although she conducted freelance work without formal writing training, Dr. Strauss was led by curiosity to investigate what writing “secrets” were being disclosed in the science writing courses at UC Santa Cruz. With her experiences in the classroom and in the real world, Dr. Strauss skillfully addressed the field of science writing while visiting Berkeley.
As an exercise, the participants wrote a “press-release” paragraph to bring to the seminar. We were faced with the impending doom of hearing our first sentence read out loud, twice. Mine was particularly long, so doubling the time necessary to read it reinforced the importance of a short and simple first sentence for engaging readers.
Here are some additional tips from Dr. Strauss:
1) Take hold of the reader’s brain, and take them down the path you want them to go:
This metaphor struck me, especially because I am a particularly lazy reader. When I write, I subvocalize, but a strong reader will softly focus on the text and pick up what stands out, usually the first sentence of a paragraph. You can also move your reader to maximize attention and motivation, as described in my last article, Rules of (science) writing.
2) Check if you need that prepositional phrase:
A press release addressing a scientific discovery will use these phrases sparingly. “Strings of prepositional phrases weigh down sentences,” Dr. Strauss warns. When the subject and action of a sentence are obfuscated by unwarranted prepositions, consider rewriting.
3) Paint vivid pictures with concrete nouns and strong verbs:
Your voice will depend on the audience. “Passive voice obscures who is doing the action and takes the punch out of the action,” Dr. Strauss comments. Give active voice a chance in mainstream science writing to confer personality and ownership to the writers and researchers involved in a press release.
4) Address the caveats useful to people within the field:
We are all biased, particularly when addressing a subject area that is near and dear to us. Don’t shy away from well-supported caveats of scientific research, for they may contribute to future investigations.
5) Know that jobs exist in science writing and become acquainted with available resources:
Dr. Strauss references the National Association of Science Writers as a resource for interested science writers. It is abounding with additional tips and tools of the trade.
Currently, Dr. Strauss is spearheading the content and outreach activities in MS Discovery Forum, a website for researchers in the field of multiple sclerosis. More information on her current and past work can be found at the UC Santa Cruz Science Communication Program faculty page.
For another interesting take on science writing, check out Jennifer Ouellette’s last blog article in Scientific American: Walking on Eggshells: Anatomy of a Science Story