A new addition to BSR’s online presence, I began writing for the review largely to explore different ways to think about, communicate, and interact with science. Of course, this has also been a great deal of fun and much learning has been had upon the way. I’ve spent my fair share of time scouring the internet for writing advice, racking my brain for an article topic, agonizing over sentence structure, and worrying about how a post will be received. TLDR: writing for a blog is harder than it seems, BUT (spoiler alert!) well worth the effort. In an attempt to chronicle my journeys through the blogosphere, I humbly present to you an agglomeration of my present findings on this curious creature they call “Science Writing”.
I. Write What You Know
This oft-told phrase was indubitably the most irksome piece of advice I thought I’d ever come upon as a fresh-faced blogger. A physical chemist by trade, I originally thought myself stuck between a rock and a hard place when it came to article subject matter. Space is mesmerizing and the inner machinations of this planet we call home fascinating, but explaining the wonders of tiny, invisible molecules to the layman? Yuck. Though I find these fundamental bits of matter and their profound effects on the macroscopic world utterly delightful, when asked what I study, I guiltily admit that I tend to respond with the classic, “I work with lasers” line. Cool stuff right? What I quickly realized at the beginning of my writing quest was that it wasn’t the subject itself that made talking about chemistry difficult, but rather my own lack of tools for explaining why this science is interesting and a valuable pursuit. Finding these tools, in an era of ever increasing chemophobia, seems like a rather important task. In order to make what I find exciting equally gripping to others, I first needed to define, in concrete terms, what makes chemistry remarkable to me.
So began a general upheaval in the way I interacted with science. For starters, I became more active in keeping up to date with not only my specific research, but other areas of science I found intriguing (insert shameless Feedly advertisement). This broadening experience has in many ways reinvigorated my own wonderment about science in general and, more specifically, has helped me to work on restructuring how and when I think about science. Furthermore, I’ve found that this introspection has fostered better awareness of the research climate at Berkeley, a critical eye, enthusiasm, and more frequent conversation about science.
II. Creatures of Habit
Of course, there is a great difference between acknowledging the benefits of writing and actually sitting down to write. Publishing blog posts can be scary, particularly if you happen to have perfectionist leanings, and staving off procrastination can be a never-ending struggle. Early on, I subscribed to a “Productive Writing” series done by Cornell to try and help myself learn to commit to a regular schedule of going through the mental exercise of actively writing cogent thoughts onto paper. Here are some strategies I found helpful:
- Avoid perfectionist tendencies and acknowledge that the act of sitting down and writing is significant in and of itself.
- Minimize distractions. Find a quiet place to write and prevent interruptions (i.e. Facebook, Reddit, etc). Stay on task, even if other items on your to do list pop into your head.
- Make a deadline and break your task into smaller morsels. Don’t binge write!
- Write regularly, even if it’s only 15 minutes a day. Carry a notebook on you or schedule in a time to write and stick to it. (An aside: carrying a notebook to jot down important notes or thoughts has also been helpful in preparing for my qualifying exam.)
III. Dear Jargon, Bane of My Existence…
We all know jargon. Take a look at any journal article title and you’d be hard pressed to find words that did not fall into either the jargon or preposition categories. Be that as it may, any science writer will tell you, steer clear of the technobabble. Great science bloggers have a knack for deconstructing difficult concepts in a way that is approachable and exhilarating. However, finding ways to simply communicate complexity is far from simple. Much debate still rages over the use of metaphors and analogies in science writing (the word “carefully” seems to crop up quite a bit). Explaining concepts with enthusiasm can be initially uncomfortable, particularly when we spend much of our time writing and reading technical, jargon-laden texts. Perfecting this certainly takes practice, but as esteemed science blogger Ed Yong says,
“At its heart, this issue is about thinking about your audience. The biggest mistakes with jargon are using it without realising that not everyone will understand, not caring whether they will, or even expecting them to work hard at understanding you. … It’s certainly true that technical terms carry precise unambiguous meanings (although this doesn’t excuse horrors like ‘facilitate’ or ‘utilise’). Science writers have the tough job of making things simple without compromising too much on accuracy…But compromise is sometimes inevitable, and it isn’t always a bad thing. Mathematicians will round numbers to various decimal places, treating 2.343839 as 2.3 for the sake of simplicity. Accuracy is lost, but acceptably so.”
Removing jargon and express challenging ideas in a satisfying fashion is not only important to science writing, but as an affirmation of our own understanding. As Feynman was purported to say, “If you can’t explain something to a first year student, then you haven’t really understood it.” Finding ways to simply inform and interconnect ideas can be rewarding even in the most fundamental of senses.
IV. Clash of Titans: Journalism v. Science
I think one of the challenges of writing about science is striking a balance between the tasks of informing on noteworthy news and to foster scientific thinking (this balance of course being subject to debate). When asked what the biggest pitfall of science writing was, Deborah Blum responded,
“I think there’s something of a natural cultural conflict between science journalism and science. The media, by nature, are event-driven, and when we report science as news we often report it that way: a finding, a result, or more hyperbolically, a “breakthrough” or a “discovery”. This can misrepresent the way science works. First of all, science is really a process of inquiry in which “non-events” – negative findings, tedious replication work, all count. But the news cycle tends to obscure that. And it tends to exaggerate the importance of some findings, because they better fit the news definition, sometimes at the expense of real public understanding of research…When I teach science writing, I remind my students that science is, at its heart, a human inquiry, just people trying to understand the world around us*. If we fail to convey that, we aren’t really doing justice to what makes it so difficult, so fascinating, and so important.”
Deciding how to write an article or series of posts can be rewarding and help structure your own personal philosophy on the purpose of science writing. For more discussion on science writing, see the Wellcome Trust’s blog, “How I Write About Science.” What are your thoughts? Have some advice of your own? Hit us up in the comments below.
*Emphasis my own.