One of our greatest passions at the BSR is helping scientists improve their skills in explaining complicated scientific ideas in ways that anyone can understand. We’ve compiled some general writing advice as well as external and literary resources below.
We look for comprehensibility and crispness in all of our stories. When writing your article, consider whether a novice in the field will be drawn to read on. Some things to keep in mind as you’re writing (they sound simple, and indeed they are simple):
- Define the point and purpose of your article clearly before beginning to write.
- Make sure every word and sentence works toward your purpose.
- Avoid jargon, and clearly explain any technical terms used.
- Always use the active voice unless it is absolutely impossible to do so.
- It’s true: Pictures tell a thousand words. Include as many relevant graphics with your submission as possible. And don’t be afraid to ham it up in captions and titles: puns, double entendres, plays on words–they all work well.
- Report, report, report. Research, research, research. Good writing can’t happen without good information. Talk to as many researchers as you can and include lots of quotations in your article. Read as much background material as you can. The time-tested rule of 10: Collect 10 times as many quotes as you think you’ll need, 10 times as much information as you think you’ll need, and 10 times as many pictures as you think you’ll need.
- A word on word counts: Your editor will recommend a total word count for your story. It’s important that you adhere to it within some reasonable ballpark.
- Give your article a working structure. A popular structure used in magazine writing is:
- Nut or billboard
The length of each of these sections depends on the length of your article. For very short articles, this structure isn’t so useful. But it’s a good guideline and beginning point.
The lede: The lede hooks the reader. It can be surprising, cute, or just informative. A great lede from the BSR’s first issue opens the article “Staring at the Sun”, which is about a satellite that detects solar flares: “On March 13, 1989 the entire province of Quebec was left without power for nine hours when substation transformers burned out after a magnetic storm.”
The nut: The nut tells the reader exactly what the story will be about. It goes further in hooking the reader and prepares him or her for receiving the information in the story.
The backplot: The backplot gives any relevant background information. It can be very brief, such as in a news article, or longer, such as in a history of science feature where background is key. The backplot should move fluidly into your main story.
The kicker: The kicker signals the reader that it’s time to go and digest all he or she has learned. Kick the reader out the door with a memorable line that puts all that’s come before in perspective. The most famous kicker of all time: “And they lived happily ever after.”
Here you’ll find a host of resources for aspiring science writers. Feel free to leave us a few tips of your own if inspiration strikes!
The BSR Crash Course in science reporting basics, by Shirley Dang
The Guardian’s manifesto for science writers – 25 commandments for journalists, by Tim Radford
The editors recommend the following books on writing and refer to them when editing articles:
Elements of Style by Strunk and White. This may be the greatest writer’s reference of all time. It’s short. Buy a copy. It’ll be the best $7.95 you’ll ever spend.
On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction by William Zinsser stresses clarity of prose and purpose and will help you strip the excess from your writing. It also has tips on interview and research techniques.
A Field Guide for Science Writers by Blum and Knudson (editors) is the official guide of the National Association of Science Writers. It’s a good how-to book that covers everything from getting started to working as a freelancer to effective proposal writing.