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Friday, 3 May 2013

Effective Science Writing, Part 1

This began as a pro bono chapter for an Indian publication, Effective Science Writing, edited by Pramila Majumdar and Biman Basu, published by CSIR-North East Institute of Science and Technology, Jorhat, Assam, India.  I have adapted it slightly, and broken it into three parts.

I had a brief of sorts to write my chapter. In it, I was asked to discuss these topics:

  • Understanding your readers;
  • Searching for stories and;
  • Where to publish;
I was also asked to add other important ideas. I decided to deal with these as well:
  • Fitting science into unlikely places;
  • Setting down a plan and applying it;
  • Keeping a full record of ideas, information and sources;
  • Being open to revision;
  • When to write the ending;
  • How to know what information is reliable;
  • Why you should always listen to your editor;
  • The importance of networking.
I wrote this introduction some days before I started writing the main text, and I copied the points above from my notebook, ten minutes after I scribbled them down. The final product would probably be very different, but I planned to leave this introduction unedited. That may be the most important thing I do here, because it shows how I think and how I work.

Note that I used a paper notebook and an old-fashioned pen for my first sketch of this chapter. I always scribble some rough notes, and I will come back to that later, but it is important for the reader to realise that I am almost totally reliant on computers for my productivity.

My first step, at this point, was to take those 11 points and paste them in below this introduction, using the same order as above. I formatted them (in MS Word) as headings. I added full stops at the end, then opened up some space between them so I could start inserting text in blue italics. The blue text works like the scaffolding on a building site, and all those blue bits will be demolished and removed at the end.

This is the end of the introduction that was not be revised. After this paragraph, everything could be (quite certainly will be) revised and changed as I work my way into my thinking. From past experience, I know it will be!

Why communicate science?

I do it because I love and admire science. I hope I can help reduce the amount of stupidity in the world by helping readers to understand the role of science and technology in their lives. I want to show people how to assess the claims of flat-earthers, perpetual motion eccentrics, medical frauds, climate change deniers, opponents of evolution and other charlatans. Some of the frauds are confused, others want to make money by confusing people, but they can all be rejected by people who understand science. I don't try to beat the frauds, I try to make people more able to see what the crooks are doing.

I want to make my readers immune to unfounded fear, while being able to assess the very real risks that can emerge from some kinds of science and technology. I want them to see the opportunities of new science and technology, I want them to be able and willing to grab those chances and use science and technology to help other humans. I want them to know how to learn from previous mistakes.

There was a famous World War I French general, called Marshal Foch, who began every planning meeting by reminding his staff that the key objective was to defeat the enemy. Only then, knowing that, would they start their meeting. Before I start to write, I sit down and ask myself whether I plan to help people understand, or if I want to win hearts and minds, or to fascinate them—or maybe I just want to amuse my readers. Most of the time, all of those will be in the mix, but I need to know what I hope to do.

Point number 1: aside from earning a living, what are you going to do with the story you are sitting down to write? What changes will it make? (I hope that this chapter will help people focus more closely as they write about science.)

Searching for stories.

There are excellent sources around for science writers, because most researchers out there want to be famous. Finding material is never the problem, but keeping your head above the flood and finding the right material can be a real challenge. Behind all those researchers hoping for fame, there are public relations people, pushing easy angles that lazy journalists can use. By all means read them, but never trust a press release as a major source!

Many press releases seem to promise a better way to do something, but the most common line is a cure for <the common cold; multiple sclerosis; cancer or some other disease>. Lots of new drugs might one day lead to an approach that may generate a molecule that might attack an obscure cancer, way off in the future. Most of the time, the discovery will go nowhere, but a PR person will dress this up as an amazing, absolutely certain cancer cure.

Remember that most discoveries are interesting and offer a story to tell, but only a few discoveries are breakthroughs. Remember also that there are things a science publicist might do or say that no professional science communicator would do or say. The publicist and the communicator both want people to go "wow!" but only one of them wants that to be a reaction to the science.

Press releases can be useful, if you know who to trust. Between 1998 and 2005, I churned out 30,000 words of science news each month. It was a treadmill, but an easy one, because I had all sorts of people alerting me about interesting stuff. I began with Eurekalert and Newswise, where I signed up for lists of the press releases that were placed on those two databases each day.

The best part of that is that both Newswise and Eurekalert are free. The first is some sort of consortium, the second is run by AAAS, the American Association for the Advancement of Science.  The second best part is that this search can look back at all of the stories containing a key word, so you can see how else a topic has been in the news.

The third best part is that you can work out who are the good feeds with information that you can use. I had a good personal relationship for some years with the American Geophysical Union, and could get copies of the actual published papers, so I could read at least the abstract and conclusion, while skimming over the discussion. When I found a good source, I would ask them to put me on their mailing list, and set of one my email filters to sort those emails into a special priority box.

Mind you, that was before Twitter. These days, you just need to select who you will follow with some care, and then the world's news will come to your door. I don't use Twitter that much, because I mainly do books these days, but I still follow Newswise, Carl Zimmer, ConversationEDU, Guardian Science and tedtalks.

Sometimes, a story will find you—and those ones are often the best. Many years ago, I was looking at a law that was proposed by two Frenchmen, Dulong and Petit, a rule of thumb that ties atomic weight to the specific heat of an element. I though that was rather clever, went back to their original work, and started converting the data into modern units. Then I pulled down a chemical data book, and found some odd discrepancies, and realised that I had uncovered a fraud that had been unnoticed for 165 years.

Later, I found that a couple of other people had noticed the fraud at about the same time, but by then, I had done a little radio program on it and got myself known. I have never looked back.

Point number 2: there is never any shortage of material to work with, and there is a story in almost everything, if you look at it the right way. (I have drawn almost entirely on experience to write this piece, but I also chatted with a couple of friends who are in the same game.)

Fitting science into unlikely places.

Many years ago, I was one of a group of bushwalking science teachers. We often took some of our students along with us on day walks, and we always managed to find a few interesting bits of geology or biology to show them. Then one of my friends bought a brilliant book called Science As You Go, and we realised that we could bring in chemistry, physics and even astronomy, even in the wilderness. That was how I learned to look for the science in almost anything.

I like bringing out the science behind curious things like the way seagulls follow behind the ferry that I ride to and from Sydney; or the science behind sand that squeaks when you walk on it, or the reason why poisons work as they do; or even how an orb-weaver spider makes its web, and why it always makes it across the garden path I need to walk along each morning. One of these days, I am going to write an essay on this quote from one of J.B.S. Haldane's essays, 'On Being the Right Size', from Possible Worlds.
You can drop a mouse down a thousand-foot mine shaft; and, on arriving at the bottom, it gets a slight shock and walks away, provided that the ground is fairly soft.  A rat is killed, a man is broken, a horse splashes.
Maybe I won't, though I would love to. What I do know is that a comment like that makes a science piece truly memorable. If people smile about it for a few days, they are thinking about it, and that principle is lodged in their minds forever.

Science communicators should avoid trying to be comedians, but the occasional memorable line makes the reader recall, relish, and roll over the facts that lie beneath it. The best place for that wry or clever comment is usually at the end of the piece.

One of my zoology lecturers once told us "a female whale evaginates her teat and the calf clings on while she pumps out six to eight gallons of milk in as many seconds." That was interesting, but what made it stick in my mind, 45 years later, was his extra comment that "if the calf doesn't hang on, it gets a face full of milk".

Point number 3: there is always a place for humour in a piece, but it should be humour that serves some purpose other than making people think you are a nice person. (I am prepared to bet that half of my readers will tell somebody either the Haldane quote or the amazing whale fact.)

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