Tips for Science Writing, Nov. 29, 2016

California Academy of Sciences workshop

Omit needless words: And make every word count – ask what it adds. Do flight attendants need to say “at this time”? Does anyone need to say “obviously”?

Accuracy is essential: If you make spelling mistakes or factual errors you lose credibility.

California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco Architect: Renzo Piano Building Workshop

California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco

Be concise: Attention spans today are very limited so don’t ramble on – get to the point.

Think like a journalist: Consider what’s unique, surprising or compelling about your topic. Think about what you’d tell a friend about it – what makes you say wow?

Use the active voice, not the passive: Avoid phrases like “can be heard” in passages like: “When an alligator snaps its jaws shut, a loud sound can be heard.”

Evoke all the senses not just sight: What does something sound like, feel like, smell like?

Show, don’t tell: Rather than describing something can you show how it works? Don’t say “The octopus is a crafty predator” – show me how it attacks and consumes its prey.

Be as specific as possible and use vivid details: Rather than say a flower is red, use a more specific color – is it scarlet, ruby, or maybe burgundy?

See the world with fresh eyes, or what Buddhists call Beginner’s mind: try not to overlook something because you’re overly familiar with it – the reader might not be.

Know your audience: Are you writing for kids, for seniors – or for scientists or lay people? This should determine your approach.

Join a writers group: At best, a writers group is a supportive community offering honest feedback. But don’t take all criticism as gospel – listen to it, incorporate what feels right, but remember it’s your work. Just because someone has a suggestion doesn’t mean you have to incorporate it.

Read the Elements of Style by Strunk and White: It’s a primer on cleanliness, accuracy, precision, and brevity in writing.

Here’s what the adventure writer Tim Cahill says about hooking readers. I asked him how he gets readers interested in what he’s seeing during his travels. This is an excerpt from my book A Sense of Place:

“Why do different animals eyes shine differently in light at night? Why are some red — why are some green? Some say, well predators have the red eyes, and prey populations like deer have the green eyes, and I wondered whether that was true or not. But here’s the thing: I find the answer is fascinating; it’s a scientific principle of reflection that has to do with a coating on the back of the eyeball.

So if I said, “Reader I’m going to tell you about a coating on the back of the eyeball that reflects light back through the pupils and makes animals eyes shine. …” Some people may read it and some may not. But if I put you into a dark forest and I have a light and I start shining it around and I’m looking at all these different colored eyes staring at me, then the reader may be ready for me to tell him what I know about why animals’ eyes shine differently. The reason I put that stuff in there is that I just found it fascinating. But I can’t put it in the purely scientific or historical stuff until I’ve aroused the reader’s curiosity to the point where the reader might say, “I wonder why that is.” And if I’m really good it that’s when I come in and say, “That’s because…”


Secrets of good science writing – The Guardian

How to write better science papers -Elsevier

A Field Guide for Science Writers, a guidebook on science writing

How not to write like a scientist, Popular Science