Episode 14: Weird Science


Scientific reporting is a field unto itself. Of all the writing I’ve done over the years, covering science can be the most challenging . . . and the most enjoyable. Here’s why:

Specialized concepts: As with technical writing, scientific articles tend to cover a specialized field (e.g., astrophysics, microbiology, paleontology, geothermic engineering) and also depend on industry lingo. This means that most of your source material and interviews will likely include a healthy dose of complicated concepts. Unlike technical writing, however, the audience is less likely to know the specialized terminology.

Research: When I’m working on an article on cosmology, for example, I tend to spend a great deal of time pawing through and sorting through some heavy stuff. You don’t need a PhD to report on a complicated subject, but you do need to understand the ideas more thoroughly than a typical reader would. Mainly, you need to know what the discovery/event/experiment means to the world, how it changes/impacts what was previously thought, and how the big picture looks. In most cases, you do not need to know everything about the topic, since you can rely on subject matter experts for the gory details.

Experts: You do need to be picky about your experts, however. Some are great at breaking down the concepts for a common reader; some are really not. If the best one you can find is not adept at bringing the language down, then get a quote, research the topic yourself, write something for a general audience, and have the expert approve your interpretation. That way, you have a dual-level article that caters both to those who know the subject and those who don’t.

Hooks: Science does not—and should not—be boring. In fact, scientific research is a fascinating topic that can really let you flex your creative muscles. One of the best ways to grab the reader’s attention is to begin your article with the most bizarre or unusual aspect of the story you’re covering. Are some claiming an experiment will destroy the earth? Then have some fun with it. Do the sub-atomic particles the physicists are researching have some “spooky” properties? Then give us a taste.

Ethics: As strange as it may seem, science writing can also be filled with pitfalls. For one thing, it is easy to overstate a case or stretch the evidence beyond what it really shows. Science is, after all, about using our imagination to find solutions to why something happens—backed up with data, of course. It’s easy for the imagination to run wild. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t cover what some think the research may imply, but it does mean you have a responsibility to make sure that you present such things as speculation with counterpoint thrown in. After all, most readers will likely not research the topic beyond your coverage of it.

Review: With scientific writing, it is important that you allow someone knowledgeable in a particular field review your work. Your editor may have someone in mind for after you submit your article, but I suggest you allow someone to review it prior to submission.

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