Science writing is one of the toughest areas of journalism, and for good reason. We are tasked with taking a highly technical piece of peer-reviewed paper, and converting it into bite-sized pieces of digestible science. I’ve seen the call for better science journalists, but the answer isn’t appearing quickly. Here are a few quick tips for making yourself the best possible science writer.
1) Select your sources carefully. It’s great to read the New York Times Science section, but it’s important to follow up on their research. Look closer and you’ll find errors in their section every week. National Geographic, Discover, Smithsonian, and Wired are examples of slightly more rigorous publications. Even then, perform a quick search on the topic, and make sure you read the papers where they found their information. Even if you can’t understand the language perfectly, familiarizing yourself with primary literature cuts out one more person in translation from the lab to the kitchen table.
2) Talk to someone. This is especially true if you are struggling with the primary literature. Even if you aren’t it’s great to run your ideas by an expert before you publish something that misrepresents the researcher and makes you look bad. Scientists may seem like recluses who speak another language, but that’s not true. They love to discuss their research with engaging people. When you’re writing an article, don’t be afraid to contact someone to explain how you’re interpreting their work. If you can’t get in touch with an author (most are extremely busy) contact a similar department at your local university. They will probably be happy to listen, and point out any points you may be missing.
3) Be careful of your terminology. Many words we take for granted in everyday speech have completely different meanings in scientific papers. One of the most misused in science writing is “caused.” Testing for causation is an incredibly rigorous process, so you will rarely find the term used in an actual paper. But look around the media — it’s everywhere. Most papers search for a relationship, a correlation, or an association between the variables they studied. Reporting their findings as causation asserts a finding that their research does not support, even if it seems as though that is what they are suggesting. In addition, the term “significant” refers to statistical testing. It means that it is extremely unlikely that their findings could be generated by chance. If you don’t mean this when you use the term, try another one, like meaningful, compelling, or convincing.
4) Find a topic that people haven’t already seen. Pick something where you can add to the conversation. Why quibble over dieting choices when you could be discussing the singularity event? Or the fascinating studies on stress in babboons?
5) Approach everything you find with skepticism. Even the most believable of conclusions are scrutinized before publication in any journal. As a field, science teaches its students to be skeptical of everything. As writers, it is important that we view all science writing with enough skepticism to keep others in check.
6) Remember who you are and what you represent. My camp directors used to tell us this both as campers and counselors. But I have no better way of driving home this last point. Reporting science places you in a position of extreme power, because you can change how people will think about the foods they eat, the water they drink, the places they live, and the way they care for their health. With this power comes great responsibility. Your responsibiltiy is to represent the scientists properly. Yes, you can represent your opinions on the research; but don’t allow your own opinions to outshine the studies you choose to report. Sharing new research should be the reason you choose to write in the first place.