An Editor’s Science Writing Cheat Sheet

May 8, 2017
The secret to being a good science writer is thinking like a reader.

Are you thinking about joining our science writing competition but not sure where to start? Well, I’m not on the judging panel and cannot speak on their behalf, but here are some tips I’ve found to be useful as an editor of a science news portal and more importantly, as a reader.
Limit your scope

The number one mistake I see rookie science writers make is biting off more than they can chew, trying to tackle extremely broad topics in an article with a limited word count. I am surprised by the number of people who think that it is possible to write about something as broad ‘Cancer’ in a thousand words, as though cancer were not in reality thousands of different diseases, with myriads of causes, affecting people in vastly differing ways. Other than revealing a naïve understanding of the topic, the problem with writing this way is that it inevitably leads to over-generalization and trite statements, ultimately adding nothing to the discussion. A much better approach would be to limit the scope to something that can be reasonably dealt with within the word limit, so that you can do the topic justice and write something actually worth reading. For example, instead of writing about Cancer with a capital C, why not narrow the focus down to a specific cancer—say, prostate cancer—and a specific issue in the management of the disease, like whether the prostate specific antigen test is leading to over-diagnosis and unnecessary treatment, particularly in the context of Asia? That way you will be able to delve into the details of the science and the uncertainty behind the test, and draw out the implications they would have on patients struggling to deal with a positive result. Better, no?

Pull yourself out of the rabbit hole

The flipside to limiting your scope is going into way too much detail once you’ve found your niche. This is an understandable mistake; you’ve done a lot of research and now understand the nuances of the arguments involved, it’s only natural that you want to show this off to your reader. [Hint: Don’t.] But at the end of the day, going into too much detail is still a mistake. Yes, your job as a writer is to get an accurate understanding of the topic at hand, no many how many tabs you need to keep open on your browser and how many Wikipedia rabbit holes you find yourself falling into. The mistake is forcing your reader to take all the detours you had to make. Instead, the goal should be to present them with a crisp summary of the most salient points, a polished final product that seamlessly gets them from A to B, rendering invisible your own meandering journey. Similarly, if you’re approaching science writing as a scientist, you may unknowingly be in a rabbit hole of expertise, what Steven Pinker calls the curse of knowledge. Of course, it is important to know that the research you are citing is scientifically sound and statistically accurate, but is it important for the reader to know the nuts and bolts of how the analysis was done so well that they can reproduce it? Obviously not. So pull yourself out of the rabbit hole and save it for the methods section of your next research paper.

Discard the deficit model

It’s fair to say that people writing about science are passionate about it and genuinely want to communicate it to a larger audience. The issue for many would-be science writers is how they go about doing it. Whatever good intentions they may start out with, many writers default to what is known as the deficit model, assuming that their readers are ignorant of science and that bestowing knowledge upon them is the means to remedy that ignorance. So what these deficit model writers tend to do is write articles that I like to call textbook chapters. Rather than defend a position on a given topic, they inundate the reader with information and stand back to let the ‘facts’ speak for themselves. When done well, there is a place for this kind of writing, namely textbooks. However, I don’t know about you, but I don’t read textbooks for fun, and I certainly wouldn’t want to put a textbook chapter-type article on this website. Not only does the resulting writing tend to be boring, more importantly, it fails to achieve its purpose. Hurling indisputable facts at your readers rarely makes them change their point of view about a topic, and in fact can make them double down and outright reject the ideas that you are trying to discuss. This is the backfire effect, a phenomenon that has deep roots in our psychology and is very hard to shake.

Respect your reader 

Everything I’ve said so far can be boiled down to one simple takeaway message: Respect your reader. Respect their time; if something can be said clearly in fewer words, don’t waste their time by writing another PhD thesis on the topic. Respect their interests; don’t assume that just because you are deeply passionate about something, everyone wants to know about all the minutiae. Try to think about what your reader might be interested in and use that as a point of engagement. Respect their intelligence; don’t assume that you are the wellspring of all knowledge and everyone else knows nothing. And with that, I respectfully wish you all the best!

Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Shutterstock.
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