A Rogue’s Guide to Science Writing: Tips from a Scientist and Science Writer

It’s not Cheating, Exactly

It’s not often that you get to play both sides of a game. Some would even call it cheating. After all, when the gambler is playing the house, is she ever going to lose?

Plus, I’m gambling for a good cause here. One of the writers I most respect in the world inquired how he should handle an upcoming interview with an astrophysicist.

“What might you ask?” he wrote. “I want to sound smart, after all.”

This is what I wrote in reply. I hope that you enjoy the…

…Rogues’ Guide to Science-Writing.

Step 1: Prepare to Sound Dumb

Step one to excellent science writing: SOUND DUMB.

If you sound like a newbie, your interviewee will give slow, patient, basic detailed newbie answers.

Which is exactly what you need.

If you sound smart/like an expert, you’ll get overly specific, lofty sometimes ambiguous answers. That, my friends, helps no one, especially not your audience.

Step 2: Make Them An Offer They Won’t Refuse
Do  you intend to let the scientist read your story for scientific accuracy before it runs? This can make a big difference. A lot of scientists have been burned by journalists – misquoted, poorly contextualized, and generally made to look foolish before their communities.
If she or he hasn’t been burned personally, she knows someone who has, and lives in latent fear.
If you plan on giving him or her right to “scientific fact-check”, say so up front, before the interview even begins. It may well put her at ease and help the interview run a lot more smoothly.
(By-the-by, I ALWAYS do this. So does Miles O’Brien, the famous science journalist. Can it burn you? Occasionally, it can be a pain. Can it totally save your butt at the same time that it earns you respect from the people you are interviewing? Yes, it can. Risk v benefit assessment say: allow a scientific fact check. Call it just that. They are not proofing your piece – they are doing a fact check of their own science.)
Step 3: As Good As Gold(berg)
What story do you think you are about to write?
Before you get too far into your answer, remember: what the scientist thinks the story is about and what the media thinks it’s about are typically off by at least 10 degrees on the fact-o-meter. Before you ask any questions – questions that could lead you on a tangent from which you might not return –  let her know what the story seems like it’s about to you, and then ask her what she thinks it’s about and why.
P.S: In journalism, asking yourself and others, “What’s the story?” is the called The Goldberg Rule. Which sounds a lot like “The Golden Rule,” which, in fact, is precisely what it is. Fun times when the name of something matches its function.
Step 4: Just the OTHER Facts, Ma’am. Alexander’s Question

A lot of what’s wrong with science journalism today can be summarized into three issues – the same 3 that plague all of journalism :

1. Failing to do the legwork required to ask meaningful questions in light of what has already been investigated by others.

2. Not speaking to the right people.

3. Never asking, “WHAT IF YOU ARE WRONG?”

 

Nobody likes to think that they’re wrong, which is why it’s so critical to ask what would happen to the story (Goldberg’s Rule) if the scientist happened to be wrong (Alexander’s Question)? How would the story change?
The last question is a key to all excellent writing, but especially journalism, and especially especially oh-good-lord-do-not-fail-to-do-this-I-beg-of-you especially in science journalism. Putting it out there using the same words that George Alexander did can help guide the conversation in a positive and productive direction. He asked, “What fresh facts, if at hand, by when, would cause you to change your presumption?”
If there were a 4th major journalism faux pax, it would be mistaking “digging up people who want to argue” for “finding balance in a story.” Balance is not achieved by locating someone at the other end of the idea/ideal spectrum. You may be able to balance a story by asking the SAME person, “What would it take for you to change your mind, and what would the repercussions be if those things suddenly came to pass?”
Are we cooking with gas yet? We’re 1/2 way to the end of this list, and so far, successful science writing is about getting ready to act dumb, offer an accuracy check, ask “what is the story?”, and, very nicely, “how could you be wrong?”  We haven’t even gotten to the first real question yet, which should probably be something like…
Step 5: Dr. Scientist, What’s Your Job?
He, or she – the scientist – has a job, which you probably don’t know much about. This is different from their job TITLE, which you know (I hope). It’s not enough to dig up a planetologist because NASA announced that yet another exoplanet has been discovered. First, we must dig up a planetologist, or exoplanetologist, and ask, “What’s an exoplanetologist?” That way, we have a place to start the story. THESE people are doing THIS thing for THIS reason. Then, we ask the next obvious question, which is…
Step 6: Why [your science]ology? The Elevator Pitch
Ask your exoplanetologist why people should care – why should a 5-year-old care, a 20-year-old care, a 50-year-old care about exoplanetology? About entomology? Ethnography?
Even scientific pursuits that don’t start with an “e” need to be justified to a journalist, if that journalist ever hopes to turn around and explain to the masses why exobiologists, Earth scientists and ENT surgeons exist. And I really hope you do. Almost no one meets an ENT surgeon and remembers the encounter well enough to report it to others.
Ask her why people of different races and socioeconomic backgrounds should care. And why someone who knows nothing about the Universe should care about the latest planet to be discovered. If we want to understand anything about the world well enough to write about it, live in it, or learn from it, Who are you? and Why does this matter? are two questions we need answered straight away.
Step 7: NOW we can answer the question “What should I ask to sound smart?”
Perhaps the current senior editor at the SF Magazine thought that he was going to get a simple answer to a simple question. Or maybe he didn’t. Maybe after 18 years he knows me too well. Or maybe he remembers that I’m too stubborn, too Jewish, and have way too many degrees to answer anything simply. I hope that he had as much fun reading this as I did writing it. If he didn’t, well, I have only one thing to say about it:
Here’s to you, and here’s to me. And if we ever disagree: #($)% you! Here’s to me…
To sound smart when you are talking to a scientist, please ask her:
  1. To define her branch of science and area of specialty within that branch, and why it exists.
  2. What’s hard about her job.
  3. What’s fun about his job.
  4. Where does their research start? Whether this is a very big exoplanet or a tiny virus, ask, “How do you know that a planet is there in the first place? Where do you begin looking for this virus?”
  5. Ask her how long she has to look for this planet/virus/atom.
  6. Ask him how he looks for this radiation/ant species/rock formation.
  7. Ask her to compare what she does – hunting Ebola or “Other Earth” – to doing something mundane, like looking for a 4 leaf clover, or a shooting star. People, normal people, need something they can hang their proverbial thinking caps upon. It helps them feel vaguely at home while still allowing them to appreciate that there’s something unique going on.
  8. Ask him how he figures out the big obvious parts. How does he know if it’s 1 planet or 5? How he can tell what the virus is doing to us?
  9. Ask her how she figures out the details. How big is it, what’s it made of?
  10. Ask her how she would know FOR SURE that she had some exciting game-changing result, like an Earth-like planet.
  11. Ask him what he would do if he found that game-changer. Who is the FIRST person he would tell? Scientists are people too, and people are what we want to read about. We may think that we’re coming for the science, and we may be. If we stay, we’re staying for and with the humans in the room.
And let me know how it goes. If this Rogue’s Guide to Science Writing helps you at all, I want to know about it.
Best, S

Dedicated to the ladies of USC Graduate School of Specialized Journalism 2015. Yes, we were ALL ladies, and damn good writers, too. 

2 thoughts on “A Rogue’s Guide to Science Writing: Tips from a Scientist and Science Writer

  1. I don’t even know how I ended up here, but I thought this post was great.
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