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.