How I write about science


Because it’s prettier than my computer

To accompany its 2013 science writing awards, the Wellcome Trust is running a series of Q&As on science writing. My contribution is posted today, on the Wellcome Trust website and on the Guardian science blog.

I get asked to discuss “how to write about science” fairly regularly, and I find it so daunting. Even though I’ve been a science journalist for nearly fifteen years (gulp), my first reaction is that I don’t feel qualified. Like writing in general, with science writing there’s always more to learn; I never think, “great, I can do it now”. Probably that’s why I love it so much.

But when I was starting out, I would have appreciated any advice going. So now I try to swallow the fear of being revealed as a faker with no clue what I’m doing, and force myself to say something about what I’ve learned so far, in case someone out there might find it useful.

In that spirit, here are links to a couple of other articles I’ve written on this topic. For example, here’s a blog post based on a talk I gave on “inside out” writing at a meeting of the World Federation of Science Journalists in Doha in 2011:

“Often when I was writing I’d have this elusive feeling about why something is important – about how events or ideas were connected or why I wanted to include a particular anecdote. But I’d struggle to put it into words. That’s the important bit, that’s what you have to try to drag out from inside, and to express on the page.”

And here’s a blog post I wrote for the Guardian to accompany the Wellcome Trust’s 2011 prize. It’s about one of my favourite examples of our trade: ‘In praise of rust’ by John Ruskin:

“For me, this is a forceful demonstration of how to write about science with creativity, passion, and even poetry. Ruskin conveys the scientific understanding of his day with clarity and precision. But he also gives it beauty and meaning. What could have been a mundane discussion of metal oxidation becomes a moving exploration of our relationship with a nourishing planet.”

After writing these pieces, I’d add one more bit of advice, which is to think hard about how and why you write. I rely on gut feeling a lot – I keep what feels right and cut what doesn’t – which is fine but a bit like working in the dark. Taking the time to analyse what I do has been illuminating, for me if no one else.

This latest Wellcome series is no exception – I learned from trying to explain for example what makes a good opening line (a small detail that plunges the reader into the heart of a story) or the role of metaphor in a science story (essential but dangerous).

Of course if you want some advice from someone who really does know what he’s doing, here’s the contribution from Tim Radford, who has this amazing knack of combining beauty and wit, while making the whole thing look completely effortless. I’m, um, still working on that…

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