Sensational science writing: To inform or enthrall your readers?4 min read

by Jun 30, 2017Writing0 comments

On July 1st 1858 Darwin and Wallace’s papers on evolution were presented to the Linnaean Society.  It’s an exciting anniversary for science.  But when it comes to reading science, I tend to keep it pure science fiction.  I make the common mistake of thinking that I won’t understand “real” science.  Instead I read “pop” science.  But pop science books get a lot of criticism, so genuine learning can feel undermined.  And, on top of all that, I’m British.  And as a Brit I have to be uncomfortable with the levels of fascination Brian Cox shows about the universe.  That’s too much enthusiasm.  I need to sit in a corner with a cup of tea to recover.

Something is not right.

So I’ve conducted some research for you today.  Don’t all clap at once.  (Because it sounds like one clap, which is disappointing for me.)  I’ve spent the afternoon reading old issues of New Scientist.  This is what I have learned so far;

  • That sexual reproduction would not have been possible without granite.
  • Fat is a beautiful organ.
  • There is a robot that helps paralysed rats walk again.

But whilst New Scientist might be able to pitch their content nicely between the learned and lay reader, academic research papers do not.  And if we don’t understand it, how can we engage with it?

My earliest memory of science writing is learning to write up experiments at school.  I had set sections; hypothesis, materials, method, results, and evaluation.  I learnt you had to take the word “I” out of everything.  Which, although I still believe is a stupid rule, was the first time I had to craft sentences in a specific way.  Well done science, you made me a writer.

So how do we make science writing more accessible?  PLOS published a blog on the 10 rules for writing science.  Keeping it short and simple I might agree with.  Boldness, confidence and focus too.  We can apply these rules across all genres of writing.  But I think keeping science writing purely empirical isn’t always for the best.

Yes, scientific results must be presented clearly, with no flowery language to obfuscate inconclusive results.  But if we logic our way through articles when will we ever (getting back to Darwin) discover that it’s snowing butterflies?

Adam Ruben, scientist and author, feels the same.  “Why can’t we tell our science in interesting, dynamic stories? Why must we write dryly? (Or, to rephrase that last sentence in the passive voice, as seems to be the scientific fashion, why must dryness be written by us?)”

Let’s write clearly when we need to write clearly, but let’s also display our fascinations with our subject.  The best writing always does this, and the best science writing should too.  It’s why Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything entirely deserved to win science writing prizes.  Let’s show delight in our data tables and glee in our gamma rays.

Join with Darwin and Wallace, and let’s disseminate some dissension.

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