The secrets of science writing
Previous Max Perutz Award judges pooled their ideas to suggest tips for good writing and good science writing.
Like any craft, practice is a means to success. But it’s also essential to survey the field. The first tip for a writer is not to write, but to read. Read Hemingway and Shakespeare. Read the Brontës and Virginia Woolf. Read features and news articles online and in newspapers and magazines.
Learn what makes other writing good. By reading, you imbibe other writers’ styles and techniques, mix them with your own abilities and creative stance, and end up with a style all of your own.
Craft your words
The general rule for clear writing is: think about what you want to write before you want to write it, and write it in the clearest way possible. Avoid excessive use of jargon. If you have to use it — because it is integral to the story you’re telling — explain its meaning clearly.
Be original in your use of language and generally avoid clichés or slang. But remember that great writers do use clichés for particular effects, having thought about them carefully first.
Try to avoid ugly, clumsy phrases and sentences all of the same length. Never use a long word where a short word will do. If you can cut a word out, cut it out — and omit somewhat meaningless words, such as ‘somewhat’. When you’ve finished the article, read it through and cut as many words as you can — you are sure to improve it. Fewer, in this case, is more.
Thomas Mann, 1929 Nobel Prize literature laureate, said: “A writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” Why? Because a good writer is not satisfied until they have worked on every sentence so that it is as crafted as well as possible.
Start as you mean to go on
The beginning of your essay is crucial. It must be a hook to grab the attention of the reader. If you haven’t drawn in the reader during the first few sentences, you’ve lost them. There are a number of ways you can begin — and if you read feature articles in newspapers, you will find that most writers use one of the following methods.
First, you can start with an unusual, shocking or quirky fact. Note that it has to be a little out-of-the-ordinary, otherwise the reader won’t be interested.
Second, use a fictional narrative, drawing the reader in by placing them right in the middle of a scene that they can imagine. The temptation here is to include irrelevant details, but be minimal, and certainly not flowery.
Third, begin with a question, the more intriguing the better. How could a reader not resist finding out the answer by reading on? Fourth, use a quote, but don’t make it too long. It’s only a hook, not a walk-in wardrobe.
Or you could think of a completely original way to start an essay. Whatever you choose, make sure your opening is relevant to the topic you’re writing about, and not simply stuck on like a piece of lace.
Tell the story
So what about the middle? As this exercise is writing about your research, the main part of your article should be exactly that — about your research. Try not to prolong the preamble and to squash the description of your research into a few sentences at the end of the essay. If you write: “Briefly, my research is about…” we may be frustrated that we can’t hear more of it.
Lead us through the story of the science. What do you actually do? If you’ve already got good results, flaunt them. What is the ultimate goal of your research? Is it controversial in any way? If so, you’ve got a tough job because justifying it is part of your mission. Essentially, why does your research matter?
Think about the ideas first and how you explain them when speaking to someone you know. Would they understand it? Would they even care? Is there an original way of explaining it? Do not pitch too high or include too much detail. Test it out on a friend.
Be careful with analogies — they have to work. Avoid excessive metaphors and beware of mixing them. Be wary of using the word ‘imagine’. If you are describing an analogy, the reader will imagine it without your instructing them to do it. Avoid anything too corny. For example, use puns with caution — except for headlines and subheadings, where puns can be effective.
Make it satisfying
The end of the article is important. It must leave the reader feeling satisfied — it’s the end of the story even if it isn’t the end of the research. The ending can reflect ideas and themes within the article, and is often a ‘kicker’ — this a kind of ‘twist’ which may be ironic or thoughtful, and make the reader want to know more. Read newspaper features for examples. Try not to end on a hackneyed or clichéd phrase.
Check your tone
Are you making false claims about the value of your research or sensationalising it? For example, beware of saying that you are just a few years away from a ‘breakthrough’. You may feel the need to be melodramatic — resist, and have confidence that your writing is good enough to convey the research in an accurate, yet entertaining, way.
In general, shun a supercilious or self-righteous tone. Are you making references to your being a scientist and how virtuous you are? If your essay is good, we will know you’re benefiting society and why. Whatever you feel about ‘the press’, do not criticise journalists for sensationalising a story in the past. You now have the chance to communicate the right story.
Know your tools
Finally, and perhaps most crucially, do not neglect one of the most basic rules of style, which is to make sure you know how to use your tools. Love language — the flow of words and sentences, and the way you can use a black and white page to conjure up colourful ideas in a reader’s mind.
Grammar and punctuation are important; the heart of the craft. Don’t make mistakes, because the reader may think you can’t use your tools, and not trust your finished product. Watch your commas. Understand the way sentences are constructed. Read a grammar book.
Break the rules
The third rule is very simple. You may break any of the rules mentioned here, although it helps to have understood them first. “It’s not wise to violate rules until you know how to observe them,” said T. S. Eliot. But when you know, you can flout any convention and be as original and as crazy as you like.
You can take the words and use them as you would chemicals in a scientific experiment — mix them together and analyse the reaction. That is the beauty, the fun and the liberty of writing.