Science writing tips from former Nature editors and OBR

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          Minard’s graphic of Napolean’s Russian Campaign. Purported to be near perfect. 

Why is a blog post on a scientific writing workshop so difficult to write? Perhaps it’s the vision of a reader slowly nodding with a slight smirk thinking, “I love the author’s ironic inclusion of mistakes in a post of pointers,” when in truth, I’m not that witty? Publicly posting writing of any kind, scientific or personal, makes the author vulnerable. Writing on writing tips only exposes the author more.

With that introduction I have already ignored several of the tips presented by Richard Gallagher and Natalie Dewitt to 50 graduate students and postdocs eager to improve their science writing skills Monday February 24th at the University of California, San Francisco. The event was hosted by Oxbridge Biotech Roundtable and moderated by Ben Cohn. Below are some of the tips from Gallagher and Dewitt, who are the founders of Accendo Editing and former editors at Nature.

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Know your audience

Employ the following advice always keeping your audience in mind.

Titles

Avoid clichés, colons, incorporation of acronyms into words, and inform.

In my first conference abstract of graduate school I broke two of the rules above with: “Forging a Genetic Tool: The Quest to Increase Homologous Recombination Efficiency in Toxoplasma gondii”. My graduate lab loved catchy titles. Fortunately, my “forging a genetic tool” isn’t overly cliché, returning few relevant Google results. On the other hand, Dewitt’s example of “mending broken hearts stem cells” returns over 90,000 results!

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Colons are a technical issue as they interfere with some search engines and importing titles with colons can result in weird changes to the title structure.

The incorporation of acronyms into words like “Grb-ing receptor activation by the tail” experiences a love/hate reaction from readers. Is a catchy title worth decreasing readership over or increasing criticism from irritated readers? 

Acronym incorporation can also be at the expense of informing your audience.  Titles like “Death by Numbers” and “An Open and Shut Case” provide no indication of an article’s content and may be overlooked.

Clarity

Use short words, short sentences, and short paragraphs. Graphics are important. Tell a story and don’t show off!

Anglo-Saxon language is the language of the people and the language of short words. It is concise and sharp. Anglo-Saxon dialect selects “use” over “utilize”, “by” over “via”, and “help” over “facilitate” as pointed out by Dewitt. Carl Zimmer’s “The Index of Banned Words (The Continually Updated Edition)” is helpful for eliminating superfluous language as well. Short sentences and short paragraphs will follow suit as you are mindful of clarity in your writing.

Well-crafted graphics can say more in a small space than words can in an equivalent space.

The Inverted Pyramid of News Writing is an example of such a graphic and it lays out a good method for telling a story in science writing. If your writing doesn’t flow and tell a clear story you will lose or confuse your readers.

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If you stick to short words, sentences, and paragraphs you will avoid the showy vocabulary or sentence structure better suited for Victorian fiction. Another trap scientists writing about science fall into is the need to prove their expertise through excessive detail. Stick to only what is necessary for the audience. If this pains you, try adding links for additional reading to the end of an article.

Minimize bias

Include alternative viewpoints and quotes from external experts and minimize hype.

Often I lazily overlook the inclusion of alternative viewpoints and quotes from people not involved in the subject of an article. For instance, in my blog on contract research organizations (CROs) I did not include the drawbacks of CROs. In my article on Mundipharma I neglected to include quotes from people outside of the patent acquisition deal. Such inclusions would strengthen the articles.

Odds are you are not working for Fox News so avoid the impulse to tell us how kittens are unwittingly killing us. Verify the hype surrounding novel discoveries through quotes from outside sources before reporting it. Excessive hype will only decrease clarity and perceived competency.

Engagement

Gotta have soul.

Gallagher defines the objective of science writing as, “To communicate knowledge that has been gained through scientific investigation in an accurate, engaging, and instructive fashion.” Accurate and instructive are easy enough for a diligent, detailed, and informed scientist but engaging is an art and something with which I struggle. The advice from Gallagher on adding soul into your science writing and keeping it vibrant is to include the human aspect of science. Did a novel discovery come about because of a researcher’s personal experience?  Who will personally be affected by a new regulation and can you include a quote from them?

Finally, a “hook” to bring readers in, perhaps by drawing a parallel to something universal or emphasizing the broad impact of your subject, is helpful.  Be careful with metaphors, though. See Philip Ball’s Nature article “A metaphor too far”.

Social media

Blogs, Twitter, and social media matter.

If you aspire to be a science writer you need to show an active interest and have an accessible example of your work. A blog meets both of those needs.

An active Twitter feed is equally valuable for showing your interests to potential employers in any field. Carol Stephen’s post “Twitter by the Numbers” provides some good guidance on how to manage your following to followed ratio. I use Twitter as a professional tool and manage my following numbers by not following my Facebook friends unless they maintain an active scientific/professional presence on Twitter. I also keep my tweets inline with my resumé and focus on professional development or interests listed on LinkedIn. As an engineer, I love congruence and clarity so keeping everything in my network reflective of and supportive of each branch is important.

And finally The Hook:

Why should busy scientists care about science writing and invest the time in improving? An article by Andrew Balas in the Journal of American Medical Informatics Association identifies the lag between significant discoveries in the lab and adoption into routine patient care as 17 years on average. Much of the burden to accelerate adoption falls on the discoverers and their colleagues to spread the information rapidly to a broad audience. If all scientists put forth the effort to improve their scientific communication and invest time in using instantaneous tools like social media, how much faster could people’s lives be impacted? This is why scientists should care. 

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