The essentials of science writing: What is science writing?

What is science writing?

At its simplest definition, science writing is writing about science. What is central to all types of science writing is that the topic under discussion is a scientific topic; that is, information that has been gathered using accepted scientific methods.

Science writing takes different forms, depending upon the purpose of the author and who the document is designed for. Science writing can create a thesis, a research paper, a report, a blog, magazine article, fact sheet or video script. A scientist publishing a research paper will write for their peers, a journalist writing for a popular science magazine will write for people who are fascinated by science and technology while a technician writing a report may write for other technicians who need to know about a new methodology. The type of terminology used by science writers will depend upon the level of knowledge, education and expertise of the target audience. Scientific terms are only considered jargon if they are used for the wrong audience. Therefore, it is essential that science writers correctly identify their target audience when designing their document.

If it’s not written, peer-reviewed and published, it’s not science

Writing is the foundation of science. Ideas start with a thought, but we can’t walk on Mars or cure Alzheimer’s without writing about it first. All scientists should write and publish their work, otherwise their work will not be considered science; If it’s not written, peer-reviewed and published, it’s not science. New facts, phenomena, dilemmas, hypotheses, theories or ideas all must be written, peer-reviewed and published before they can be considered part of the scientific literature. Anyone can do science and get it published, as long as the methods, analysis and scientific interpretations are validated by peer-review.

Good scientists need to write well and often. For a project to become science knowledge, not only does it need to be written and published (hopefully, in an interesting way), science writing must be read, understood, acknowledged and acted upon.

Who can write about science?

Anyone can write about science, irrespective of background or qualifications, as long the concepts developed and discussed are backed up with solid science and cited accordingly (peer-reviewed, published evidence).

Not all research produces solid science and not all published science is perfect. If the science used to back up a story is not solid, then the language used must reflect that degree of uncertainty. Cautionary language should be used to describe studies that are preliminary, explorative or produce inconclusive or weak results; these include studies that are short or have few samples, studies that have only been repeated a few times, or studies that are based upon assumptions, vague premises or broad hypotheses. Assertive and positive language should be used when studies have been widely validated and when scientific principles are supported by strong evidence. Too often the conclusions made by one small study are taken up by professional and social media with the cautionary language removed.

Science needs to be written

We write about science to inform. We write about science so that others can learn from our achievements. We write about science so that others can repeat what we’ve done, use our results to inform their own research or take the next step and create something new. We write about science to benefit of our community and our environment. We write about science because it is fascinating, mystifying, mind-boggling, intriguing, surprising and sometimes scary.

Science needs to be written clearly

Science writers often need to convince their audience to change their thinking or behaviour. This requires even greater efforts to write clearly and to write well. If you have a good argument and are unable to write it well, your reader will be lost. If your argument is poorly structured or if your writing style is verbose, you don’t stand a chance to engage your audience. If you have a well-written argument, your reader may not necessarily agree with you, but hopefully they will spend their valuable reading time thinking about your argument, rather than trying to work out what you are trying to say.

© Marina Hurley 2018

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