By: Hannah Pell
This week, I’ve been asked to offer my advice for how to write about science. I’m not going to break #scicomm down into “10 Easy Steps” or organize quick tips in a bulleted list because, well, I don’t think it’s that simple or straightforward. Unlike in physics, there is no formula to optimize a piece of writing; I can’t plug and chug my way through a blog post. In my view, effective communication is a nuanced reflection of our varied experiences; whatever we choose to write about and however we do it are fundamentally intertwined with our own unique voices.
So although I can’t offer an abbreviated how-to guide for science writing, what I can do is try to explain my own approach to it.
First and foremost — what do you want to write about? What kind of science do you want to highlight? Why is it important? Also — and this is key — why should anyone care? Having a solid answer to these questions is necessary to get started, especially the last one. It’s tempting (even automatic!) for us to assume that our interests are shared by everyone, but it simply isn’t true. Acknowledgment that the job is about making your expertise both relevant and accessible is crucial for this work. When I’m brainstorming topics, I try to pay attention to what I’d like to learn more about. Lately I’ve been particularly focused on the energy sector, so I utilize science writing as a way to seek answers to my own questions about the industry. If you let your curiosity guide you, then the excitement of learning and discovering will shine through your work. I am always most excited and invested in my writing when I get to be a learner alongside the reader.
Once you have a topic or an idea in mind, it’s important to consider different approaches to how you want to communicate it and determine which one builds off of your strengths. I would suggest identifying writers, academics, bloggers, YouTubers, podcasters, or other communicators who you admire and learn all that you can from them. For me, many of the writers I’ve been reading are historians of science and STS (Science, Technology, and Society) scholars, whose work has informed my approach to science writing over the last year. I’ve found that I most enjoy asking and exploring questions about physics in its contexts — how it shows up in our everyday lives and how it has changed over time — and I choose topics with that as my guiding motivator.
As far as the logistics of putting a piece together — finding sources, gathering facts, developing structure — I think my best advice is simply to practice. Trust yourself that something useful can be said without every single piece of relevant information; you don’t need the whole picture to offer an answer or introduce your reader to a complex topic. I credit my writing skills (whatever you may think of them!) to my many years spent formally studying music; music taught me to care deeply about my own voice, as well as learn how to become both a better researcher and writer. So start your own blog, channel, or whatever else, and just get to it! You’ll refine your approach over time — I’m still working at it each week.
The last thing I’ll mention is the necessity of finding community. I’ve found my best work often comes out of conversations with those around me. Although the writing process is often solitary, brainstorming and collaborating with other science communicators is invaluable. Whether formal (such as joining the National Association of Science Writers) or informal (Twitter), find those around you who share similar questions and a desire to answer them. (I’d also be honored to be your cheerleader!)
Ironically, this may have been the toughest post I’ve written for Physics Buzz. I hope it was all useful, but I think the main point to take away is this: if you want to dive into scicomm, decide what is motivating you to do so. Do you want to spread the word about the latest research in your field? Do you want to challenge widely held yet potentially inaccurate perceptions of your discipline? Do you want to encourage a new way of thinking about a scientific topic? With your answer in hand, as well as a little bit of time and a whole lot of patience, you’ll be on your way.