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Science Writing Prize 2014: How to avoid common mistakes in science writing

24 Apr, 2014

With the deadline for the Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize fast approaching, we thought we’d continue our “How to” series with some tips on how to avoid common mistakes.

Akshat Rathi is the science and data editor of The Conversation UK and has seen his fair share of writing submitted for publication. Here he identifies some of the common mistakes, and shares his advice on how to avoid making them in the first place… 

In science writing, like in life, checklists are useful. Here is one for you to avoid common pitfalls as you sculpt your submission to perfection.

told you once11. Are you overstating or exaggerating?

The most exciting thing about science is that it can have great implications for the future. It is very easy to use these implications as a hook to draw readers. Writers of press releases and promoters of their own work (even if they are respected scientists) can often overstate their case to sell their ideas. That is why, when writing your own science story, you should always be sceptical (see point two).

Only a few science papers published in any year will actually lead to great advances or have great implications. Are you sure you are writing about such science? You don’t want to write stories like “Marijuana makes young brains go to pot“, only to be shot down.

2. Did you check with an independent expert?

Unless you are the expert in a field of research, you won’t be in a place to judge whether the findings of a research paper stand. Peer review is no guarantee that the study doesn’t still have flaws. Make sure to contact a relevant authority in that field and ask them to read the research paper. Ask them the hard questions. Force them to reveal limitations. Chances are that the science is solid but those bold claims in the paper about what the science can achieve don’t stand scrutiny of an independent expert (see point one).

3. Have you edited your own writing?

2349632625_4eba371b56_zAs the old adage goes: writing is mostly rewriting. First drafts are hard, but your story is not done without many, many edits.

If you can, take a good night’s sleep after writing your first draft. When you wake up and read it again, you will find many places where edits are needed. That is not something to be ashamed of. Instead, take that opportunity to make sure it is effortless reading. Fill gaps to maintain logical consistency. Cut out extra words. Get rid of unnecessary details.

4. Are you mixing metaphors or overusing them?

It's not rocket surgery!

Ask any good writer and they will gladly admit to heeding the advice of George Orwell: use metaphors sparingly. If you do use them, don’t mix them.

Science writer Jacob Aaron got it right: “Analogies in science writing are like forklift trucks—when used correctly they do a lot of heavy lifting, but if you don’t know what you’re doing you’ll quickly drive them into a wall of laboured metaphors and cause some major damage.”

5. Are you lecturing your readers?

No one likes to be talked down to, not even students in a lecture hall. When writing, assume that your readers have no knowledge beyond high school science, but always respect their intelligence. Nothing is more off-putting than condescension.

6. Have you checked your facts?

No matter how good your story is, factual errors can kill it. Double-check and triple-check from original sources that you have your facts right. Don’t rely solely on Wikipedia. Don’t trust the numbers even if they come from the mouth of a respected scientist.

7. Would your mum read it without putting it down?

In the process of writing a story, you will have spent a lot of time doing research and learnt plenty of interesting things about the science. But don’t try to fit them all in your story, because you will lose the most interesting parts in the detail.

Stay focused on what is most interesting in your 800-word article, and bring it out for the reader.

"4/366(Y2) - Research" by Nomadic Lass

8. Have you got feedback from a friend?

Your mum may not be your best critic. So before you send your story to a competition or an editor, get a friend or colleague to read it. Having spent many hours working on the same story can make obvious mistakes invisible to the writer. A fresh pair of eyes will catch those.

In a nutshell

DO:

  • Check your facts
  • Edit your own writing
  • Get a friend to read your draft

DON’T:

  • Exaggerate or overstate
  • Overuse or mix metaphors
  • Talk down to the reader

 

The Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize 2014, in association with the Guardian and the Observer is open for entries now. Get writing and submit your piece before the deadline on 11th May 2014 for your chance to win £1000 and a chance to get your work published. We are running a series of “How to” posts giving you tips on how to write a good science story from a research paperhow to interview someonehow to write a science feature  and more in the run-up to the competition deadline. 

Full details and terms and conditions can be found on the Science Writing Prize pages of the Wellcome Trust website. Good luck!

Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize 2014 in association with the Guardian and the Observer

Image credits:  “2008-01-26 (Editing a paper) – 31” by Nic McPhee, CC-BY-SA on Flickr, “It’s Not Rocket Surgery.” by Carolyn Sewell, CC-BY-NC-ND on Flickr, “4/366(Y2) – Research” by Nomadic Lass – CC-BY-SA on Flickr, 

8 Comments leave one →
  1. 24 Apr, 2014 11:35 am

    Reblogged this on Kurui's blog and commented:
    Mission improve my writing. Check number 7. Would you mum understand a thing in your thesis (assuming you are not in the same field) ?

  2. 27 Apr, 2014 2:51 am

    Science writing certainly requires more application compared to regular blog posts or articles. What I’ve found of particular importance is checking the facts, and it reminded me how often referencing is required when writing technical articles.

  3. 19 May, 2014 12:57 pm

    @Shawn: Yes, fact makes the work difficult.

    With the shared info above, I believe participant would be very careful and prepare so much for any writing competition.

  4. 25 Nov, 2014 2:00 pm

    Reblogged this on The blog what I wrote and commented:
    Great advice about science writing from the Wellcome Trust

  5. 18 Jun, 2015 11:34 am

    I’m glad to see Wellcome helping people out on this, but number 7 – while it would have been great advice in the 1980s – is terrible advice in the 21st century.

    There are tens of thousands of media outlets around the world, many of them just duplicating each other. If you want to write for people with little or no interest in science, then so be it (I’m not hugely impressed by Wellcome choosing “your mum” as the example of this audience, but so be it). But there is a huge range of diverse audiences for your output. The world population is 7 billion, and there are millions and millions of people out there who are queueing up to read your readable, accessible, but detailed pieces about science and technology, containing something nourishing and new.

    Dumbing down is good in certain narrow circumstances, but it is no longer an imperative for success, and it is certainly no longer an imperative for reaching a large audience. In fact, quite the opposite: it is a recipe for grey, anonymous, replaceable, identikit pieces of no unique value. Your work is worth more than that!

    Go forth and nerd out, your readers will love you for it!

    • 18 Jun, 2015 1:43 pm

      Clare Ryan who does science/health media relations at Wellcome disagrees, saying “disagree, all writing shld be accessible & readable.”

      I think this is wrong, because it fails to recognise that there are many different publics, multiple different audiences, globally, and multiple different ways to reach them. In the 1980s, when space was short, mainstream media ruled, and information was less accessible, dumbing down made perhaps more sense. Now it is a strategic decision: exactly which audience are you writing for. And because access is more achievable, globally, these days writing for a somewhat dorkier audience still means writing for vast audiences of millions of people, right on your doorstep.

      I hope it’s also okay to say that the “everyday sexism / ageism” of Wellcome using “your mum” as a cipher for “ignorant”, in the article above, is also problematic!

      http://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2011/02/21/calling-out-gendered-advertising/

      (via @mewtopia)

  6. 21 Jun, 2015 9:46 am

    Read the Feynman lectures: it’s quite possible to communicate super-complicated ideas in a way that (many,though doubtless not all) people will find engaging and accessible….and they will find the detail inspiring and beautiful.

  7. 30 Dec, 2015 9:21 am

    Thanks for the article, especially point 5 and 7. I’m just starting a new patient-oriented blog at http://imedicaltourismcenter.com and the trick about it is that it will cover specific medical conditions that should be brought to the reader in a clear and concise way. I guess my mum should make herself ready for a whole bunch of articles:-).

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