Taking the struggle out of science writing

Why should science writing for a general audience be intimidating? Two reasons suggest themselves: because you don’t know much about the subject, and because you do.

But science writing is at its core just writing, so forget the idea that it’s difficult and get into it.

Let’s suppose your high school science is just a tattered memory, but now you have to interview a biologist who discovered something about how an important enzyme works.

To crack tough topics, Molly Bloom, host and co-creator of Minnesota Public Radio’s Brains On broadcast, offers some advice: Embrace your naivete, and ask questions from the ground up.

For example, ask the scientist for a statement of the discovery, then start breaking it down. You may ask what an enzyme is or what it does. Then close in on the particulars: “You say enzymes convert one chemical substance into another? And the enzyme you study converts—what into what? What do those substances do? Why is converting one to the other important? And you say your discovery affects this process by speeding it up?”

Finally, the kicker: “How does this benefit society?”

Questions like these will help you find a way to describe all kinds of discoveries and give the audience a reason to care. This connection belongs at the top of your story.

Along the way, you might ask the scientist for an analogy or metaphor to help visualize their work. In this case, the biologist may say enzymes and the substances they change are like a lock and key. When a key fits into the lock, things happen.

But if you have a background in the subject, you may want to skip a few steps and suggest your own analogy. If the scientist likes it, congratulations. If they offer a different analogy, you achieve even greater clarity about their work.

Of course, if your training is in science, there’s the danger that you’ll try to fill out your stories with background facts that aren’t as true as they used to be. Also, your audience may not share your reasons for finding a subject endlessly fascinating.

To minimize the first danger, try imagining things from a child’s perspective. To avoid the second, run the first draft by a friendly—and tolerant—lay person.