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Saturday, 29 December 2012

Effective Science Writing

Look me up on the web, and you may find that I have said that I sometimes do pro bono work—if the task is interesting and/or the cause is a worthy one, but preferably both.

So when Pramila Majumdar asked me to help out by writing a chapter in a book called Effective Science Writing, I jumped at it. Yesterday, I got an email to say that it has been launched in India, and I will get a copy in due course.

The launch party, somewhere in Assam, December 28, 2012.
As it is now out there for young Indian science writers, I thought I would share the chapter that I was asked to write, as I submitted it.  Note that this is unedited, but it is there for general consumption. [Note also that I have added a few updates, which appear, like this, in square brackets and red text.]

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3. Things to keep in mind before you begin writing
Peter Macinnis is an Australian science writer. Trained as a biologist, he has been a secondary science teacher, a systems bureaucrat, a fraud investigator, a museum educator, a teacher of computing and the in-house science writer for an online encyclopaedia. He has been writing and publishing books related to science for 40 years, and working as a freelance broadcaster for Australia's ABC since 1985. He writes popular history (with a science bias) for adults, and has had children's books named as "notable" in three of the past four years by the Children's Book Council of Australia. These generally have a science theme.
His Australian Backyard Explorer (published by the National Library of Australia) was the CBCA's Book of the Year in the information books category [in 2010]: it looked at the people who mapped Australia, and the science and technology they had to use. [It was listed later in the 2011 White Ravens awards. His 2012 sequel, Australian Backyard Naturalist, recently won a Whitley Award from the Royal Zoological Society of New South Wales.]

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I have a brief of sorts to write this chapter. In it, I was asked to discuss these topics:
Understanding your readers;
Searching for stories and;
Where to publish;

I was also asked to add other important ideas. I will deal with these:
Fitting science into unlikely places;
Setting down a plan and applying it;
Keeping a full record of ideas, information and sources;
Being open to revision;
When to write the ending;
How to know what information is reliable;
Why you should always listen to your editor;
The importance of networking.

I am writing this introduction some days before I will start writing the main text, and I am copying the points above from my notebook, ten minutes after I scribbled them down. The final product will probably be very different, but I plan to leave this introduction unedited. That may be the most important thing I do here, because it shows how I think.

Note that I used a paper notebook and an old-fashioned pen for my first sketch of this chapter. I always scribble some rough notes, and I will come back to that later, but it is important for the reader to realise that I am almost totally reliant on computers for my productivity.

My first step, at this point, was to take those 11 points and paste them in below this introduction, using the same order as above. I formatted them (in MS Word) as headings. I added full stops at the end, then opened up some space between them so I could start inserting text in blue italics. The blue text works like the scaffolding on a building site, and all the blue bits will be demolished at the end.

This is the end of the introduction that will not be revised. After this paragraph, everything may be revised and changed as I work my way into my thinking. From past experience, I know it will be!

Why communicate science?
I do it because I love and admire science. I hope I can help reduce the amount of stupidity in the world by helping readers to understand the role of science and technology in their lives. I want to show people how to assess the claims of flat-earthers, perpetual motion eccentrics, medical frauds, climate change deniers, opponents of evolution and other charlatans. Some of the frauds are confused, others want to make money by confusing people, but they can all be rejected by people who understand science. I don't try to beat the frauds, I try to make people more able to see what the crooks are doing.

I want to make my readers immune to unfounded fear, while being able to assess the very real risks that can emerge from some kinds of science and technology. I want them to see the opportunities of new science and technology, I want them to be able and willing to grab those chances and use science and technology to help other humans. I want them to know how to learn from previous mistakes.

There was a famous World War I French general, called Marshal Foch, who began every planning meeting by reminding his staff that the key objective was to defeat the enemy. Only then, knowing that, would they start their meeting. Before I start to write, I sit down and ask myself whether I plan to help people understand, or if I want to win hearts and minds, or to fascinate them—or maybe I just want to amuse my readers. Most of the time, all of those will be in the mix, but I need to know what I hope to do.

Point number 1: aside from earning a living, what are you going to do with the story you are sitting down to write? What changes will it make? (I hope that this chapter will help people focus more closely as they write about science.)

Searching for stories.
There are excellent sources around for science writers, because most researchers out there want to be famous. Finding material is never the problem, but keeping your head above the flood and finding the right material can be a real challenge. Behind all those researchers hoping for fame, there are public relations people, pushing easy angles that lazy journalists can use. By all means read them, but never trust a press release as a major source!

Many press releases seem to promise a better way to do something, but the most common line is a cure for <the common cold; multiple sclerosis; cancer or some other disease>. Lots of new drugs might one day lead to an approach that may generate a molecule that might attack an obscure cancer, way off in the future. Most of the time, the discovery will go nowhere, but a PR person will dress this up as an amazing, absolutely certain cancer cure.

Remember that most discoveries are interesting and offer a story to tell, but only a few discoveries are breakthroughs. Remember also that there are things a science publicist might do or say that no professional science communicator would do or say. The publicist and the communicator both want people to go "wow!" but only one of them wants that to be a reaction to the science.

Press releases can be useful, if you know who to trust. Between 1998 and 2005, I churned out 30,000 words of science news each month. It was a treadmill, but an easy one, because I had all sorts of people alerting me about interesting stuff. I began with Eurekalert and Newswise, where I signed up for lists of the press releases that were placed on those two databases each day.

The best part of that is that both Newswise and Eurekalert are free. The first is some sort of consortium, the second is run by AAAS, the American Association for the Advancement of Science. You can find them at and The second best part is that this search can look back at all of the stories containing a key word, so you can see how else a topic has been in the news.

The third best part is that you can work out who are the good feeds with information that you can use. I had a good personal relationship for some years with the American Geophysical Union, and could get copies of the actual published papers, so I could read at least the abstract and conclusion, while skimming over the discussion. When I found a good source, I would ask them to put me on their mailing list, and set of one my email filters to sort those emails into a special priority box.

Mind you, that was before Twitter. These days, you just need to select who you will follow with some care, and then the world's news will come to your door. I don't use Twitter that much, because I mainly do books these days, but I still follow Newswise, Carl Zimmer, ConversationEDU, Guardian Science and tedtalks.

Sometimes, a story will find you—and those ones are often the best. Many years ago, I was looking at a law that was proposed by two Frenchmen, Dulong and Petit, a rule of thumb that ties atomic weight to the specific heat of an element. I though that was rather clever, went back to their original work, and started converting the data into modern units. Then I pulled down a chemical data book, and found some odd discrepancies, and realised that I had uncovered a fraud that had been unnoticed for 165 years.

Later, I found that a couple of other people had noticed the fraud at about the same time, but by then, I had done a little radio program on it and got myself known. I have never looked back.

Point number 2: there is never any shortage of material to work with, and there is a story in almost everything, if you look at it the right way. (I have drawn almost entirely on experience to write this piece, but I also chatted with am couple of friends who are in the same game.)

Fitting science into unlikely places.
Many years ago, I was one of a group of bushwalking science teachers. We often took some of our students along with us on day walks, and we always managed to find a few interesting bits of geology or biology to show them. Then one of my friends bought a brilliant book called Science As You Go, and we realised that we could bring in chemistry, physics and even astronomy, even in the wilderness. That was how I learned to look for the science in almost anything.

I like bringing out the science behind curious things like the way seagulls follow behind the ferry that I ride to and from Sydney; or the science behind sand that squeaks when you walk on it, or the reason why poisons work as they do; or even how an orb-weaver spider makes its web, and why it always makes it across the garden path I need to walk along each morning. One of these days, I am going to write an essay on this quote from one of J.B.S. Haldane's essays, 'On Being the Right Size', from Possible Worlds.

You can drop a mouse down a thousand-foot mine shaft; and, on arriving at the bottom, it gets a slight shock and walks away, provided that the ground is fairly soft.  A rat is killed, a man is broken, a horse splashes.
Maybe I won't, though I would love to. What I do know is that a comment like that makes a science piece truly memorable. If people smile about it for a few days, they are thinking about it, and that principle is lodged in their minds forever.

Science communicators should avoid trying to be comedians, but the occasional memorable line makes the reader recall, relish, and roll over the facts that lie beneath it. The best place for that wry or clever comment is usually at the end of the piece.

One of my zoology lecturers once told us "a female whale evaginates her teat and the calf clings on while she pumps out six to eight gallons of milk in as many seconds." That was interesting, but what made it stick in my mind, 45 years later, was his extra comment that "if the calf doesn't hang on, it gets a face full of milk".

Point number 3: there is always a place for humour in a piece, but it should be humour that serves some purpose other than making people think you are a nice person. (I am prepared to bet that half of my readers will tell somebody either the Haldane quote or the amazing whale fact.)

Creating a beginning.
I never consciously sit down and wonder how I am going to begin a piece. I suppose there must be a point where I think of my start, but usually, the beginning emerges from the real facts that made me think of writing a piece.

The start is important, and fiction writers know this. They work endlessly over the first page, trying to create the perfect hook that will keep the reader hanging on while they do the necessary foundation work. Pick up any best-seller, read the first page, and look for the hook. It will be there, and you need a hook as well.

I think I mainly use one of these tricks:
The plain news piece. This is fairly ordinary, and also fairly common. You simply write up a discussion of what a scientist somewhere has reported and then explain why it is important. Fort a bit of polishing up. You can set the scene first, and then cut to the new discovery.

The direct question. This is a fairly straightforward situation where you ask the reader if he or she has ever considered why something is important.

The indirect question (I was showing a trigger plant to a friend who asked . . .)

The completely irrelevant anecdote that suddenly becomes relevant later on in the piece, or even at the very end. This one works well when you are a bit older, and have the experience to think of an anecdote you can use.

The atmospheric, a trick piece where you set the scene and then work your way in from there. This is a subset of the irrelevant anecdote, but it can work very well.

No, I'm not going to do it all for you. As a science communicator, you are an essayist, and the only way to learn your craft is to study with the masters. Here, I have to confess myself ignorant of good role models from the sub-continent, so I will suggest a method to use if you are writing in English. I leave it to you to undertake the translation of this into a more local method, but I am sure that it can be done.

I can recommend Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt and Leigh Hunt for writers of the past. In more recent times, there are Walter Murdoch (and Australian, and the uncle of Rupert Murdoch, but don't hold that against him!), J. B. Priestley, George Orwell. Or you may prefer to look at the science essayists like Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Martin Gardner, Stephen Jay Gould, Sir Peter Medawar, Oliver Sacks, Lewis Thomas, Lewis Wolpert—and J. B. S. Haldane, who alone among those on this list, had an Indian connection.

You can also search more widely, looking online at the intelligent pieces written for the New Yorker or The Guardian. Or you might try an Australian radio program called Ockham's Razor (one to which I sometimes contribute). This draws mainly Australian contributors, but it also gathers speakers from all around the world. They must all speak for 15 minutes, less a top and tail, about 2000 words, and the quality is patchy but often reaches sublime levels.

I suggest that you gather a collection of perhaps 60 pieces that you really like, and 15 or 20 pieces that leave you uninterested. Then analyse these, as if you were a forger of bank notes. Make lists of the methods used, the tricks of the trade, the flourishes, and rate them. :Look at the low-rating ones, and if you think they are useless, remove them from the list.

Once you have your methods, you can make a deliberate choice of the tricks you will use in a piece. In this way, you will make these tricks part of your tool-kit, and before long, you will use them naturally.

Point number 4: know before you start how you plan to begin. (Once you have done that, you will probably know how you are going to end.)

When to write the ending.
I like to start with a good idea of how I will end a piece. If I don't quite know what that will be when I begin, I try to have an ending in place by the time my first draft is 40% complete. By that time, I will have most of the key points set down, but I will probably be starting to ramble.

Recently, I have been writing a set of children's books, each of about 1500 words, each one to have 17 "openings", with a picture on one page, and text on the other. I write the first six opening to get the story line set, then I write the ending, which is often two or three openings in length, then I fill in the middle section.

About a third of the time, I will later change my first ending to a better one, but at least I didn't waver and wobble.

Point number 5: know as quickly as you can how you plan to end—and before you start writing is best. (Only then will you know where you are going.)

Keeping a full record of ideas, information and sources.
From time to time, even the most focused writer is going to falter, wondering just what brilliant idea was supposed to be going there, or just where that idea came from. That is the reason why I started storing everything in a spreadsheet, about ten years ago.

Mow I know what spreadsheets are supposed to be for, but I heard a story of an old Sydney sporting journalist who used to write news stories in Visicalc. And I realised that he was doing one paragraph to a cell, and then using numbers in another column to sort the cells. It's something that journalists used to do in the days of typewriters and hot metal typesetting, when we used copy paper and double-spaced our paragraphs on that.

I realised that I could do a lot more, because you can sort on three different columns, so I started adding three columns on the left: chapter, part and number, as well as whatever datum I had found and its exact source.

But I hadn't finished yet: I could sort at other times by date, or place or topic, and compare items from different places and then sort again and move everything back into sorted chapters.

The example here is from an incomplete research database for a study of gold rushes and gold lust, around the world. The text in column F already totals more than 120,000 words, twice the length of the book I plan to write.

From time to time, I spot something interesting but not for the book in hand: labelling it chapter 99 pushes it to the very bottom, and because I always use the same layout, I can quickly scoop up those odd bits and move them into a more relevant spreadsheet at some later time.

The thing about my spreadsheet system is that it works like a large number of filing cards that I can shuffle in a variety of ways. I can sort all the entries by year or date, or by the place where they happened. This helps me to see patterns that I might otherwise miss.

Point number 6: plan and record from the very start, because there will always be one vital point that your editor will query or doubt. (Good record-keeping saves time and avoids headaches.)

Setting down a plan and applying it.
Some 3000 words into writing this chapter, I took a break and slept. I awoke in the early morning with a fairly well-formed outline for a general-market book with a strong science bias. Even before my first cup of tea, I noted down six chapter headings, and a few things to chase up. Now I can get on with this, knowing that I won't lose those ideas.

The plan is your helper, not a tyrant. As I work through this in Microsoft Word, I have the Document Map open, and every so often, I type a paragraph that I realise is more relevant to one of the other sections. When that happens, I move it. I have already shifted many of the headings, added a new one and merged two others, but I am still following the plan.

Point number 6: always have a plan. (Starting to write without a plan is like trying to explore Norway without a map or compass. It may be interesting—until you fall into a fiord!)

Understanding your readers.
You need to know what your readers expect, which means knowing what they are likely to understand.

Most readers know little of other countries' idioms, so you need to "fit in" and make your writing appear to come from one of them. It have learned that Americans have only heard of one civil war, so where we might write "the US Civil War", they just say and write "the Civil War". Every audience has its own peculiarities.

Think about the age of the audience, the strength of interest and type of interest that they will bring to their reading. Are the readers going to understand what it means to think like a scientist? Will they know that science is often puzzling, going against intuition?

For example, if we just examined the world in our lifetimes, we might say that species don't vary, because we can't see it happening. To explain evolution, we have to make people understand that our intuitive ideas are often wrong.

Point number 7: know you public. (If you don't, they probably won't want to know about you!)

How to know what information is reliable.
You need to choose your source and reference material carefully. There are many traps out there for somebody working on the fringes of journalism, because they are usually decent, honest, reliable people who don't tell lies. There are also frauds who try to sell fake stuff, there are PR people and bloggers whose job is to make pollution look good, politicians who prefer to muzzle the truth out of ignorance or greed.

With experience, you will learn where the charlatans are. For some years, I would not read anything coming out of the US Office of Naval Research, because the stories they released were not only boring and misleading, but every six months or so, the flacks there would release a few old stories again, hoping nobody would notice. I assumed they had a monthly target for press releases, and met that target by recycling. I met their dishonesty by ignoring them.

There were other US colleges with no real research to report, who kept on churning out bland rubbish. This is why, whenever possible, you should find and read the abstract of the paper online, and if you are going to write about it, you should email the lead author or the nominated contact person, and ask for a PDF of the paper. That gives you a chance to form your own opinion.

When I am scoping and planning a book, I will use Wikipedia as a starting point, but I know the traps: I use Wikipedia as a place to find things I should look into. There will always be rubbish there, but the quality stuff is building fast, as more and more people add original material and the sources. To see the sort of thing I mean, I contributed original material to the entries on the Silex Piano and the 1812 New Madrid Earthquake. In each case, I chanced upon original material that no search would have uncovered, and added it.

All I would say is: approach Wikipedia (and everything on the web) with caution. Use those sources wisely!!

Point number 8: trust nobody. (At least until you have double-checked what they say.)

Being open to revision.
Know as you begin that most of your first draft will be changed, either by you or by your editor. All writers are egotists, and the better you are as a writer, the more people will notice that (to be polite) you have a high regard for yourself. That usually shows up as a high regard for what you write. Anybody who can't see how good your writing is can be safely ignored, right?

Wrong. You are being your own worst enemy, because you are up too close to the issues, you care too much about things, but you simply can't make a judgement. The copy editor who questions your work is a friend, not an enemy.

There is another aspect: when we re-read what we have written, we see what we expect to see. All sorts of typos, spelling mistakes and bad grammar can slip past us. One method that I favour is to use software that converts my prose into an mp3 file that I can listen to while I am reading the text. The software I use is quite cheap, as it was designed for use by people with poor vision. You can find and buy it on the Internet: it is called TextAloud.

Against my better judgement, I was persuaded a few years ago to write a history of a World War II military campaign. I was asked to write it so teenagers could understand the complexities of a three-month series of battles on the Kokoda Track. As it happened, the general commanding the Australian army was a coward, a bully, a fool and a crook. My book rapidly turned into a brief of the evidence to prosecute that general. It didn't fit the brief I had been given.

I had a chat with the publisher, we agreed that the manuscript was rubbish, I ditched that draft, went back to my notes and wrote a second draft that told a human story and became a prize-winner. The first draft would never have won anything.

Point number 9: trust your editor. (Editors have a different view, and can often see what you can't.)

Where to publish.
This is the one area where I won't be of much assistance. As I have indicated, I have my networks, my contacts, and a solid reputation for always delivering as specified, on or before the deadline. That helps, but there's another issue that is even more important.

Remember what I said about listening to your copy editor? Here is a secret: editors talk to each other about writers, and they sometimes recommend an author to a published, based on knowing their track record. I rather suspect that some of my most valuable deals would have been missed if they knew me as a difficult character who refused to make changes in the text.

That is why you never refuse an offer, because you never know which one will give you the contacts you desperately need. The same applies to the poorly-paid writing jobs that are offered by magazines published for schools. Most of these have a regular turnover of staff, in part because those magazines go out of business, but also because the editorial staff are always looking for better work. And when they move on, they take the email addresses of productive and helpful writers with them.

The short answer as I see it: it isn't what you know, it's who you know, so you need to work hard to make yourself known.

I have rarely succeeded with a "cold call" where I come in as an unknown and pitch an idea, but it sometimes works. Most magazines offer a list of staff names, and sometimes emails. If they don't provide emails, you can sometimes work them out. Suppose you want to publish in The Magazine, and you know that the email addresses will all be in the form <>, there will be a few email addresses floating around out there on the web.

You need to be tricky and Google <""> (with the quotes but not the angle brackets) or <email AND "">. With luck, this will harvest you enough email addresses to show you how the IT staff at The Magazine generate email addresses for the employees.

(This also works when an airline refuses to pay a promised refund because the call centre says wrongly that the refund has been paid, there is no other phone number and no published email address for the CEO.) 

(Note: the paragraph above is an example of the sort of indulgence that tempts clever writers. Under normal circumstances, I would have deleted it, but I left it in as a warning. While both true and correct, it is smug and doesn't tell the reader anything important. Be ruthless!)

So, once you have a name and an email, send a short email to the editor's assistant: one paragraph on your qualifications and achievements, a second paragraph listing one to three proposed topics, and asking if they would like to see a full outline or a draft. If you get no answer, try emailing the editor instead, but don't mention the earlier email.

I began my writing life expecting to write books and magazine articles. I was lucky enough to find a second strength: the writing of crisp 2250-word essays (this chapter is in effect, two such essays back to back). Then I found myself hired to write science news by a publisher whom I approached about an entirely different project. Luck was definitely a part of it, but persistence also played a part.

The printed book is probably dying, slowly, and magazines and newspapers are disappearing, but there is still a place for crisp prose that carries a message, interests the reader and ends cleanly.

Point number 10: it does no harm to approach an editor with a proposal. (Try to keep it down to one page of 12-point type with your name and contact details at the top, one paragraph about you, one paragraph about the content of the article you wish to write, and a few sentences about why you are well-equipped to write the article.)

Point number 11: good luck, and welcome to a noble profession. (I wrote that, just after writing the introduction—but I hope you guessed that!)

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For more technical tricks, see How I get to write a book, and Planning a book with a spreadsheet. Also, look down the left-hand side of my writing home page and test out the links.]

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