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How To Write A Popular Science Essay

Popular science writing

The text below is a translation of the chapter on popular science writing in Susanne Pelger's book about science writing, Kommunikation för naturvetare (Lund: Studentlitteratur, 2007). The text was translated by the author and is reproduced on the AWELU platform by kind permission of Studentlitteratur.

As an academic, there will be times when you need to explain your subject matter to a non-specialist audience. If you are working in industry, you may have to keep the company board and the investors informed about your research results. Working in the public sector means that you are likely to communicate to the general public. And, as a scientist, you are sometimes expected to write about your research in the lay press.   

Catch the reader

The most crucial thing to remember when writing popular science is that the intended reader is not an expert. Think of the reader as a person with a good all-round education, but with no specialised knowledge and no exceptional passion for the discipline. That means readers have to find your article appealing to start reading. The next challenge for you is to maintain their interest until the very end.

The first thing to do is to find an attractive and catchy title. Compared with the title of a scientific paper, the popular title should be kept short. You are allowed to simplify as well as to generalise, and you do not have to provide all the details in the title. For example, you may well write mite instead of two-spotted spider mite

The most interesting part should be presented at the beginning of the article, and not held back until the final sentence. Otherwise the reader may give up. A good idea is to let a lead paragraph follow after the title; a few lines acting as a teaser. There you can highlight the key message, and give the reader a hint of what will follow in the article.

The aim of a particular project may not always be obvious to a non-specialist. Help the reader by putting your own piece of work into a larger context. A broadened perspective on the subject will make it easier to understand the point of your study.

Also help your readers understand what your results mean. Explain what makes them interesting and how they might be used. Details about methods are less relevant – the reader will probably not try to repeat your experiments anyway.

It might be tempting to tell the reader that your study or your results are interesting. Of course, this is the opinion to be expected from every author, which makes such a statement completely unnecessary. Instead of writing "This is an interesting result" your article should show what makes the result interesting.

The disposition of a popular science article differs from that of a traditional scientific paper, at least in the hard sciences where the various sections, presenting the introduction, material and methods, results and discussion, are separated from each other. In the popular science article, the various parts are integrated instead, and you, as the author, is the one to choose the best way to communicate your message. It is your task to make the contents of the article understandable as well as interesting to a layperson.

Stylistic devices

A common way to make a science subject more lively is to tell a story about the people involved. The researchers’ lives and work can help the reader to understand the circumstances that led to a certain discovery, as well as the significance and consequences of the findings. Some other stylistic devices and rhetorical devices commonly used in popular science will follow.

Concrete example

One of the most common stylistic devices is the concrete example, in which a specific example is pointed out to illustrate a more general phenomenon. Starting with something concrete, you can then go on to argue your claims at a more general and abstract level. The evolution of the eye can, for instance, serve as an example to explain Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Metaphor

Another rhetorical device that is often used in popular science is the metaphor or analogy. It relates to something ordinary that is already familiar to the reader. Drawing a parallel to well-known matters, the metaphor  makes new concepts easier to grasp.

(1) Rain forests are the lungs of the Earth.

(2) Cyanobacteria work like hydrogen factories.

Thought experiment

You can also let the reader perform a thought experiment where different premises are given. Then you can speculate freely without bothering about actual limitations.

(3) Imagine there is no oxygen in the atmosphere …

(4) If we could travel through time …

Narration and fictitious conversation

If you want to go even further to find an evocative way of explaining complicated matter, you can tell a fictitious story, a narration. In its oldest form, this type of story was built on a fictional conversation to illustrate a phenomenon. This form of popular science rhetoric dates back at least to 400 BC when Plato's Dialogues were written.

Dialogue

Another kind of dialogue is when the author addresses the reader to comment on her own writing strategy. In this way, you can make the reader feel more involved and active as a receiver.

(5) By now, you have probably discovered that there is a fourth alternative...

(6) Here, I will in turn go through ...

Personification

To make your article more interesting and vivid, you can allow abstract phenomena to acquire human traits, so called personification.

(7) Cancer cells are put on a diet.

(8) This article will discuss ...

The title

A popular science title should also attract non-specialist readers. Avoid words like investigation and study. It is obvious that the results were obtained that way. Avoid technical terms as well. Usually they repel more than they attract, though there are exceptions. Combining difficult terms with easy ones may sometimes make the reader curious:

(9) Protoporphyrin–the pigment of life

Below, you will find some more examples of rhetorical devices that are particularly useful when writing a title.

Metaphor

The metaphor may well be part of the title:

(10) Membrane proteins–Saint Peter of the cells

(11) Superantigens make the immune system lash out

Quotations and proverbs

Well-known quotations and proverbs express something that we all recognise as true. They can therefore create a link to concepts already familiar to the reader:

(12) Indeed you can see the wood for the trees!

(13) Birds of a feather - do they always flock together?

(14) And God said: Let there be light - preferably modulated light.

Allusion

An allusion is a phrase that makes reference to a common cultural background, e.g. a passage from the Bible or other literary works familiar to the reader:

(15) En eye for an eye, a gene for a gene

(16) To flee, or not to flee–that is the question of the newt

Rhyme and alliteration

The sound techniques of rhyme and alliteration can help you to create emphasis. The rhyme repeats similar sounds at the end of words, whereas the alliteration repeats the beginning:

(17) Genetics and gene-ethics

(18) Callous carnivores compete crazily

Question

You can also arouse the reader’s curiosity by posing a question in the title of your article.

(19) Can you control the genes or do the genes control you?

(20) What has 24 eyes but no brain?

The latter, which has the character of a riddle, could also be classified as an allusion.

Threat and danger

Yet another strategy could be to send a message that makes the reader feel worried:

(21) Toxic algae invade our lakes

(22) Soon the antibiotics may not help you

The recipient might then read your article hoping to learn how to avoid danger.

There are stylistic devices that are less suitable for use in popular science. Any ambiguity, irony and sarcasm could be misconceived, especially in the written text, so it may be wise to avoid them.

Winding up nicely

Just as important as the beginning of your article is the end. An article with no clear conclusion might pass unnoticed. Some kind of punch line is thus needed to wind the article up nicely, preferably one that reflects the introduction.

A good way to conclude could be to look ahead and tell the reader what issues remain to be answered. You can also speculate on the implications that your findings might have. Or you can state what you have learned and what experience you have gained yourself.

Are technical terms allowed?

When writing for a wider audience, we must remember that the reader may not be familiar with all the concepts and terms that we mention. The meaning of concept is the internal image that we have of a phenomenon, whereas term means the word that refers to a particular concept.

Although technical terms are not banned in popular science they should not be overused. All too many unfamiliar words might make the reader lose interest and stop reading. Hence, choose only the most central terms, and consider whether they need to be explained and illustrated.

A strategic move may also be not to introduce the unfamiliar terms at the very beginning of your article. Also avoid using various terms to refer to the same concept (e.g. use only the term protein, rather than both protein and albumin). In popular science, concepts may well be simplified. Instead of alcaliphilic cyanobacteria, the more general term bacteria (or maybe cyanobacteria) might be preferable.

A good term should be

  • unambiguous
  • self-explanatory
  • adapted to the language used
  • precise and not misleading
  • preferably short

(Teknologicentrum TNC. (2004). Fackspråk eller fikonspråk? Om naturvetares språk. Stockholm)

Some concluding advice

  • Make sure that the contents and language of the popular article are suited to a wider circle of readers. Think of the reader as a person with a good all-round education, who is not an expert in your field.
  • Make the title short and catchy.
  • Begin with a general introduction where you give some background information about your project. This will help the reader understand the idea of your work.
  • Describe the methods and techniques only briefly. If the objective of the study is to test or develop a method, make it clear to the reader what purpose the method can be used for.
  • When describing your results, focus on what they mean and how they can be applied.
  • Write an article that is easy to understand and enjoyable to read. Use as few technical terms as possible, and avoid excessively long sentences with many subordinate clauses.
  • Ask a friend (who is not an expert in your field) to read and give honest comments on the first draft. Also ask your friend to correct the language. Rewrite and ask for new comments.
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Print Mar. 13, 2018 of http://awelu.srv.lu.se/genres-and-text-types/writing-in-academic-genres/popular-science-writing/

It’s no secret that sciencehasaPRproblem. Scientists, it seems, are generally viewed as cold and competentbut not warm and trustworthy. According to social psychologist Susan Fiske of Princeton University, a person’s perceived warmth strongly influences how much they are trusted. This presents a problem for scientists, especially in an era when funding, research impact, and science literacy rely so heavily on communicating effectively with a broader audience. Even when seeming warm and trustworthy could help their message be heard, it can be hard for scientists to shake the “cold and competent” stereotype. The authoritative and unemotional way that scientists are taught to write for journal articles is not usually appropriate when communicating with a general audience. Learning the principles of journalistic nonfiction often requires scientist authors to step away from an academic writing style that has come to feel intuitive. Nevertheless, using these styles can make the scientist’s work more relatable, memorable, and trusted.

As an editor at American Scientist, the bulk of my job is helping scientists find their story and craft it compellingly in feature articles or columns. Often there are recurring themes in the suggestions we make to authors, and we are happy to provide that guidance. But for those who don't have an editor to work with, these suggestions may be useful. Since I too was trained as a scientist before entering journalism, these are all principles I follow when revising my own writing, which tends toward some of the standard academic writing habits.

Here are my 12 editorial tips for scientists:

1. Your first sentence must be indelible.

Leave your impression early. Many academics start with something more like a broader impacts statement or an obvious foundational concept in their field, as they would in a journal article. But if you tell readers something they already know in the first sentence, they are likely to think you have nothing to say that they don't already know. You risk losing readers right then and there. If your article contains news of major breakthroughs, many of your readers will completely miss it.

Here are some great first sentences from articles in our archives:

  • “The year is 2024, and I have just brought home my first quantum computer.” (Brian Hayes, “Programming Your Quantum Computer,” January–February 2014)

  • “In 1889, French physician Charles Édouard Brown-Séquard injected himself with an experimental mixture of testicular blood, semen, and extract from dog and guinea pig testes.” (Erik Wibowo and Richard Wassursug, “Estrogen in Men,” November–December 2014 [paywalled, available to members and subscribers])

  • “To put all human knowledge at everyone’s fingertips—that was the grandiose vision of Paul Otlet, a Belgian librarian and entrepreneur.” (Brian Hayes, “Crawling Toward a Wiser Web,” May–June 2015)

  • “Charles Darwin’s voyage aboard the Beagle is legendary in the history of science, and yet one of his notable observations is barely known.” (Thomas Hart, “Phytoliths: The Storytelling Stones Inside Plants,” March–April 2015 [paywalled, available to members and subscribers])

2. Know where you are taking the reader first and then tell them.

I don’t mean literally tell them, as in: "First, I will talk about X and then we find out why Z is related." (Zzzzzzz.) I mean show them—within the first page, provide them with a story that illustrates what is at stake and sets the scaffolding for your thesis. Your reader is busy and has lots of other things to read. They will not read your article unless you immediately let them know why they should, and fine prose is one of the quickest ways to focus your reader’s attention.

Here are some examples of stellar American Scientist introductions. Note that each gets to the point quickly and has a clear thesis statement within the introduction:

3. Each subsection and paragraph is a potential pathway into the text for a scanning reader.

That means the first sentence of each paragraph and each subsection must follow the principles laid out in item 1. Each paragraph should introduce an interesting new idea with a topic sentence.

Also, unlike in academic writing, paragraphs are shorter, to help readers hop on board with each new idea. National Geographic is a great resource for examples of this technique—see, for instance, David Quammen’s most recent article on Ebola. If you compare paragraph lengths within a typical National Geographic feature article to those found in a typical academic paper, you'll see what I mean.

As another example, here is one report I wrote where I focused on dividing up paragraphs to make them more digestible.

4. Questions generally make poor topic sentences.

Granted, framing the topic as a question can be a hard habit to break. The scientific method is built on asking testable questions, and scientists are often trained to begin presentations and journal articles with their questions. But in narrative nonfiction, posing questions instead of stating the topic outright risks leaving out crucial information, such as who is asking the question, why that individual cares about it, and how it was first raised. Introducing how the line of inquiry arose in the first place is usually an important part of a science story.

5. In the same vein, each subsection needs to transition the reader from one idea to the next.

As a section concludes it should signal why the next section follows. During the editing process, one step I take after reading through the manuscript a couple of times is to read over the transitions between subsections, skipping the text in between, to see whether the transitions feel intuitive. A first draft rarely has good transitions to start with, so this read-through and revamping is an important part of the polishing process.

Here are some articles where the authors really nailed their transitions:

6. Stop listing things—just stop!

(Except in tips lists, of course.) Try instead to figure out the narrative tying the pieces of a list together. Used profusely in academic and government writing, lists are an efficient way of communicating points or variables. But they’re dry and can be a real slog for a reader. All too easily they become the place where readers' eyes will glaze over and they will start flipping to another part of the magazine or return to scanning social media. A more intuitive way to communicate such ideas is to talk about how the objects of the list are connected to one another. It might take an extra sentence or two, but the reader will grasp the concepts more readily and remember them better. If a list includes more than three items, consider that a red flag for further scrutiny. If a sentence has lists and follows another sentence with lists, it’s likely that the paragraph containing them needs to be revised.

7. Use the first person.

When describing his or her research, often a scientist is the most important character in the story. Still, I find many scientists I work with fear sounding immodest if they say something to the effect of, “I made this discovery.” Even though the desire to avoid the first person often comes from a sense of humility, text that is essentially autobiographical but avoids first person doesn't necessarily sound humble. It just sounds impersonal. Readers will stop reading pretty quickly if they don't feel connected with the people or places in the story. When done well, first person does not sound arrogant or immature; rather, it lets readers in on the personal side of research—what scientists find compelling, what drives them, what obstacles they had to overcome, the excitement they felt at the time of discovery. It also helps scientists establish credibility with the reader by being open about their relationship to the work.

Here are some great first-person accounts by scientists:

  • David Van Tassel and Lee DeHaan, "Wild Plants to the Rescue,” May–June 2013

  • Terrie Moffitt, Richie Poulton, and Avshalom Caspi, “Lifelong Impact of Early Self-Control,” September–October 2013 [paywalled, available to members and subscribers]

  • D. Andrew Howell, "Illuminating Dark Energy with Supernovae,” July–August 2013 [paywalled, available to members and subscribers]

8. If you want people to understand that a problem addressed by your research affects real people, you need to illustrate the problem by telling a story about real people.

Scientists often want to connect with the public by talking about how their research affects issues of widespread concern. But they are used to talking about these effects in abstract ways, such as giving statistics about groups of people. The stats are important, but they’ll hold more weight and be more memorable for the reader if real people are also written as characters in the narrative. When scientists rattle off statistics but do not talk about how they connect to people’s lives, they risk coming off as cold and distant. Anecdotes may not have a place in science writing, but they are absolutely essential to journalistic and literary nonfiction.

9. Use your audience's lexicon.

Introduce only the terms essential to your story and no more. Even certain words likely to be familiar to readers, like "dynamics" or "mitigate," should be avoided just because they sound jargony and can have different meanings in different fields. Look for alternatives that are more direct. At the same time, avoid talking down to your audience. Sometimes scientists try so hard to make sure everyone is on board that it sounds like they’re talking to middle schoolers, a big turn-off to most readers.

10. When you feel you are done writing, don't just stop in your tracks once you’ve added the last bit of information you’d planned to include.

An article needs a conclusion, but one very different from the kind you might write for a typical journal article. Narrative nonfiction conclusions return to the intrigue, suspense, or line of inquiry the writer established to draw the reader further into the article, providing a sense of closure and wrapping up any loose ends. The conclusion is not just a repetitive summary of everything the article has just said. Try to find some forward-looking insights that show greater context for your work.

Here are some articles in our archives that exemplify well crafted conclusions:

  • P. Kirk Visscher, Thomas Seeley, and Kevin Passino, “Group Decision Making in Honey Bee Swarms,” May–June 2006

  • Peter Buston and Marian Wong, “Why Some Animals Forgo Reproduction in Complex Societies,” July–August 2014

  • Kevin Heng and Joshua Winn, “The Next Great Exoplanet Hunt,” May–June 2015 [paywalled, available to members and subscribers]

11. Avoid passive voice and clunky sentence structures.

Although passive voice is not uncommon in scientific journal articles, it sounds distant, abstract, and stuffy. Today's readers have very little patience for slogging through wordy writing.

12. Write for the readers.

I find that scientists tend to aim their writing toward what they think their colleagues want to read. This is a natural reflex—after all, that’s the audience they’re accustomed to thinking about when they write journal articles and grant proposals. But a scientist’s colleagues will be a minority of the readership of a magazine article. Try to step back, review your own assumptions, and broaden your view of who your audience really is.

When a scientist first attempts writing for the general public, it can sometimes seem frustrating. (Conversely, some scientists feel stymied because writing in a more literary style than the norm for journal articles is frowned upon.) Yet, science is all about challenging existing ideas—learning a new writing style presents the opportunity to broaden your viewpoint as well as that of your audience. In the end, the experience could have an influence on how you approach your research as well as your communication.

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