The secrets of science writing - MRC

Planning to write a science article for publication? Use these tips from former judges of the prestigious Max Perutz Science Writing Award to ensure you write an engaging essay that communicates your ideas clearly and effectively.

Read

Learn what makes other writing good. By reading, you imbibe other writers’ styles and techniques, mix them with your own abilities and creative stance, and end up with a style all of your own. Read Hemingway and Shakespeare. Read the Brontës and Virginia Woolf. Read features and news articles online and in newspapers and magazines.

Craft your words

The general rule for clear writing is: think about what you want to write before you want to write it and write it in the clearest way possible. Be sure to:

  • avoid excessive use of jargon: if you must use it, explain its meaning clearly
  • be original in your use of language and generally avoid clichés or slang (but remember that great writers do use clichés for particular effects, having thought about them carefully first)
  • avoid ugly, clumsy phrases and sentences all of the same length (never use a long word where a short word will do – If you can cut a word out, cut it out)
  • read your article through when you’ve finished it, and cut as many words as you can.

Start as you mean to go on

The beginning of your article is crucial. It must be a hook to grab the attention of the reader. If you haven’t drawn in the reader during the first few sentences, you’ve lost them. Consider opening your article with:

  • an unusual, shocking or quirky fact
  • a fictional narrative that draws the reader in by placing them right in the middle of a scene that they can imagine (be sure to minimise irrelevant details – don’t be flowery)
  • an intriguing question (how could a reader not resist finding out the answer by reading on?)
  • a quote, but not an overly long one (it’s only a hook, not a walk-in wardrobe)

Or you could think of a completely original way to start. Whatever you choose, make sure your opening is relevant to the topic you’re writing about, and not simply stuck on like a piece of lace.

Tell the story

So, what about the middle? As this exercise is writing about your research, the main part of your article should be exactly that.

Lead us through the story of the science

What do you actually do? What is the ultimate goal of the research? Is it controversial in any way? If so, you’ve got a tough job because justifying it is part of your mission. Essentially, why does your research matter?

Think about the ideas first

How do you explain the ideas when speaking to someone you know. Would they understand it? Would they even care? Is there an original way of explaining it? Do not pitch too high or include too much detail. Test it out on a friend.

Be careful with analogies

They must work. Avoid excessive metaphors and beware of mixing them. Be wary of using the word ‘imagine’. If you are describing an analogy, the reader will imagine it without your instructing them to do it. Avoid anything too corny. For example, use puns with caution, except for headlines and subheadings, where puns can be effective.

Make it satisfying

The end of the article is important. It must leave the reader feeling satisfied: it’s the end of the story even if it isn’t the end of the research.

The ending can reflect ideas and themes within the article and is often a ‘kicker’, a kind of ‘twist’ which may be ironic or thoughtful, and make the reader want to know more. Read newspaper features for examples. Try not to end on a clichéd phrase.

Check your tone

Be careful to:

  • avoid making false claims about the value of your research or sensationalising it (for example, beware of saying that you are just a few years away from a ‘breakthrough’)
  • resist being melodramatic (have the confidence that your writing is good enough to convey the research in an accurate, yet entertaining, way)
  • shun a supercilious or self-righteous tone (are you making references to your being a scientist and how virtuous you are? If your article is good, we will know how your research is benefiting society and why).

Know your tools

Finally, and perhaps most crucially, do not neglect one of the most basic rules of style, which is to make sure you know how to use your tools. Know the importance of:

  • language – the flow of words and sentences, and the way you can use a black and white page to conjure up colourful ideas in a reader’s mind
  • grammar and punctuation – they’re the heart of the craft.

Don’t make mistakes, because the reader may think you can’t use your tools, and not trust your finished product. Watch your commas. Understand the way sentences are constructed. Read a grammar book.

Break the rules

The last rule is very simple. You may break any of the rules mentioned here, although it helps to have understood them first. “It’s not wise to violate rules until you know how to observe them,” said T. S. Eliot. But when you know the rules, you can flout any convention and be as original and as crazy as you like.

You can take the words and use them as you would chemicals in a scientific experiment – mix them together and analyse the reaction. That is the beauty, the fun and the liberty of writing.

Read judges’ feedback on previous entries to the Max Perutz Science Writing Award

Most of the articles submitted made good attempts at drawing the reader in with attention-grabbing first paragraphs. This is important because if you can’t get the reader’s attention in the first place, they won’t continue to read about why your research is important.

However, some articles failed to keep up with the tone they had introduced in the first paragraph, slipping back into using jargon or the kinds of phrases that you often find in scientific writing: ‘signalling pathways’, ‘receptors’, ‘patient outcomes’ etc. These are not phrases that are used in everyday language, so shouldn’t be used without explanation.

Metaphors and similes are useful devices for getting complex scientific concepts across, and lots of last year’s entrants used at least one device like this to explain an aspect of their research.

But remember to use metaphors and similes carefully, and make sure they aren’t too specific (you want them to mean the same thing to each of your readers). Think twice about using an extended metaphor throughout an article – in some cases these worked really well, but in others they put people off.

Specifically, you should:

  • use the ‘active’ voice (don’t write “I was able to see…” when you could write “I saw…” or “the cells were incubated” when you could write “I incubated the cells”)
  • use first names rather than titles to help personalise the research
  • only include important and relevant information, as readers are restless and will stop reading if you include information that is important only to fellow scientists
  • avoid acronyms if at all possible – even if a protein is known as ABC2D among scientists, it is more appropriate and understandable to use a different name for a more general audience
  • use technical terms only sparingly and consistently, and provide explanations if necessary
  • be careful with punctuation (only use a semi-colon if you are sure it is appropriate and don’t overuse commas)
  • break up your paragraphs, as it’s hard work to read paragraphs of more than, say, 100 words (there’s no hard and fast rule for word count in paragraphs or sentences but if in doubt, put in a break).

Last updated: 17 November 2021

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