Science Writing Workshop
January 29 and February 5, 2008
Location: 305 Bass, 266 Whitney Ave.
Instructor: Carl Zimmer
This workshop will introduce science graduate students to writing about science for a broad, non-scientist audience. Participants will learn about the craft and business of science writing, and the challenges it poses both for writers and those who are written about.
Updates for this course: I will send out emails to participants about any updates, and revise this site accordingly.
First meeting: January 29, 2008, 9AM.
In this session I will lead a discussion about science writing, including topics such as:
- A taxonomy of science writing. I will describe the wide range of opportunities for science writing, from op-ed columns to news articles to television scripts to blogs.
- The craft of describing complex scientific research in clear, evocative language. We will consider several examples from the assigned reading (see below)
- How an article goes from an idea to a finished work. I will describe this process with one of my own articles from the New York Times (see “From Paper to Article” below)
Reading for first meeting: The assigned reading is listed below. Some of it is available on-line. The two books included in the assigned reading will be on reserve at the Kline Science Library beginning the December 4. You might want to consider purchasing both of them; they are excellent introductions to science writing.
From A Field Guide for Science Writers
(Amazon page: Click Here)
17. Deadline Writing, by Gareth Cook. (p.111)
19. Gee Whiz Science Writing, by Robert Kunzig (p.126)
22. The Science Essay, Robert Kanigel (p.145)
Questions to consider: These three writers describe three very different forms of science writing: short newspaper articles, long magazine features, and essays. What techniques are common to all three forms? What are the most important differences? Do you think that these differences are a matter of convention or reflect the essential rules of each genre? How do these techniques impair or strengthen articles about science? Do any of these techniques apply to other kinds of science communications, such as television or blogs?
EXAMPLES OF SCIENCE WRITING
From The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2007
(Amazon page: Click Here)
Michael Lemonick, Time, “Let There Be Light.”
Neil deGrasse Tyson, Natural History, “Delusions of Space Enthusiasts.”
Bill Sherwonit, Anchorage Press, “In the Company of Bears.”
Questions to consider: These three pieces all address science, but in different ways. How does each writer adapt his style to each format? How well does each piece reflect the science? How effectively do you think each one engages its readers? Can you identify some of techniques that the writers use to describe scientific research in ordinary language?
FROM IDEA TO ARTICLE
The idea: A profile of Iain Couzin, a Princeton biologist who studies swarm behavior. See papers listed on his web site, http://www.princeton.edu/~icouzin/
The article: From Insects to Humans, An Instinct to Swarm. The New York Times, November 13, 2007.
Questions to consider: I will give a brief account of writing a long article about one scientist’s research. Compare some of Dr. Couzin’s papers to the article. Does the article fairly reflect his research, and the field in general? Does it indulge in hype, oversimplification, or other weaknesses? How are a series of papers combined into a single article?
Note: I will only be able to evaluate the assignments of the first 25 registered workshop participants. But everyone else is welcome to try their hand at this exercise and to join in the discussion in the second meeting about it.
Read both of these papers from Science:
Write a 500-word piece about one of them.
You are free to choose the style in which you write your assignment. It may be an opinion piece, a piece of straight news reporting as you'd see in a newspaper, or a more creative piece you might find in a magazine. You are not allowed, however, to write a 500-word review that might appear in a science journal. You must write something that a non-scientist would be able to understand (and perhaps even enjoy).
Stem cells and global warming are intensely controversial, and so be sure to address the policy implications, if any, in these studies. You will find many models and tips in the reading assignment that should help in writing this piece.
Depending on your own scientific training, you may be familiar with one of these topics. I would urge you to choose the paper about which you are least familiar. Science writing requires you to get quickly up to speed on complicated subjects. Also be warned: writing about a topic you know very well raises the risk you will slide into incomprehensible jargon.
To research your piece, read the paper, look for any commentaries in the journals, and find background reading for context. Try to find someone at Yale or elsewhere who is an expert in this area who can take you through the research.
Writing assignments are due by Friday, February 1 at noon.
On Friday afternoon, I will send all workshop students assignments from 2 or 3 participants. All students will be expected to read them by the second workshop meeting. Please write a 100-word critique of each article we will be discussing. The critique should describe a strong point of the article, and suggest a way to improve it.
This critique is intended to sharpen our discussion at the second meeting. Please email me your critiques in two separate messages at email@example.com by February 4 at 5 pm. Bear in mind that I will pass on your critiques to the authors of the pieces.
Tuesday, February 5, 2008, 9AM to 11AM.
We will spend part of this session discussing the writing assignment. Most likely, you will have encountered unexpected challenges, which you are encouraged to describe. How did you overcome them? (Did you?)
We will also discuss the sample pieces I will have distributed the previous Friday. You will be expected to offer constructive criticism about how the stories could be improved.
We should have additional time for any topics that students wish to discuss further. One possibility is the “Framing Science” debate. Scientists are currently debating how they should present their research to the public at large and to science writers in particular.
For more information, please read “The Future of Public Engagement,” by Matt Nisbet and Dietram Scheufele, The Scientist, October 2007 (NisbetScheufele2007_Framing_TheScientist.pdf); and Framing Science Paper is Deeply Flawed, blog post by Greg Laden (University of Minnesota anthropologist)