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What is Science Writing?
Every scientist is a writer and science writing is at the heart of the scientific process. The difference between curious tinkering and real science is sharing your results.
Despite this, scientists are terrible at teaching writing! They seem to think that just because someone can read they will know how to write. By that logic, people who know how to eat must know how to cook.
Precise and engaging writing is one of the secrets to success in any career, including the sciences. This is true in academia, industry, government, self-employment, or non-profit work. Written content that is compelling and clear will also help you at all stages of your career.
Luckily, since most scientists don’t know how to write, it is an opportunity to get ahead. Writing is a skill – learn the basics, practice regularly, and you will be way ahead of the competition.
Let’s start with the fundamentals: what is science writing?
What is Science Writing? Definition of Science Writing
Science writing is any written or scripted work that communicates scientific concepts. “Science” is defined as broadly as possible – anything from Astronomy to Zoology!
This style of writing is not that different from other writing in most respects. Every writer worth reading tries to be entertaining, persuasive, or informative. Science writing is defined by the challenge of adapting technical concepts into engaging content. Anyone facing that problem should study scientific writing, even if they don’t identify as a “science writer.” To learn more about the roles that science writing plays, see this article on “Why is Science Writing Important?“
Qualities that are particularly important:
- Accuracy – describes concepts in-line with the best available research
- Substantiated – provides evidence or references to support scientific claims
- Clarity – scientific explanations are as logical and as straightforward as possible
- Relevance – scientific concepts are clearly related to the topic at hand
This is relevant for all science writing, but that doesn’t mean there is only one type of scientific writing. There is a critical divide between writing for an academic audience versus general public.
Science Writing Vs. Scientific Writing – What’s the Difference?
What is the difference between science writing and scientific writing? While the terms are similar, some people use he terms differently.
Scientific writing means writing done by research scientists published in academic journals.
Science writing means science-related content intended for the masses.
Personally, I think the terms are too easily confused. Instead, I am using the terms “academic science writing” and “general public science writing,” as they are clearer. “Science writing” refers to all both types.
I wanted to flag this because different people use these terms differently, and it can be difficult to follow.
Types of Science Writing – Academic Science Writing
Billions of dollars and millions of hours go in, and journal articles come out. Science!
Academic publications are the backbone of the entire scientific world. Researcher share results through papers so others can learn and build on their work. Scientists develop their careers on the quality and quantity of research articles they produce.
To do academic writing, you need a Ph.D. or work with someone with a Ph.D. The writing style in almost all academic work is highly formal. Everything is written in the third person, with no contractions and a neutral voice. Academic writing also assumes the reader is knowledgeable about the field. This is to reduce the amount of background information necessary. This also means a lot of scientific jargon and terminology.
The most common types of academic science writing are:
Research articles are the building blocks of science. Each builds off previous work, adding new content to advance the field.
Research articles also have an extremely rigid structure. The majority include an abstract, introduction, materials, methods, results, discussion, conclusions, and references. Most publications also use a combination of figures, graphs, and tables. Length varies based on the field, but 5,000 words is a normal length (this post is about 2,000 words for reference).
Articles also have to go through the peer-review process. This means other experts in the area read the paper and critique the contents. Reviewers must approve the article before it is published. This process is important to ensure the research is of high quality – do the results prove what the authors claim? Reviewers also play a role in evaluating the novelty of the research – does it deserve to be in a prestigious journal?
Research articles use a writing style that is formal, focused, and bone dry. The third-person and a passive tone are common (“The test was completed” as opposed to “I completed the test”). Authors keep an unbiased tone, only making judgments based on research results.
Scientists put out a lot of research. Reading everything published on a given topic is a massive time investment. Review articles help reduce that problem. These articles do not report experimental results, but summarize research in a field.
“Review article” has nothing to do with the peer-review (though they are peer-reviewed). You’d think they would choose a different word, but I guess not. Terms like “journal article” or “academic publication” cover both research and review articles.
Besides aggregation, reviews can point out trends and critiquing theories and methods. Review articles have a more flexible structure than research articles. They can also be neutral or opinionated, but tend to have a formal rigid and formal writing style. They are often longer than research articles and have a ton of references.
Thesis or Dissertation
A thesis or dissertation are documents prepared as part of a masters or Ph.D. degree (“thesis” for masters and “dissertation” for Ph.D). They often consist of an XL-sized review article plus any research articles the graduate student published. The writing style is nearly identical to what is seen in research and review articles; there is just more of it – they are usually over 100 pages.
I’m pointing this out because you may hear things like “Professor So-and-so wrote their dissertation on XYZ.” That sounds fancy and mysterious, but it simply means it that was the subject they focused on during their doctorate. It’s still a ton of work, but there is nothing magical about it.
Types of Science Writing – General Public Science Writing
Science writing isn’t only for scientists! When answering “what is science writing?” I said it covers any writing that describes a scientific concept. This means content aimed at the general public also counts.
General public science writing is part of science communication. Science communication is the effort to share science to non-scientists. This allows scientific research to get outside of academia and impact society. Here are some examples of topics covered by scientific communication:
- Causes of climate change
- Ways to reduce COVID risk
- Nutrition and diet advice
- How products like cleaners, batteries, or adhesives work
- Exploring the origins of the world and the universe
Writing about science for the public offers much more freedom than academic writing. Do you want a formal or informal tone? Do you want to stick to the science or mix in some history or opinion? Short-form or long-form? It’s all up to you!
The best part: you don’t need a silly Ph.D. to be a science writer! Scientific education can help improve your writing, but anyone can start a science blog. In fact, there are a lot of great reasons to start a science blog if you are a beginner science writer.
The most common types of general public science writing are:
Science Journalism and News
Science journalism is a real thing! Climate journalism, science business journalism, and medical journalism also exist! Major outlets such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Vox all have significant science news teams, in addition to science-first publications like Popular Science or C&EN. This may seem obvious to some, but I was in graduate school when I realized “science journalist” was a career.
Science reporters play an important role of informing the public about what is happening in the world of science. Whether it is a medical discovery or an environmental disaster, science reporters will be essential for uncovering the facts, and stitching them together into a coherent narrative.
Science journalism follows the norms of other news. It covers mainly current events, though there is some investigative science journalism. Science reports also use a lot of interviews with experts. Science news tends to be short, but there are are some long form articles as well.
If you want to learn more about science journalism, this article is about is about how a Pulitzer Price winning science journalist does his reporting.
A scientific explainer is what you expect: it explains a scientific topic. These explore “the big picture” rather than reporting on what is happening today. Explainers can provide an introduction to a topic for those learning about it for the first time, or it can they can offer a deep-dive into a niche topic. These tend to be neutral but can be opinionated.
Length is typically longer than a news story but still readable in one sitting. Scientific explainers are often published in newspapers, digital publications, and personal blogs. There is also a ton of YouTube and mini-documentary content that takes the form of an explainer.
Want to learn more about science explainers? This article goes deeper into the subject and analyzes an example of this type of article.
Historical or Biographical Science Writing
Ever want to know more about the history of HIV or read Einstein’s life story? Historical and biographical science writing merges the scientific with the historic. This writing gives us a sense of how ideas advance, or a glimpse into what motivated great scientists.
Like science news, some historical writing about scientists is not science writing. An article focused on Einstein’s private life would not qualify. Historical and biographical science writing can be any length but works well as a book.
Science Opinion and Commentary
Not all science writing is unbiased. There is plenty of fantastic content with a sharp point of view. Scientific opinion and commentary use science as an argument about a broader topic. Content about climate change and COVID often fit this style.
Scientific opinion and commentary is an area that can be ethically complex. Some writers will cherrypick or misinterpret scientific “facts” to defend a political or ideological point. Other writers will blur the lines between what is science and what is opinion. Both scientists and non-scientists will engage in this type of dishonesty, so be aware when reading or writing science opinion content.
Science opinion writing usually fits into short blog posts or articles, but it can be as long as a book.
How Do You Become a Science Writer?
Almost any job in science will involve some amount of science writing. But if you want to become a science writer, there are many paths.
Academic science writing requires a Ph.D. (or to work with someone with a Ph.D). Even if you can find a journal that accepts articles from people without a Ph.D., it is likely sketchy. Not only that, academic publishing itself doesn’t pay! If you want to make a career in research, you will need to get a doctorate.
Luckily, the non-academic writing gigs don’t need as much school. Many science writers at mainstream journalism outlets have either a B.Sc. or a journalism degree. While most successful science writers have some university education in a STEM field, there are science bloggers, YouTubers, marketers, and authors that have no college degree at all.
But how do you get these other jobs? While it is tough to become a professor, the career path is clear: keep going to school until they give you tenure. Other positions do not follow a linear path. These may need more initiation and side hustling.
The basic formula has three parts:
- Show that you understand science (e.g., get a university degree)
- Show that you know how to write (e.g., blogging, freelancing, volunteering)
- Apply to a science writing job
Science writing is a hybrid job. Many employers hire people without formal “science writing” experience. As long as you show you know science and can write, that should be enough to be considered for an entry-level job.
Learn More About Science Writing
Writing is critical to science, whether scientists realize it or not. It is necessary for science progress, allows research to help everyday people, and even influence government policy. If you want your science to have an impact you need to write.
But scientists don’t see themselves as writers. “Writing? That’s what I did back in high school English classes!” It is strange that scientists don’t see themselves as writers given how important it is. The reasons behind this are complicated, but it is hopefully changing. Scientists should become more intentional about how they share research. This means taking your writing seriously.
What’s next? My website is dedicated to teaching science writing and marketing skills to help scientists and aspiring scientists to communicate effectively. This article is part of a series on science writing exploring how to become a better science writer. Follow along, and learn about topics such as: