Decoding Science Writing

Manjula Kandula

Dolly, the world’s first cloned sheep was born on 5 July 1996. It was an epoch-making milestone in science and opened the door to understanding creation. Noted science journalist Gina Kolata broke the news nationally in The New York Times and was the first reporter to speak with Dr. Ian Wilmut, the embryologist who cloned Dolly.
Dolly lived a pampered existence at the Roslin Institute, Edinburgh, Scotland. She mated and produced normal offspring in the normal way, showing that such cloned animals can reproduce. When she was only six and a half years of age, she suffered from a tumor and had to be euthanized. This brings up a fundamental question. Can clones really be as healthy as naturally born animals? Scientists reason that Dolly died young, but then she lived indoors and didn´t have the typical life of a sheep. On the other hand, several clone mates of Dolly are over nine years of age and doing fine.
A discerning eye can see that there are two sides to the cloning story. It’s a story that any science journalist would love pick up to create eye-catching reports.
Science journalists play a pivotal role in society – they explain the how and why of important scientific advances. They often tailor esoteric knowledge in a manner that is intriguing to their readers.

Science writing and science journalism are often used interchangeably. Perhaps the key difference between these two related professions lies in the approach to science itself.

Science writers clearly and accurately describe interesting science in plain language. Science journalists get to the bottom of a story, to figure out what’s really going on behind the scenes, identify the main players, and see what the real “scoop” is.

Either way, simplifying science is a challenge because one cannot distort scientific facts and convey the wrong meaning to readers.

Whether one wants to take up science writing or science journalism, the bottom-line is the ability to write well. You need to have a knack of identifying good and contemporary topics, and have strong research skills. You need to organize your facts in a manner that tells the story precisely and succinctly. You might also want to include pictures and graphics to supplement the story telling.

While it is easy to grab the reader’s attention while reporting a sports event, science articles need more care to catch the reader’s eye. You need to have an intriguing ‘anchor’ or ‘peg’ in the beginning of your article. For example, in a health-related article, writers often use a case study (with fictitious names) as an anchor. Bringing up a case study makes the reader empathize with the ‘actors’ in the story.

Good headlines help catch the readers’ attention, so most newspapers spend a lot of time in phrasing the headline because it’s not merely the content of the article but also the headline that sells.

Subjects like health and medicine enjoy a constant interest while articles in physics often have niche readership. Astronomy has bursts of readership during events such as an eclipse or an asteroid sighting.
Science and ethics are also closely interlinked and this makes science reporting even more challenging. For example, the European Court of Justice has banned – on ethical grounds – the issuing of patents for embryonic stem cell research. The judgment is designed to prevent the commercial exploitation of discoveries, which involve the destruction of human embryos.
Good science writing depends less on sensationalizing science and more on reporting facts in an elegant manner.
To use a baker’s analogy, you can either hastily turn over a cake tin and crumble up your dessert or gently tip the tin over to uncover a beautiful cake. How you unravel your story does makes a difference, especially in science writing.

About the Author

Manjula Kandula is a documentation manager at Ariba, Bangalore. Prior to that, she has worked at VMware, Sun Microsystems and Hewlett Packard as manager and technical editor. She started her career in writing as a science journalist at Deccan Herald. She has a PhD in biochemistry from the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. Her hobbies are reading, listening to music and going for long nature walks.’

One Comment

  1. Here is a case for a science-loving writer to enjoy his/her work too!

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