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This is a guest post from one of our judges for the Chemistry World Science Communication Competition
Communicating science, like any kind of journalism, typically has a formula. There are good reasons for this. Readers need to be able to get to the news very quickly, often in the first sentence and usually at least in the first paragraph. They also need to be told what is really new – not generalities such as ‘Researchers have developed an amazing new material/drug/device’, but what really distinguishes the new work from what has gone before – and most of all, why they should care. In attempting to get this right, I always try to repeat to myself the mantra that I learnt from the veteran science writer Tim Radford: ‘No one has to read this stuff.’ The trick is to make them want to read: not with false promises, hype, or sensationalism, but with smart, concise, and perhaps witty writing.
OK, so much for the formula. Rules are, of course, there to be broken – but only if you have a very good reason to do so. A rigid adherence to tradition can be the death of good writing. I don’t advocate gimmicks for their own sake, but there are doubtless more valid ways to grab a reader’s attention than with a first sentence that basically tells the whole story. You might want to use the first paragraph to describe a compelling first-hand scene or encounter, or to pose a tantalising question. To my mind, the winners of this competition might simply do a great job with the standard ‘news story’ template, or might surprise us with a totally new approach. Don’t feel obliged to do either – just think about what will make the piece work.
Be wary of words that strain for effect. Readers won’t necessarily believe that what you’re describing is ‘amazing’, ‘revolutionary’ or ‘gob-smacking’ just because you say it is. Words like this have to earn their place, and usually there are better alternatives anyway. When the writing is good, it doesn’t need to be pumped up with adjectives on steroids; in fact, they usually detract. At the same time, be wary of falling into science-speak. It’s easy enough to avoid obvious jargon, harder to steer clear of scientists’ habitual turns of phrase, such as the passive voice or comments such as ‘The crystal structure showed that…’. When things get a bit technical, it’s often best not to try to explain everything – the trick may be to persuade the reader that they know, rather than reminding them of what they don’t.
Of course, there’s no substitute for a good story. These aren’t easy to find, so take your time. It could be something surprising, or important, or fun, or perhaps even shocking or disturbing. Whatever the case, you have to be clear what the story is, which means being able to express it in a sentence. You might not use that sentence, but you have to be able to write it. Now have fun!
Philip Ball is a science writer based in London, UK
Find out about the Chemistry World Science Communication Competition and submit your entry here.