Advice for Scientists Who Want to Write for the Public

by Rob Dunn

We are working on a new book in the lab called The Book of Invisible Life. In this book, we will compile stories about microscopic species, stories written by both professional writers and by scientists. The scientists involved have been asking for tips about writing for the public and so I composed of list of suggestions. These suggestions are biased as a function of my experience and preferred writing style. They are also biased in as much as my original intended audience was scientists unaccustomed to writing for the public.

1-It is about the people. Let’s say that your topic is Chlamydia. I know and you know that you can write something perfectly interesting about Chlamydia without mentioning people, but the truth is the article will be more interesting if includes people. Readers want to hear about people. If your story is about Chlamydia, it is really about Chlamydia and people. If you don’t know anyone with Chlamydia find someone who does, or, perhaps less awkwardly, find out who revealed the biological story of Chlamydia (seems to be this amazing and rarely written about fellow–

2-Your story needs a happening part. If you string together paragraphs of facts, you have not written a story. You have written a textbook and for as much as teachers tell students otherwise, textbooks are boring. Something needs to happen in the story and then either resolve or conspicuously fail to resolve. What happens can be funny. It can be serious. It can be funny and then serious and then funny again, but it has to happen (Conspicuously, I have given this advice in post in which absolutely nothing happens).

3-It is easier to write a simple story. Look, while you are reading this you are thinking of ways around my suggestions. “Oh,” you might think, “I could write a compelling story without mention of people or characters in which absolutely nothing happens. It will be about a rare beetle.” I bet you could. I believe in you. But to do so is to do things the hard way. Just a piece of advice here. If you are just starting in science writing, you might want to avoid always doing things the hard way.

4-Nouns not adjectives (see more on this from the brilliant Stephen King). The temptation in writing a story is to use piles of adjectives to describe the beauty, awe, tininess, sublimity, grandness and awkward bumbling of whatever it is you are writing about. Don’t. Use strong nouns and verbs. Write simple sentences.

5—Sound like you (I stole this one from Kurt Vonnegut). Your voice should be your own. If you are writing what someone else could write, well, you can take it easy and let them do it.

6-Be relevant. Scientists are trained to study marginal topics. Suggest to a PhD candidate that they might focus on a common relevant species and they will, with a natural inevitability, disappear into the rain forest to study something obscure instead. Perhaps it is reasonable for scientists to focus on the obscure; in the margins we hope for big discoveries others missed. It is not reasonable for writers, unless, in that obscure, the reader can see a broader story, a story relevant to millions of people.

Image 1. Me, with longer hair (or even just hair), in Bolivia where I went to study something obscure.

7-Tell the readers what they want to know (Pity the reader).Write for the readers. When I talk about ants, people almost always ask, “what should I do about ants in my kitchen?” It took me a decade to realize this was my listener/reader saying, “this is the only way your topic was even remotely interesting to me.” You don’t have to give readers the answers they want, but if the reader has a natural reason for caring about your topic, don’t avoid it. Your goal as a writer is to engage as many people as possible in ways that might affect their lives. This stands in contrast to your goal when writing scientific papers which is, as near as I can figure, to write a paper that appeals to thirty people and, in doing so, avoid affecting them in any real way (lest they give you an unfavorable review).

8-Even if it is not about people, it is about people.

9-If you write about scientists, make them human. This doesn’t mean make them seem ordinary if they are not. Scientists include ordinary people. Now that I’ve said that, let’s be more honest, they also include a fair number of folks incapable of navigating the aisles of the supermarket. Tell it like it is—I know a scientist who walked to work wearing two different shoes and only realized it on the way home (OK, that was me, but I digress)—but even odd scientists have ordinary struggles. By making scientists human you let the readers know scientists have daily struggles, problems buying cars, issues finding the right the schools for their kids. You want your reader to relate to the characters in your story.

10-Know your stuff. You need to know a story better to write about it for the public than you need to do to write about it for scientists. To write about a story for non-scientists you need to capture the big story and explain complex topics in ways intelligible to folks for whom the topics are new. Don’t shy away from complex ideas, but explain them with clarity. Doing this requires you to know the details AND the broad picture. Imagine you are trying to figure out things about the field you are writing about that the experts missed.

11-Tritrophic is not a real word. Your reader does not know the words tritrophic, ecological assemblage, genomics or parthenogenesis. That is not because your reader is dumb. It is because scientists made up those words and never told anyone but other scientists. Don’t underestimate the intelligence of your readers. Readers can be very clever, but it is not their job to know all of the words that you and the twelve people you call colleagues made up.

12-Share your joy. You are writing about science because you like science. Your reader is reading about science because he or she likes science. If you share your joy in a piece of the scientific world the reader may well feel joy too. If they do, they might send you a letter and you will feel joy again (After thinking, “I’ll be dammed, an actual paper letter.).

13-Your story can turn at the end in a way that changes the perspective of the reader. It is a great sensation if, at the end of the story, we see the topic you are writing about in a new light. In a short article, this turn is most easily made in the last paragraph. If you are writing a book, well, you have bigger problems.

14-Delete. Cut mercilessly (says the guy who has just written a 1300 word list). Cut extra words. Cut paragraphs. Be wariest of sentences and paragraphs you love; they have a tendency to stick around even when they don’t help. As Arthur Quiller-Couch said, murder your darlings. Delete whole essays. Winnow. Writing improves with practice and winnowing is part of practice. Fill your trashcans with attempts. Fill them with whole books. Share what is left over, the cut stone of a story, a stone that anyone would agree shines. Then start over, and when you do, remember it is about the people.



By |2016-11-22T13:47:21-05:00June 29th, 2013|

About the Author:

Rob Dunn
Rob Dunn is a biologist and writer in the Department of Applied Ecology at North Carolina State University. Central to all of his work is the sense that big discoveries lurk not only in faraway tropical forests, but also in our backyards and even bedrooms. The unknown is large and wonderful and Dunn and his collaborators, students, and postdocs love to spend their days in it.


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    Kathy K. June 30, 2013 at 12:42 am - Reply

    I’ll confess – I’m not a writer. I still enjoyed your list, and as a middle school educator that works with LD and ELL students, you hit the nail on the head!
    I read a lot of online science blogs and magazines, I remember some stories and some I forget, but a great story is much more likely to be remembered. I still remember your story about Mistletoe in Smithsonian magazine, and that was a relatively long time ago.

    The book you are working on sounds very interesting, I will forward to its completion.

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    rosemary June 30, 2013 at 1:17 am - Reply

    great advice! thanks :)

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    Zac June 30, 2013 at 2:46 pm - Reply

    Thanks for the tips. I just started a blog so this was very relevant.

    I especially appreciate the “delete” advice. As someone who has just finished the part of my life where I was assigned essays with minimum word counts and entered the part where I write grants and papers with maximum word counts, this is my biggest writing weakness.

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    Jenny H. July 1, 2013 at 12:25 pm - Reply

    I would add another suggestion: write in plain English. This is really the essence of point #11. If someone has to move their lips to read and understand what you’ve written, it’s not well written.

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    Diane July 1, 2013 at 1:18 pm - Reply

    Great advice! I’m bookmarking this.

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    Kelly McGonigal July 1, 2013 at 4:11 pm - Reply

    This is fantastic advice! I’m printing it out as a physical reminder as I start work on my nice popular science book. Thanks for sharing. I especially love the insight about why people kept asking you about kitchen ants. Other people are the best way to find out what is intrinsically interesting, relevant, and accessible about your topic.

    Re: your warning in point 13, Malcolm Gladwell gave an interesting talk about the dangers of trying to change readers’ minds thoughout the course of a book rather than article. He described the unfortunate reality that many readers never finished his book Blink and didn’t realize that the thesis he started with was not where he ended. I’ve experienced this to a lesser degree when reviewers quote something from the beginning of a book as if it represented the overall message of the book, when instead it was a starting point that got nuanced and challenged later on. It’s a tricky thing to change POV, indeed!


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    Katie Burke July 1, 2013 at 4:28 pm - Reply

    Great post!

    As an editor who regularly edits work written by scientists for the general public, I thought I’d share my basic process:
    1) Scientists usually start their Intros with setting up the context in the literature for their work. General readers are unlikely to care about the rest of the literature unless you can establish a human connection. Something must be at stake. In narrative writing this is the lede and the nut graf.
    2) Cut most if not all uses of the passive voice. It makes the best action seem wordy and boring.
    3) Scientists love lists. They are efficient ways to convey multivariate information. And they will totally make your readers’ eyes glaze over. Make it a graphic, cut some of the info, say it in a more narrative way. Whatever. But do not list your variables or your methods and expect your reader to actually digest that info.
    4) Know where you are going. The take-home message should be at the end, and you should set up a human connection and a question that drive your reader from beginning to end, rewarded with clues along the way. If you don’t know where you’re going, figure it out before you write. If you tell them the answer to the burning question in the Intro, the reader will stop reading and move on with life.
    5) Each paragraph and section should begin with an interesting topic sentence. When I’m editing, I read the first sentence of every paragraph and highlight anything that sounds obtuse to go back and change to something active and captivating. The reader should be able to pick up in the middle of an article and get drawn in by the writing.

    Some of these dovetail well with your other points, but I hope my process is helpful. These issues are by far the most prevalent that I have to address when working with authors from an academic research background.

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    Katrina Firlik July 1, 2013 at 4:39 pm - Reply

    Great advice! Love it!

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    Jeffrey Stern July 1, 2013 at 7:54 pm - Reply

    Great writing advice, and not just for scientists but for most writers in general. Thanks for the excellent post.

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    Ken Connor July 2, 2013 at 6:59 am - Reply

    Great advice. I have also learned most of these lessons the hard way. I would add that one should work with a live audience. This is implied in your excellent advice, but should be specifically highlighted. I have discovered that everyone can learn a lot from a real engineering or science experience but one has to observe what people do with the activities and information we give them and build on what is working. From these experiences, I think that another piece of advice you should add is to give the reader some science or engineering to do. We are scientists and/or engineers (I hope I am both) because we love doing it, so we need to give our audience a chance to literally share our joy, not just hear a joyful voice (which is also really important). Thanks for sharing this great list.

  11. […] good bits of advice for writing about science for the public, including this […]

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    Eleanor Vincent July 2, 2013 at 1:10 pm - Reply

    A physician I work with shared this post with me. I edit “medical speak” and attempt to turn it into plain English. Your tips are right on the money. I work with a lot of smart people. Often smart people have a terrible time writing simply and clearly. To tip #14 – Delete – I would only add that it can be useful to save your deletions (your darlings) in a separate file on your computer. You never know when that snippet might be the perfect addition to an article or book. Ruthlessly throw words overboard, yes, but give them a life boat so they don’t sink out of sight forever.

  13. […] are writing about science because you like science.” Brilliant advice from Rob Dunn on what a scientist should do when writing for the general […]

  14. […] writing advice for scientists and… anyone. From Rob […]

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    Walter July 6, 2013 at 2:49 pm - Reply

    Good list, nice pieces of advice. Loved the part about tritrophic!
    I just disagree on number 4, or at least the way it’s presented. I’m sure you mean “use few adjectives”, “don’t overdo with adjectives” instead of “NO adjectives” – but why don’t say it clearly then? I think that adjectives, as well as adverbs (don’t care if Stephen King disagrees), can be a key element to good writing, to be used not necessarily sparingly (though perhaps in most cases yes) but *appropriately*. Of course they should be avoided when they dress a word without really clarifying or modifying its meaning – as in “natural inevitability” and “natural reason” in this piece
    Keep up the good work

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    Juanito Saavedra July 7, 2013 at 6:42 am - Reply

    I’m an EE student (not research scientist, but close enough) doing freelance writing – an odd combination yes, but it’s yet another way for me to scrounge up the funding for my projects. This article clarified many things, and by inspiring me to try out your tips, served as the gentle push that finally ended my month-long procrastinating spree. Thank you so much for sharing!

  17. […] Advice For Scientists Who Want To Write For The Public is not written by a famous writer, but it’s still good and I’m putting it on this list for now. […]

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    Manuscriptedit August 12, 2013 at 3:14 am - Reply

    Great post. Thanks for such a wonderful article…

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    Sam December 3, 2013 at 4:20 am - Reply

    Hi Rob,
    Great article, extremely helpful!! I’ve just come out of academia, and am about to embark on being a columnist at Consequently, I have been battling with a range of literary issues for weeks!! Your advice has been great, and I shall try my utmost to adhere to it!!
    Thanks a bunch!!


  20. […] Advice for Scientists Who Want to Write for the Public by Rob Dunn […]

  21. […] Begin with these 14 tips by Robb Dunn which can apply to all media: “Advice for Scientists Who Want to Write for the Public.” […]

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    Georgia Chronaki August 11, 2014 at 1:05 pm - Reply

    Great reading! Thank you!

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    Mike Taylor August 12, 2014 at 8:53 am - Reply

    “I know a scientist who walked to work wearing two different shoes and only realized it on the way home (OK, that was me, but I digress).”

    I believe I can beat that. I know a scientist who left his shoes on the train on the way hope, cycled home from the train station, and only when he arrived home noticed that he was barefoot. (OK, that was me, but I digress.)

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      Sakhile Samson Mngoma December 11, 2014 at 10:40 am - Reply

      hahaha, very forgetful, “thought that came with age” oh well, looks like I’m unfortunately headed that way…

  24. […] A great example of this is Rob Dunn’s Advice For Scientists Who Want To Write For The Public: […]

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