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Friday, May 24, 2013

Science writing today and tomorrow

I AM TRULY SURROUNDED BY MY work: My computer runs on megabytes and RAMs; my car moves because of sparks and subsequent combusion, and sports more digital equipment than I care to imagine; and even my gym has the latest techno-gizmo to tell me just how many calories I've used up on a five-mile (albeit stationary) "bike ride." I cannot seem to get away from science and technology--but as a science writer, I do not mind, because it is more fuel for my science articles.

Science and technology encompass all our lives. If you find your hands sweating during the latest Space Shuttle launch, or you enthusiastically tell your friends the reasons why tsunamis crash along a coastline, you may be a potential science writer. And you do not have to be another Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, or Isaac Asimov to succeed at it.

I became a science writer through the back door. I was a professional scientist who analyzed water samples and plotted flooding along sinuous river systems. A side trip back to college changed my life: The day my professor handed back the first draft of my thesis and said, "This reads like...well...an article for the general audience," sealed my fate. I have thanked her insight for ten years now.

You do not have to be a scientist or have a science background to write articles and books about science and technology. In fact, it may be helpful for you not to have a science background, because then you won't be caught up in the science jargon. If you are interviewing an astronomer on interstellar objects who says that MACHOs are found at the periphery of our galaxy, you would not just nod your head. You would ask him or her to explain--not only the acronym (Massive Compact Halo Objects)--but why MACHOs are important to your article.

The best part about science and technology writing is the range of topics from which you can choose--and each of those subjects can be further broken down into narrower topics for other articles. Topics include the physical sciences, (geology, chemistry, etc.); biology (plant, human, viral, bacterial); space science; or medical science. Many science writers also delve into technology: computers, robotics, and electronics. Under technology, a science writer may describe remote sensing techniques used to detect and track volcanic eruption plumes across the planet; or under medical science, show how using supercomputer modeling can help us understand how drugs react within the body.

Science writing does not have to be about current scientific developments; it can also be about science in the past or future. Science past had its wonderful moments of serendipity; science future has its promise of a better life. And do not overlook science fiction for article ideas. After all, most people know about "warp drive," an idea often referred to on "Star Trek." A science writer might ask, "Can we go faster than the speed of light? If we could, what type of propulsion would be needed to catapult a spaceship to such speeds?"

Although there is a myriad of topics to choose from, all science and technology writing must apply to and excite the readers. Will they be able to use the discovery in the present or future? Will it help their children to live happier lives? Does the topic stimulate their imagination, and is it enjoyable to read? Or will the story tell them about a person, place, or thing that they never knew about before?

Now that you have decided to try your hand at writing science, you will need the following:

* Intense curiosity. When you are curious about a subject in science, you are more apt to dig deeper, ask for more explanation--and your enthusiasm will show in your writing. An editor once told me, "The attention span of the reader is directly proportional to the writer's interest in the story."

* An interest in research. You may have all the curiosity about a subject, but you also need the tenacity to do the research. Science writers today have it easier than they did in the past: We have access to tremendous amounts of information, not only in libraries, but through computer communication services, where you can find articles on your subjects and leads to help you find other sources.

* Ability to recognize a good idea for a science article. A good idea for a science article is not "DNA"; a good science article idea is how DNA is being used as genetic "fingerprints" in crime investigations--and how it is also under fire because the technique is so new. Article ideas are everywhere, but the science writer has to know how to focus on that one kernel of interest.

* Contacts and sources to interview. A science writer's most valued possession is his or her contact/source list: past interviewees (experts in the fields you are writing about), reference librarians, earlier contacts from science conferences, public information offices of science-oriented institutions, organizations, and universities--and, of course, other science writers.

* Insistence on accuracy. The science writer's creed, to borrow from Thoreau, should read, "Simplicity, simplicity--not to mention accuracy, accuracy."

* Good interpretative skills. Science writers have a serious responsibility to their readers: They must interpret and present what they uncover in their research and interviews in a clear and interesting way. This interpretation is not always straightforward. I have heard it compared to translating Japanese into English: There are nuances of the Japanese culture integrated into their language that cannot be translated into English. It is often the same with explaining science to the general audiences, and as Nobel physicist Richard Feynman once said, not all science can be explained in a basic way. But do not use this as an excuse; a science writer must do the best he or she can to get the subject across to the reader.

Coming up with a good science article idea is not as difficult as it seems. There are many sources that spark ideas: newspapers, science journals, news releases, computer communication services (the ubiquitous "information highway"), and numerous publications from universities and science-oriented organizations--also other people's conversations: I began to research my article on microrobots (for Sky Magazine) when I overheard two people joking about "minimachines" taking over the planet Mars. The real microrobots may never take over the red planet, but the suggestion triggered the idea. It also started me on the trail of just how far we have come in space-oriented microrobotic research.

After you come up with a specialized science topic, your first stop should be the library to check on magazines. Read through current magazines and explore magazine topics in the Readers' Guide to Periodical Literature (and similar indexes) from the past year or so. This will help you avoid writing about an idea whose time has come and gone; also you will not send a query to a magazine that has just published an article on the same subject with the same angle. If your idea seems to be on track, then gather basic information on the subject from science magazines, brochures, encyclopedias, or books.

Next comes the query, usually a less-than-one-page "outline" (in text form) of your proposed article. The query persents your idea, sources, and credentials to the editor. A word of caution: Know your magazine. Do not send a query on industrial robotics to Woman's World, or an idea on the future of the American/Russian cooperation on the Space Station to Sailing; but also remember that certain non-science magazines will take science or technology topics, including some inflight and general audience magazines. Know your science magazines, too: Articles for Omni have a different slant from those for Popular Science.

The day the editor says, "Go for it," is the day you take all your basic information and outline-query letter, and get to work. Now is also the time to call on your sources for interviews. Some science writers write a sketchy first draft to their story before the interviews--a way to organize their thoughts and frame the questions to ask the interviewee in some semblance of order; other writers do a first draft after the interview. In either case, you will need a list of questions to ask your experts. Always remember that the only dumb question is the one you did not ask.

Writing a publishable science article takes the ability to explain complex concepts without baffling or confusing readers. One of the best approaches is to discuss the subject or idea in terms the reader can relate to. For example, in my article on agriculture in space (for Ad Astra) I wove familiar gardening terms (and references to many gardening problems) into the piece so the readers could relate to growing plants in the Space Station and beyond.

Another strategy to give your science article life is to use anecdotes. Usually, your interviewees have interesting stories to tell, such as how their discovery was made, or about the first patient to use their new drug. Since the general public often thinks of science as another world, descriptions of the scientists and their surroundings will "humanize" your article, showing that the expert has the same idiosyncrasies that we all have--right down to worries about money or celebrations of victories.

Of course, there are two more qualities that keep all science writers going: patience and perseverance. It takes patience to get an interview with a busy scientist (and sometimes you will not get the interview at all); and patience to see your words in print. Plus, it takes perseverance to understand the intricacies of your science article--and to keep up with the new science discoveries that pop up every week.

There is more than enough science to provide you with subjects for science articles. As a science writer just remember that the universe is now your beat.

Abstract: Science and technology affect our daily lives and provide a broad range of opportunities for potential science writers. Such writers should bring to their work a curiosity, interpretative skills, accuracy, research interest, and the skill to recognize a good idea.

Source Citation (MLA 7th Edition)
Barnes-Svarney, Patricia. "Science writing today and tomorrow." The Writer Nov. 1994: 15+. General OneFile. Web. 24 May 2013.
Document URL
http://go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?id=GALE%7CA15812453&v=2.1&u=22054_acld&it=r&p=GPS&sw=w

Gale Document Number: GALE|A15812453

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