This blog post was written by Program Intern Olaya Barr.
With the upcoming Science Journalism Workshop I decided to sit down and figure out what exactly “science writing” is.
Does that mean writing about the periodic table? Or photosynthesis? Or other topics I learned in high school and promptly forgot about after taking my AP Environmental Science exam? Do I have to memorize graphs or write about brain waves or sound waves or microwaves? I can’t do that, I thought, totally not my thing.
But then I started reading some actual science blogs and essays. I realized science writing doesn’t need to be about inaccessible topics surrounded by impenetrable jargon. It’s actually just a different way of story-telling! Okay – I can do that!
Science writing can be just as compelling as well-written fiction, and the two genres actually have a lot in common. They feel immediate, resonant, and they both are based on our observations and what we feel is true. I discovered my gateway to science writing was through fiction.
So, what makes fiction enticing for me? A story arc, rich and varied language, and a narrative structure that rewards the reader with new information and insight. The author’s job is to convince the reader that the text is worth sitting down and reading; that it’s addressing something that deserves to be further explored.
I soon realized that what makes science journalism and nonfiction gripping, is that they share these same exact qualities. How do my favorite fiction authors keep me reading? They use imagery, specificity, beautiful language, intrigue, mystery, the use of personal experience and emotion. Scientific journal writers do the same thing to make a topic feel relevant.
I’m not originally inclined to the sciences (I’d rather think about how people interact than how cells interact). But the more I read scientific essays, the more I see that although science is primarily about observable facts, it has just as much to do with sociology, history, economy, and philosophy. Once I started thinking about how the study – and the reporting – of the sciences affected my daily life, I started to recognize it everywhere. What happens in my brain when I’m day dreaming? Why am I craving Snickerdoodles? Why does Jason Derulo get stuck in my head? I need answers!
One of the reasons I enjoy reading science essays, and listening to Radiolab, TED Talks, and This American Life is because they tackle scientific topics by making them personal and entertaining. Perhaps more importantly, they answer questions I didn’t even know I had.
To stir up some inspiration, here are some examples of fun contemporary science journalism written by women: Natalie Angier writes on the evolving structure of the American Family, while Kate Wong explores the discovery of prehistoric chicken (large enough to feed a party of 10… with leftovers for soup), and Jennifer Oullette wonders how the heck humans can yodel.
- For a more comprehensive list of women science writers (covering some more serious topics, too) check out Discover Magazine‘s list compiled by Ed Yong.