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The science of science writing

writingI come from a literary family. We grew up writing, reading, and being read to constantly. Most of us consider ourselves grown-ups now, and most of us write — professionally and/or personally — on a regular basis. One of my sisters is considering applying for a graduate program in medical and science journalism. She asked me to send her a short list of my favorite science journalists. But she’s getting this hefty blog post instead! Ha!

I’m a science writer. Translating interesting science into plain language is just about my favorite thing to do – it’s up there next to hiking, cider making, and pie baking. Writing about science is also incredibly hard. It’s one of my least favorite things to do, occasionally ranking down there around paying bills and pulling dark, slimy hair out of the shower drain.

The process (science writing, not drain cleaning) is both thrilling and painstaking. And — if I’m being honest — its 85 percent hell and 15 percent the best feeling ever. A strange drug, indeed.

We live in interesting times for a variety of reasons, and one of the most public arenas of change has been mass media. But those who crow that journalism is dead have a lot to catch up on.

As old media transitions into new media, we are seeing print newspapers become a luxury item because we as a public are looking to niche sources to meet our information needs. The way we consume news is changing. A lot of research has been done on this, and smart people have written a great deal about it, so I’ll let them expatiate (here, here, here, and many other places).

In the past few decades, freelance science journalism and science communication (NOT the same thing, but they often overlap) have risen up as respectable professions in their own right.

As the MIT graduate program in science journalism defines it, science writing is “not a technical report aimed at other specialists. Or a lab paper, or a how-to manual, or a peer-reviewed research article in even the most prestigious scientific journal.”

No one wants to read technical or lab reports anyways. At Virginia Tech’s Office of International Research, Education, and Development, we try to move away from the ponderous, stilted, coma-inducing language so often found in academia and many scientific journals. Why?  Because we think that what we do is important, and we know other people will find it interesting – but we have to write, speak, and explain in a way that everyone can understand.

There is a plethora of writers who do this very well. (How?) They write for online magazines, traditional newspapers, books, blogs, etc.

Again, the MIT science writing program:

“Science writers may, or may not, hold academic credentials in science or engineering. But they are always humanists, one foot in the sciences, the other in the arts, as apt to be seduced by a shapely sentence as by an elegant scientific idea.”

If there’s one thing the internet is good at, it’s lists. There are more lists of “the best science writers” out there than I could possibly link to (here’s one). Each of them has its own spin, and none of them can possibly cover the breadth of excellent writing that’s out there. With that in mind, here’s the list I prepared for my sister:

First, let’s start with some inspiration:
The Greatest Nature Essay Ever

And acquaint ourselves with some “bests”:
The Best American Science and Nature writing (2000-2014)
The Best Science Writing Online

Next, we’ll revisit some popular writers, who also write about science:
Barbara Kingsolver
Loren Eiseley
Michael Pollan
Bill Bryson
Richard Preston
Douglas Adams
Jared Diamond
… and a thousand more

Now read the entire section of this week’s New York Times science section — it’s all great, but I especially enjoy Benedict Carey, Carl Zimmer, Natalie Angier, and Dennis Overbye (sci-wri-man-crush!)

A new media tour begins with the National Geographic power blogs:
Not Exactly Rocket Science (Ed Yong) mostly biology
Laelaps (Brian Switek) natural history
Only Human (Virginia Hughes) neuroscience, genetics, behavior, and medicine
No Place Like Home (Nadia Drake) Space
The Loom (Carl Zimmer) hmm everything?

And moves into the Scientific American Blog Network
(with a shout-out to my boy Patrick Mustain who writes for Food Matters),

With a long lay-over in Wired Science.

Now we dive into a selection of scientists who can (or could) actually write:
Oliver Sacks
Neil DeGrasse Tyson
Phil Plait (Bad Astronomy)
Sean Carroll (Preposterous Universe)
Carl Sagan
Stephen Hawking

I would be remiss if I didn’t put these here:
The Atlantic
Harper’s Magazine
Symmetry Magazine
Plos Blogs

Oh – I forgot books!
All of Mary Roach’s (with names like Bonk, Stiff, Gulp, and Spook)
Superbug by Maryn Mckenna
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
The Man Who Mistook his Wife as a Hat by Oliver Sacks
The Hot Zone by Richard Preston (all about Ebola, y’all)
The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science by Natalie Angier

Random Blogs

Copenhagen by Michael Frayn
Arcadia by Tom Stoppard


And Poetry!
Verse and Universe: Poems about Science and Mathematics

Take a break, scroll through Twitter, and check out these recommendations:

So there you have it, sis. It’s an exciting realm, and I look forward to adding your name to this list in a few years.

For the rest of you: What did I miss? What should I read? What do you love?

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  1. Laina
    Posted October 2, 2014 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

    Thanks! Love this.

    Do you like Diane Ackerman?

    And I am actually, seriously going to remember to bring you Gastronomica.

    • Kelly Izlar
      Posted October 2, 2014 at 4:58 pm | Permalink

      I have yet to read any of her stuff! You like her?

  2. Annie
    Posted October 2, 2014 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

    There’s talk that Carl Sagan’s wife wrote most of the script for the new Cosmos series.

    • Kelly Izlar
      Posted October 2, 2014 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

      reeaalllly? Interesting.

  3. DR. jim wampler
    Posted November 10, 2014 at 11:27 am | Permalink

    kelly; where are you located?? I’m one of those doctors you mentioned who need your book writing services.
    I hope around Tech.
    Two that were needed 20 year ago and not yet written.
    (540) 353–6699
    Dr. Jim Wampler