What Is a Science Writer?

The occasional reader who wanders onto sciencewriter.org might wonder why it’s called this way. Since I am using such a precious domain name (which cost me $15) for my personal Web site, I feel obliged to say something about what science writing is, at least the way I see it. But first, let me say what I think it’s not. Here I am implicitly answering the questions I often hear when I introduce myself as a science writer.

A science writer is not a scientist, a “tech” writer, or an educator. In scholarly, technical, or educational writing, the emphasis is on the greater good of spreading literacy of some sort, or on the practical need to access or record information — be it the results or of your research or the instructions for using your iPod. The structure of the exposition tends to be dictated by the nature of the subject, starting with the basics and the prerequisites, then proceeding systematically from topic to topic. The hope is that the reader will be able to retain as much information and learn as many technical terms as possible.

While there are gray areas and a lot of overlap between those kinds of writing and what I call science writing, I can think of at least one important difference. It has to do with the world’s oldest profession.

Well, perhaps not quite, but one of the oldest, one that has been part of the human experience ever since we acquired the ability to speak. Everyone likes a good story, and we — the science writers — are a particular kind of story tellers. The trick is to tingle the reader’s (or the listener’s) curiosity, and get them hooked, so they’ll want to hear how it ends.

What gets many science writers excited about their job is the awareness that, somewhere, in many scientific discoveries, a great story is hiding, waiting to be told, sometimes unbeknownst to the discoverers themselves. It’s a story that’s sometimes hard to spot, and even harder to tell. But it would be a pity not to try to share it with those who might care to listen.

[For some musings on science writing, read my interview with New York Times science writer George Johnson, a sciencewriter.org exclusive.]

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2 thoughts on “What Is a Science Writer?

  1. When you started talking about the world’s oldest profession, I thought you were going to say that you’re in it for the money, but I KNOW that can’t be true (I used to freelance).

    I think you get it right, at least as far as explaining why some of us go into science writing in the first place. The idealism gets sucked out many of us pretty fast though, depending on who you’re writing for.

    -J

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  2. Science writing, to me, is a twofold joy: learning the story about a scientific process, or a scientist’s research work, and then telling that story to others in a way they can understand and appreciate. We turn papers or meeting presentations into narratives that tell the reader something new, or expand his or her view of the world.

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