Note: Our 2022 STEM Writing Contest is open from Feb. 2 to March 9.
How do science writers translate complex, often technical developments in science, technology, engineering, math or health into writing that any reader can understand and relate to?
According to Nicholas St. Fleur and Katherine J. Wu, two former Science Times, there are a few concrete steps to think about.
In the five videos below, each around a minute long, you’ll learn more about how they choose topics , establish an issue’s importance and incorporate research into an engaging piece of writing. For each video, we provide reflection questions to help students connect the advice to their own work, followed by additional writing resources for going further.
If these tips resonate with you, we hope you will write your own piece to explain a scientific topic and submit it to our annual STEM Writing Contest. And while the suggestions these writers share focus on science writing, know that they can be applied to any kind of informational writing you’d like to do.
Selecting a Topic
Science writers often decide what to write about by following their curiosity — asking questions about the world, wondering how to improve people’s lives, looking for solutions to a problem they see or digging into research they find fascinating. This interest often produces the most compelling writing.
In this video, see how a question about honeybees’ unusual behavior led to Ms. Wu’s 2020 article “Menaced by Murder Hornets, Bees Decorate Their Hives With Feces.”
How can you come up with a topic you’re interested in writing about? Here are some questions to think about:
What discoveries, developments or innovations have you learned about recently that have intrigued or surprised you? Why are you curious about them?
What questions do you have about the way the world works? The ways humans, animals or plants behave? The way things are built?
What issues or problems in the world of science, technology, engineering, math or health concern you?
To go deeper with these questions, and find out what other students are wondering about, weigh in on our related writing prompt.
Explaining Why a Topic Matters
Part of a science writer’s job is to help readers understand why they should care about a topic or why it is significant. In this video, Mr. st. Fleur explains how he made an article about a prehistoric dinosaur meaningful.
Once you’ve selected a topic for your piece, consider these questions about how to make it relevant:
Why do you care about this subject? What do you find interesting or important about it?
Think of three people in your life who may not know as much about your topic as you do. What elements of the story might matter most to them? How might this issue affect them?
Consider “the bigger picture.” What larger issues or questions does your topic connect to? For example, see how Natalia Araña, a winner of our 2021 STEM Writing Contest, connected the sound of a violin to climate change in her annotated essay.
Learn more about explaining why a topic matters with this Mentor Text lesson. And, for even more writing tips from Mr. st. Fleur, read “Annotated by the Author: ‘Tiny Tyrannosaur Hints at How T. Rex Became King.’”
Giving the Reader Context and Background Information
Readers of science articles have a finite amount of time and attention; and writers have a word limit. So women have to consider: How can they give their readers enough information to understand the subject without giving them too much?
It can be challenging to determine what to include and what to leave out, Ms. Wu says, but here is how she decides what makes the cut:
Some questions to think about after watching the video:
What is the most important thing you want your readers to understand about your subject?
What background or contextual information do you need to provide for them to understand your main point? What concepts might you need to briefly explain?
Learn more about how Davey Alba, who covers online disinformation, breaks down complexities for the reader in her “Annotated by the Author” commentary on “Covid Test Misinformation Spikes Along With Spread of Omicron.”
Quoting and Paraphrasing Experts and Research
Most science writers have not spent years researching every topic they write about — that’s where experts and research come in.
And as they write, you have to decide when to paraphrase information (explain it in their own words), and when to quote it from a source directly. This decision is as much about making sure a story reads seamlessly as it is about getting the material across in the most effective way.
Here, Ms. Wu discusses how she makes that choice:
Some questions to consider for your own writing after watching the video:
First, think about where you might turn to find more information about your topic. What articles, websites or journals could you learn from? Where might you find reliable studies and statistics? What experts or stakeholders could you interview?
Once you’ve done your research, take into account Ms. Wu’s tips:
What definitions, explanations or statistics are important to your piece? Can you easily put these into your own words in a clear and concise way? If so, consider paraphrasing them.
Are there any quotes you came across in your research that add to the excitement of your topic or emphasize why people should care about it? Are they from a reliable source that adds credibility to your essay? If so, consider quoting the source directly.
Learn more about quoting and paraphrasing with this Mentor Text lesson.
Hooking a Reader
One of the most important parts of a piece of science writing is the lede — the first few sentences that are meant to grab readers’ attention and make them want to keep going. And even though it is the first paragraph readers read, Mr. st. Fleur has said it’s often the last paragraph he writes.
Watch as he explains how he developed an enticing opening for his T. Rex article:
Some questions to consider after watching the video:
What important information about your topic do you want to get across in your first paragraph?
How can you communicate this information in an interesting or playful way? Could you use vivid imagery, a metaphor or alliteration? Could you tell a quick story or ask a question? Think about how you might introduce your subject to a friend in a way that would make him or her want to know more.
What kinds of leads have you seen in other articles about science that you liked? Check out the essays that won our 2021 STEM Writing Contest for inspiration. Could any of these types of ledes work for your essay?
To learn more about writing an engaging hook, see this Mentor Text lesson.