20 August, 2010

Sound Science-Writing Advice

Ed Yong started this origin-of-science-writers extravaganza by asking science writers to tell him all about how they came to be science writers, and while they were at it, give some advice to those who would emulate them.  I haven't had time to read the whole thread - he got a lot of responses - but you don't have to read far to get great advice.  Why, here in Comment #2, we've got Mark Henderson dishing up the wisdom, complete with killer parting line:

A few things I’ve learnt…

You don’t have to be trained in science to write about it. A scientific training teaches a lot about a little: if you’re a PhD particle physicist, are you really much better off writing about molecular biology than a history or English graduate? Journalists are often (although not always) generalists. Knowing what it’s like to be a lay person can be helpful when you’re communicating with lay people. And you can pick up an awful lot of knowledge as you go along — even becoming fairly specialist in some areas. I’ve recently written a book about genetics. Ian Sample’s just written a book about particle physics. Neither of us has a scientific background in the field.

But you do have to understand how science works. You need to grasp the importance of evidence, replication, falsification and so on. If you get that, you’re half way there. You need to be able to at least begin to tell the difference between rigorous work and unfounded assertions.

Talk to everyone you can. A journalist in any field is only as good as his or her sources. The answer is always a phone call away — if you don’t know, you can usually find someone who does. And try to remember what they say — don’t just file knowledge under a particular story, store it to build up your own.

Learn from your mistakes. We all make them — it’s how you respond that matters. If someone complains that a story you’ve written is inaccurate, and they know a lot about the subject, hear them out. They might be right, and you might have an opportunity to avoid the same mistake in future. They might be wrong — but you’ll have been forced to think about your work, and will try harder to make it more robust next time.

If you don’t know what to think, find out what Prince Charles thinks. Then disagree with him.
I shall take all of that advice.  Especially that last.

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