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35 Mostly Different Guidelines For Science Writers

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Tips is a series that aims to provide early-career science writers with, well, tips to aid them in their budding careers. The series will attempt to link out to existing resources available online.

The manifesto for the simple scribe,” written by the paragon that is Tim Radford and published at the Guardian, is a list of 25 commandments for the science writer. It is widely considered as THE list which science writers should strive to obey (most of the time). Colin Nissan has a shorter list at McSweeney’s which is perhaps a little less educative but will make you laugh, or at the very least grin.

Sculptures at Pyramide court of the Louvre featuring writers.

Sculptures at Pyramide court of the Louvre featuring writers and poets, amongst sculptors, artists, politicians... Mosaic by Istvan from Flick.

Former science writer and editor Tim Radford’s 25 commandments for journalists has quickly become the one list that science journalists around the world print and stick on their walls. The list is exhaustive and provides a framework for journalists. Its major themes are the need to write in a gripping, eloquent, honest and simple manner. Some of the guidelines are intuitive and well-known, others less so but equally important for journalists who aim high.

“Journalists write to support democracy, sustain truth, salute justice, justify expenses, see the world and make a living, but to satisfactorily do any of these things you have to have readers. Fairness and accuracy are of course profoundly important. Without them, you aren’t in journalism proper: you are playing some other game. But above all, you have to be read, or you aren’t in journalism at all.” – Tim Radford

Here are five of Radford’s commandments, edited here for brevity:

  • When you sit down to write, there is only one important person in your life. This is someone you will never meet, called a reader;
  • You are not writing to impress the scientist you have interviewed but someone who will stop reading in a fifth of a second if given the chance;
  • The first sentence you write will be the most important sentence in your life, and so will the second, and the third;
  • “No one will ever complain because you have made something too easy to understand;”
  • A story will only ever say one big thing.

You can and should read all 25 commandments over at the Guardian. Then print the manifesto and stick it on a wall you face everyday.

Once you’ve done that, head over to McSweeney’s to read this shorter manifesto by witty writer Colin Nissan, entitled: “The ultimate guide to writing better than you normally do.” Nissan covers many of the same points Radford does but adds a few guidelines which are more in line with the modern dilemmas journalists now grapple with.

For instance:

  • Don’t procrastinate;
  • Find your muse;
  • Keep it together.

In his article, the guidelines are written in all caps which gives the impression that Nissan is screaming at you. Which seems about right when you look at the “mood” of his piece. With phrases such as “Procrastination is an alluring siren taunting you to Google the country where Balki from Perfect Strangers was from, and to arrange sticky notes on your dog in the shape of hilarious dog shorts,” “If everyone’s putting periods at the end of their sentences, put yours in the middle of words” and “never get such a giant head that you feel entitled to throw around obscure phrases like ‘Show, don’t tell’” you do realise that the piece isn’t meant to be taken too seriously (hell, it’s at McSweeney’s!) but it does provide some good guidelines nonetheless.

Perhaps you’ll want to print this list out as well. Up to you.

Khalil A. Cassimally About the Author: Khalil A. Cassimally is the Community Coordinator of The Conversation UK. He's also a science blogger. He hails from a tropical island and is a happy geek. Subscribe to his updates on Facebook and Google+. Follow on Twitter @notscientific.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. shanananmike 11:23 am 02/13/2013

    Both Tim Radford and his BBC counterpart Alex Kirby allowed me to quote a few of their tips in this piece — called 25 Tips For Climate Change Journalists http://underthebanyan.wordpress.com/2011/08/16/25-tips-for-climate-change-journalists/ (which is also available in Portuguese and Spanish)

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  2. 2. doughahn1 8:58 am 02/14/2013

    At the risk of being flippant, how about editors, as well as writers, proofreading instead of relying on software spell checking? I tripped over this sentence in the article.

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  3. 3. Fred Guterl 11:17 am 02/14/2013

    Procrastination is the alluring siren calling us to read blogs like this!

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