I recently taught a class on science journalism and science communication. Although there have been a few articles on this topic already (in particular I’d recommend reading Ed Yong’s and Carl Zimmer’s) I thought I’d share a bit of advice from my own experience.
I became involved in science writing just a few years ago, so most of my writing has been online rather than in print. I thought I’d give just a few general tips for getting into science communication online.
First, I’d like to clarify what I mean by science communication. In my view, science communication is extremely broad, and can encompass many things from TV shows like Mythbusters to David Attenborough nature documentaries, to books by Richard Dawkins, to podcasts like Radiolab. Of course, the quality of the science being conveyed may vary between these different outlets, and different science communication is directed towards different audiences. Even within a single outlet, the topics that are covered in science communication can vary widely. For example, just taking the Scientific American online blogs, there are topics as disparate as space science, animal behaviour, anthropology, geology, food science, culture and medicine. However, even though these may be different topics, the same principles generally apply to writing about them. I should also add, that although I’m writing this with written blogging in mind, in my view the same general rules apply to many forms of science communication.
Do I need to take a course? Some people get into science communication by taking a media or journalism course (or even specifically science journalism). Most of these will obviously require both time and money, although it seems that there are scholarships and awards out there for undergraduate students and scientists to learn how to communicate. However, there are a lot of science communicators who didn’t take this route, and taught themselves instead.
Deciding what to write about
When I first started trying out science writing as an undergraduate, I felt intimidated to write about science topics that I knew little about. However, unless you only cover a very narrow field of science when communicating it, it is unlikely that you will always be able to be an expert on the topic you’re communicating. With this in mind, I’d recommend:
1) Choose a topic you’re interested in. This might sound obvious, but if you choose a topic that you find interesting, putting in the extra effort to learn more about it will be a lot easier than choosing a topic that you think others will be interested in but doesn’t excite you.
2) Write something novel. With bloggers all around the world covering science the second it gets published, it can often be hard to find something to write about that hasn’t already been covered. If you’re lucky enough to have access to journals through a university subscription, then you can find articles that aren’t open access and for which there hasn’t been a press release written, increasing your chances that no one else has covered it yet. Alternatively, even if others have covered the topic you want to write about, you can still make it worthwhile writing about if you have a novel perspective, or cover it in a depth that hasn’t been done thus far.
3) Come up with a new slant on old findings. Few people go to the trouble of looking back at old science that has been covered and then re-interpreting it given new findings, but this can give an interesting and useful perspective on how our ideas in science evolve.
4) Write an overview or opinion piece. As most science communication tends to cover a single study, I reckon there’s a niche there to cover a topic well, using a number of different sources. I’d recommend either giving a thorough overview (i.e. ‘what do we understand about x’ or having an argument backed up by several studies (‘I think x because of all this evidence’).
Getting the story together
1) Be sceptical. There’s a lot of inaccurate information out there, even on reputable websites. Whenever possible, go to the initial source (the scientific paper). Even when you read an original source, still be sceptical of the author's interpretation and ask yourself what you think the data really show.
2) Talk to scientists. Even when I’m writing about a topic within my field, it can help to clarify things by talking directly to the scientist who did the research. I’d also recommend wherever possible talking to other scientists who work in the same area. Although scientists like to think they’re objective about their work, it can often be useful to hear more than one person’s views on a new piece of research and the implications of it.
The actual writing of it
1) Think about who you want your audience to be and direct your writing towards them. For example, in some articles I aim to read as broad a group of people as possible, in other cases I feel that only a certain group of people who are already interested in the topic I’m writing about are going to read what I’m writing, and so I direct my writing more towards them.
2) Don’t use scientific jargon, and if you must, explain what you’re talking about.
3) Get the balance right between making the science understandable and dumbing it down. I’ve noticed that really good science communicators make you feel smart by reading their work. They also have the ability to teach you things without you realising that you’re learning anything. I’m not sure if there is a single trick to doing this, but I’d recommend reading the work of people you admire, as you are likely to emulate them.
The practical side of communicating online
1) Get yourself a blog via a site like wordpress. If you’re more interested in audio or video communication then look into a podcast or making a youtube channel. Even with an audio or video blog you might also want to have a blog to have other info and links relating to your audio or video recordings.
2) Advertise yourself. Noone is going to know about your blog unless you get the word out there. The easiest ways to do this is to get a twitter, facebook or google+ page (or whatever social media has replaced these sites by the time you read this).
3) Once you’re on these sites, contact people that you think will be interested in what you are writing about. This will (hopefully) be a whole range of people from different walks of life, so be creative in who you target.