Note: The guidelines of writing described below are not to be treated as nor associated with The Wire‘s official guidelines. They are the author’s views.
Some scientists believe that their profession is all about conducting experiments in controlled environments. It is not. Communicating their work has emerged as another responsibility – especially of those who find themselves able.
One way to do this is to write popular science articles. The Department of Science and Technology has – in recognition of this endeavour – instituted the Augmenting Writing Skills for Articulating Research (AWSAR) Award. It includes cash prizes ranging from Rs 10,000 to Rs 1,00,000, and a certificate of appreciation.
AWSAR’s objective is to disseminate Indian research stories in an accessible and interesting format. PhD students who have completed at least two years of study and postdoctoral fellows can compete. The last date to submit entries is September 30, 2019. More details are available on the AWSAR website.
With the technicalities out of the way, the technique remains; how does one write a compelling popular science article that is both interesting and lucid?
While there are no hard and fast rules, you may find the following ideas useful if you want to weave a fascinating narrative.
What to communicate
It is important to select the article’s peg judiciously because every science experiment does not have direct implications for society. Try focusing on something groundbreaking – a study or discovery whose findings are evidently newsworthy and which imply significant change, at least in the way we perceive the world. You could also pick something that offers a new angle or contradicts some older information.
Whatever you decide, keep the public interest in mind. This way, you will have to expend less effort in securing the reader’s interest in your popular science article.
You may be aware that scientific articles present information through an introduction, a description of the methodology, the results and a discussion, collected in the acronym IMRD. When you write a popular science article, however, you should reverse the IMRD pattern. This is because readers are likelier to read your article if it is relevant to their interests, and a study’s implications and applications are what you should use to draw them in. The other details, such as the findings, results and the methodology, come later.
As a result, many – if not most – popular science articles may be said to follow the IFRM structure: implications, findings, results and methodology.
Now, when writing your article, keep the following questions in mind and in the following order:
- What do the findings imply?
- How do the findings impact society or the environment?
- What results drove you to the conclusions?
- Why do you think the results are relevant to society?
- How did you arrive at the results?
- How expensive/economical are your procedures? How much money was required, and who funded it?
- How difficult/easy were the procedures?
Language and length
Popular science articles should be written in simple language and without technical jargon. For example, instead of simply using the term “semelparous animals”, consider qualifying it with a definition – “animals that die after having sex” – or using only the latter and dropping the technical term altogether.
If you are forced to use technical expressions, make sure to explain them in simple terms. Research articles are typically rife with nominalisation – a technique researchers use to make their tone impersonal. However, an overuse of nominalisation can render the text inaccessible.
Another concern is sentence length. Writing gurus argue that longer sentences are harder to understand, and that short sentences – of 20 words or less – are more accessible. However, there is no hard-and-fast rule about this, nor is it advisable to claim that there could be one. The rule of thumb is to vary sentence length according to context and to keep sentences as simple as possible.
Finally, a popular science article doesn’t usually exceed two pages. Most readers don’t have much time to spare for the intricacies of a research study. They are likelier to be interested in how the research is going to affect their lives.
A catchy title
The title of a popular science article is closely connected to the article being discovered and read. So it should be simple, descriptive and concise. Avoid technical terms or the headline could restrict your article to being accessible only by those people who can understand what the terms mean. Here are three examples from around the web:
- These ancient, swimming reptiles may have been the biggest animals of all time
- Megapixels: Two stars in a fight to the death
- A new study on whales suggests Darwin didn’t quite get it right
A cursory review suggests many titles start with demonstratives such as ‘this’ and ‘these’. Demonstratives depend on the context to offer their true meaning, and evoke interest and excitement among readers. Here are some examples of this tendency at work from Popular Science:
- These aquatic creatures eat in seriously strange ways
- This new, duck-like dinosaur is so wacky scientists thought it was fake
- These animals have nipples on their butts and that is not the most fascinating thing about them
Questions are another commonly used headline-type:
- How to smile without looking like a creep, according to scientists
- Where the heck is autumn?
- Does apple cider vinegar actually do anything?
While most research articles use an impersonal tone, popular science articles can be more personal. To achieve this, writers could consider the following tools:
- Personal pronouns: Popular science articles use personal pronouns such as ‘I’ and ‘you’.
- Voice: Research articles are typically written in the passive voice. However, popular science articles should use the active voice because the latter includes the agents of action.
- Contractions and run-on expressions: While academic articles tend not to use contractions (e.g. can’t, don’t, didn’t) and run-on expressions (e.g. etc., ‘and so forth’ or ‘and so on’), popular science articles are okay with them, even in their headlines.
Describe methods and results
Unlike specialist readers, the consumers of popular articles are seldom interested in the details of how researchers conducted a study. So methods and procedures should be described very briefly. And instead of lingering with the technical details, spend more time and words interpreting the results obtained from the study.
The ideas presented in this article are not prescriptive, but they could serve as useful points of reference for those just getting started with science writing.
Lakshmana Rao teaches at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Tirupati.