Writing science

6 March 2008

New Scientist reporter Mike Marshall talks about how he developed an interest in science writing during his time at Cambridge

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A couple of weeks ago, an email went around the New Scientist office where I work, telling us to go read an article on the Telegraph website. It was a comment piece by James May, AKA Captain Slow from Top Gear, and nestled among some fulsome praise of our magazine it contained the following statement: “there are people in the New Scientist who have devoted their lives to one molecule.”

No there aren’t, and I should know. Part of the reason for leaving academia and going into science journalism is that you’re not required to spend your entire career focusing on one molecule, one millimetre-thick layer of the Earth’s crust, or one species of louse. Far from it. At time of writing, I’m writing a piece about human speech, an editor is tinkering with an article I just finished about careers in clinical trials, and a different editor is wondering when to publish a third article of mine, about the US comedy The Big Bang Theory.

That variety was one of the things that drew me into science journalism; that and having loved writing since I was little. After an MPhil in psychology I realised that academia wasn’t for me, and that science writing was. It’s a notoriously competitive industry, so you have to stand out. I did a part-time MSc in Science Communication at Imperial, and also got heavily involved with BlueSci, the rather excellent student-run science magazine in Cambridge. Quite often, I’d be working ’til midnight. On the back of all that slog, I snuck into New Scientist as a (very) junior reporter.

So what’s it like? In one respect it’s very normal: it’s an office, there are desks and computers, and somebody’s always taken the last of the coffee and hasn’t bothered to refill the machine. But I suppose I should tell you about writing stories.

First, many of the stories you write will be about subjects that you know little or nothing about. Beginner journalists worry about this, but it’s actually a good place to start – you’re in the same position that your readers will be in when they pick up your article, and you can ask all the right, na├»ve questions.

We write about anything people are interested in. Sometimes that’s because the subject is of importance to a lot of people, like a disease or an environmental problem. Sometimes it’s just cool, or funny, or unexpected, or controversial. If it makes you say either “ooooh!” or “oh shit”, it’s probably a good story.

A lot of stories get fed to journalists, and this is just as true in science journalism. Journals like Nature send out weekly press releases, detailing what they think are their most newsworthy papers. That’s all very well, but the stories you’re most proud of are the ones you dig out yourself, whether from an obscure journal or through sneakiness.

Once you’ve decided what to write about, your task is to make it understandable. On a trivial level that means removing the pointless jargon, and explaining the necessary bits. Physics stories can be very abstract, so you might have to come up with a good metaphor to help people engage with them. You also have to make clear why people should be interested in your story, but of course you mustn’t over-hype it.

The last thing to remember is that you’re always bound by space. News articles are often just 200 words, and even features are rarely more than a couple of thousand, so you have to plan ahead or you’ll run out of…