by Michael Edmonds
REVIEW: Field Guide for Science Writers: the official guide of the National Association of Science Writers, 2nd Edition
Edited by Deborah Blum, Mary Knudson & Robin Marantz Henig
Oxford University Press
NZ RRP $36.00
I expected a book containing contributions from over 50 leading science writers to be a good read, and I was not disappointed. Clear, articulate and engaging, each writer generously shares their insights into the world of science writing, and demonstrates their enviable writing skills with every word they have put to the page.
The field guide is divided into different sections, relevant to writers at different stages. The first section, Learning the Craft, provides advice on a range of skills from how to find ideas for stories to finding and developing your own “voice” and style. Chapter four is particularly useful, in that it is a collation of techniques for writing well from six teachers of science writing.
Section two discusses how to choose your market, with advice from experts in various science writing media – newspapers, magazines, web-based, book and free lance writers, to name just a few.
The following section looks at different styles of writing, from investigative reporting and “gee whiz” writing, to the classic science essay. A discussion of narrative writing by Jamie Shreeve highlights the importance of the narrative in science communication: “… the power of the narrative to grip a listener’s attention is certainly ubiquitous in human society, and its roots run deep into prehistory…”.
Throughout the book, other writers also advocate for, and refer to, narrative writing. Mary Knudson, for example, outlines the three basic principles of narration: details, anticipation, and quotes: “Details give such vivid descriptions that you reach out and put the reader smack into the story. Anticipation builds interest in reading on by giving a hint of what is to come. Quotes bring your story to life, are authoritative, raise provocative questions.”
Speaking of quotes, there is one from George Johnson’s section on explanatory writing which strikes me as appropriate for science writers everywhere: “…there is nothing so complex that a reasonably intelligent person cannot comprehend it.”
The fourth and fifth sections discuss some of the issues associated with covering specific areas of science, for example medicine, nutrition, mental health engineering, climate and risk. These are all well worth reading.
The final section describes the writing styles and approaches required by those communicating science on behalf of institutions, such as public information officers for universities, museums, corporations and government agencies. Joann Ellison Rodgers’ section on institutional communications during a crisis is fascinating reading. Her mantra to “Tell bad news first, fast and fully”, is something many organisations could learn from.
A Field Guide for Science Writers is a must read for anyone seriously considering venturing into science writing.
Dr Michael Edmonds is a chemist by training and a science educator/communicator by choice. He is currently Head of Engineering & Architectural Studies at Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology.