Motion, Theme, and a Human Face

Lessons for a Science Writer from a New York Times Editor’s Field Notes on Nonfiction Writing Follow FromTheLabBench on Twitter

I recently picked up Francis Flaherty’s The Elements of Story in my campus bookstore, as I was browsing and drinking my third cup of coffee in between experiments. Turns out, I made an excellent choice from among those titles I randomly picked off the “Books about Books” shelf. I’m already an impulsive book buyer…. The quote from Library Journal on the cover, “An essential read for both freelance writers and students of journalism” just sealed the deal.

I am now about half way through Flaherty’s field notes, and already inspired. Of course, I read with science on the mind as always, and thus thought it would be particularly interesting to translate the NYT editor’s lessons in journalism for today’s science writers (and scientists turned writers) in particular. Read on!

a HUMAN FACE: “Every story, even the driest, has a human face. Draw it well and put it on display, for to readers it is a mirror and a magnet.”

The need for incorporating a human element may not be so apparent when it comes to science writing, as we document a novel nano-scale coating that substantially increases solar panel efficiency, or the synthesis of a new cancer-targeting nanoparticle that shows promise in pre-clinical trials. However, the human element of story is paramount when it comes to non-scientists reading science writing, enjoying science writing, and going on with their lives all the more knowledgeable and inspired to see science as relevant to their daily lives. Flaherty eloquently instills the need for a human face in every story, fiction or nonfiction. It was after reading chapter one, Shivers on Wall Street, that I sat down and wrote my blog post Hiding Place for the Artsy-Scientist, a human-faced story about a science PhD student struggling over whether to follow her passions (and tell her advisor about them) into a nontraditional scientific career.

The big question: How does a science writer incorporate the human element – and not just taking heads, but real, emotional people – into their chemistry news article or blog entry covering recent advances in medical imaging?
Marie Curie - Mielconejo Flickr.jpg

One way is to remember that every medical advance and scientific breakthrough starts with a human element: the scientists behind the work. The biology brainiac who thinks up the ingenious hypothesis; the laboratory scientist who designs the experiments that test the brainiac’s hypotheses; the worker bee who cultures the stem cells, who counts and documents every bacterial colony surviving on a treated Agar petri dish. Many journalists neglect as irrelevant to their story the past and daily experiences of those very scientists, and the contexts in which they made their discoveries; and yet these details are exactly those that help put the discussed scientific breakthrough in a human light, and help readers to relate just a little better with Nobel Prize Winning Professor X and his research. Professor X did not earn his Nobel Prize in one giant leap; he earned it in small steps, based on the work of many who came before him, and he probably hit dead ends and made many mistakes along the way. The non-scientist reader can relate to this scientist. This Professor X inspires a child or entering college student to set their sights on a living, breathing scientific career.

“A story should be dry-eyed, of course. It should not be like some hysterical bad opera. But too many stories are bloodless and bland, with the human emotion washed out.” – The Elements of Story

The other side of the human element equation for science writing is the people affected by the scientific discovery at hand. Research is driven at its core by human need, whether the need for improved health, enhanced quality of life, a cleaner environment, or efficient energy alternatives. If a reader can see the impact of a particular area of science on him- or her-self personally, on loved ones, or on others to whom he or she can relate and sympathize with, the science journalist’s story is off to a very good start.

Master a single THEME: “A writer who is jack of all themes will be master of none.”

Although it may not seem pertinent to your upcoming literature review on the development of nanotoxicology as a relatively new research field within the last decade, every story, blog, and article of science writing should have an unambiguous major theme. The author of the nanotoxicology review may choose to focus on recent advances in nanotechnology, and how each advance requires an equivalent extent of research proving non-toxicity of for humans and lack of adverse side effects on the environment at large. This review still has a clear cut, if broad, theme. The author must stay true to that theme. The review cannot possibly cover every single aspect of the field of nanotoxicology, and thus the author will have to decide what NOT to discuss, narrowing down those research studies and findings that most accurately and strongly advance the major theme.

A theoretical public news highlight discussing the details and impact of a new technique for ultra-fast genome sequencing, as discussed in a prestigious scholarly journal article just this week (yes this is theoretical!), must establish a clearly visible theme, backing it up with appropriate and supporting language, metaphors, expert quotes, and fine details. Without such a theme and its support throughout the text, the news highlight risks drowning in technical jargon and un-interconnected ideas and outcomes. The reader may in fact miss the entire point of the discussed research, from whence its novelty originates, or how the research will affect the community at large. Of course, scientific accuracy and fairness, with the inclusion of, for example, limitations and uncertainties associated with an experimental technique, or future required validation studies for wide acceptance and safe use, are of paramount important in science writing. The major theme should be so arrogant that it leaves no room for dissenters and concerned experts voice their caveats and opinions.

“The smart writer is fair, and he also knows he may be wrong, so he is generous in letting dissenters state their case.” – The Elements of Story

Rhythm is equally important is supporting a theme, even in more technical pieces of science writing. “Rhythm gives works a power that cannot be reduced to, or described by, mere words” – Francine Prose. This concept should be familiar to scientists, who understand that the sum of the parts do not always equal the whole. For example, the cells in a tissue or organ cannot necessarily represent in their individuality the structure and function of the organ as a whole: Organization and role division are key. The same may occur with carefully chosen word combinations, which according to their meaning, their sound, and their rhythm, play a synergistic role in deploying a writer’s main theme. “A writer must regard his story through theme-colored glasses.” – The Elements of Story


Finally, as translated from the lessons of Flaherty, the science writer must be ‘choosy’ with his or her words and details, choosing brevity and simplicity over scientific jargon and complex analogies. In the words of the NYT editor, “leaving things out is the hardest part of writing.” I find this lesson especially important in science writing. Scientists often forget (myself included) that their reader may not be a like-minded radio-chemist who finds fascinatingly helpful the listing of every mentioned radioactive isotope’s half-life and mode of decay, who thrives off every nitty-gritty detail of the new radiopharmaceutical’s chemical synthesis (those readers are probably bored after just this sentence). The hardest part of science writing is leaving out the nitty-gritty while still teaching and imparting the paramount science. Unless a scientist is writing a textbook or a detailed scholarly article for peer-review (but even then simplicity rules), the writer should consider the reader before inserting that extra laborious detail or reference which does not add to the understanding of the concepts discussed.


Many scientists must be versed in this concept of ‘cut and simplify’ in order to give effective update presentations of their research or seminars for the public, in which cases they have only a limited time, enough to communicate the very essence of their work, no more, no less. The statement “No writer will use 100% of his research – Flaherty” is indeed 100% true for good science writers. An every-detail-included scholarly article (which is itself necessarily narrowed down from the vast expanse of the original lab work) can be overbearing even for the experience science reader who studies in slightly different field. Imagine trying to cram even half of those details down a lay audience’s throat (or ear) in an 800 word highlight… it simply is not going to happen. Not only will there not be space, but also the readers will quit reading. Research communicated only as such will only reach other experts in the field, and will not go far in educating the public.

MOTION: “Good stories are a brisk journey, and the reader can always feel the breeze in his hair.”

Good stories, and good pieces of science writing, always flow seamlessly, and keep a good pace. Stagnant sections of a science blog are where readers click an eye-catching link from your page to an ad for a new Facebook app, or hit their browser’s Stumble! button. Making a science news highlight move can be as easy as exploiting the progression of scientific ideas and findings that led to the current breakthrough. A writer may choose to set up the main point of the piece, for example that Professor X has discovered a new natural compound that inhibits tumor growth in treated individuals, with historical events or small coincidences that ultimately paved the way for his discovery. Every science success story is packed with action, late night Eureka! moments or perhaps back and forth waves of trial and error. It takes a good writer to compose the story or news article such that it appears to move breezily from problem to solution, from need to cure. Beware of breathless writing… sentence after sentence of experiment progression may become tiresome, ‘breathless talking’ to the reader, and may benefit from a pause to summarize key points and to remind the reader of where they are in the bigger picture.

That’s if for now. I’ll be writing more posts on the art of science writing as I continue to enjoy The Elements of Story!

The Elements of Story – Field Notes on Nonfiction Writing By Francis Flaherty
Marie Curie image – Flickr source mielconejo
Comics: xkcd webcomic
1. Beauty
2. Arsenic-Based Life
Brumfiel, G. (2009). Science journalism: Supplanting the old media? Nature, 458 (7236), 274-277 DOI: 10.1038/458274a
Editorial (2010). Science scorned. Nature, 467 (7312) PMID: 20829750