Wit and wisdom for wordsmiths

The secret revealed: How to make science and IT writing compelling!

6780696606 c4868aabc2 The secret revealed: How to make science and IT writing compelling!

African Dung Beetle, Flickr Image

Let’s say you’re a scientist or an IT professional who has to write something from time to time – say an article or a speech. Or you’re a communications person in a scientific or IT organization who writes press releases and web copy.

Here’s a quiz: What’s the only reason to write anything, from a scientific paper to a press release to a fairy tale?

  • a) to explain
  • b) to entertain
  • c) to motivate
  • d) none of the above.

The answer is d), none of the above.

The only reason to write anything is to get someone to read it. No one has ever felt obliged to read anything, except a homework assignment.

Even if you’re the leading scientist in your field, your peers don’t have to read what you write. And when you speak, they don’t have to listen.

Which is why the best introduction ever written was, “Once upon a time, in a land far away, there was ….”  That one phrase makes us wonder, What’s going to happen? When was it? Where? Who did it happen to?

And Bam, we’re into the story.

Scientists accustomed to the conventions of academic papers often sniff at “popular” science writing on the grounds that it’s incomplete or inaccurate. But the best science writing is not only accurate; it’s first-rate as storytelling. Even better, because it’s readable by ordinary mortals, it helps to spread scientific knowledge.

Ed Jong  is one of the best science writers in the game.

Take a look at his lead on how the humble dung beetle uses starlight to navigate:

From all across the galaxy, the light of billions of stars finds its way to Earth, passes through our atmosphere, and enters the eyes of a small South African beetle rolling a ball of dung. . .  With two of its four eyes, it gazes into the guts of our galaxy, and uses starlight to find its way home.

Or listen to PhD dinosaur expert Brian Switek  on dinosaurs’ hands:

For a long time, artists illustrated dinosaurs like Velociraptor with their palms down—what many paleontologists now call the curse of the “bunny hands.” But as paleontologists re-examined and revised dinosaur skeletons, they found that dinosaurs like Velociraptor held their hands so that their palms faced each other in a more bird-like arrangement. Dinosaurs were clappers, not slappers.

In the same interview, Brian explains that squid have both “arms” and “tentacles” and they’re not the same.

Who knew?

How does he decide what to write about in his blog?

Switek says, “I look for ideas or studies that either make me go, ‘Really? That’s awesome!’ or, alternatively, ‘WTF?’”

Pretty good criteria.

While it’s harder to find scintillating copy about IT than about science, here’s a blog post by Lisa Caas in a blog from Naked Security that starts:

What’s essentially illegible, fuses characters together into melted blobs of unrecognizable goo, and occasionally tells you to go f**k yourself?

I don’t know, Lisa, tell us. Of course, it’s the CAPTCHA. Who  invented that devilish thing, anyway? (And by the way, we’re not talking about “technical writing” here; that’s a different animal altogether.)

Finally, a little-known scientific factoid about Groundhog Day, which is tomorrow, February 2.

We all know Groundhog Day is when Pennsylvania’s Punxatawny Phil either does or doesn’t see his shadow.

But it remained for EarthSky to tell us why February 2 was chosen as the day.  Give up?  Because it’s halfway between the Winter and Spring Solstices.

Really? Awesome!

Do you write about science or technology? What’s your biggest challenge? Share it in the Comments! 

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