How to improve your scientific writing

Become a better science writer

In an age of discovery, accurate and engaging science writing is more important than ever. Great science writers are always in demand, something that the team at 42group can attest. We’re going to provide some useful hints and tips to help any writer improve their science writing skills and communicate with greater clarity.

What is science writing?

We’ll start by defining what science writing is and isn’t to provide context for this article. When discussing science writing, we focus on translating scientific research, ideas, data, and discoveries into accessible content. That includes press releases, case studies, funding proposals, annual reports, REF submissions, animations, videos, Q&As, and more. 

We’re not talking about the process of writing, editing, and amending academic papers.

What’s the difference? Science writers, like the 42group team, are experts at translating complex information into accessible narratives. We’re not (and don’t pretend to be) subject matter experts of highly qualified scientists, although we do have access to them in the wider team and can add them to your project. 

The science writing tips and techniques here are for those writers who want to improve how they communicate complex concepts with clarity. 

Make sense? Let’s explain why accurate science writing is more important than ever before.

Understanding the Importance of Scientific Writing

Scientific writing serves as the backbone of the research process. It allows researchers to document their methods, results, and conclusions systematically, ensuring that their work is reproducible and transparent. But it doesn’t relate these discoveries to the real world. 

Through scientific papers, researchers share their findings with the scientific community and the wider public. This academic information sharing not only promotes scientific progress. 

Science writing is about crossing the bridge from cutting-edge research to creating human connections. Science writing is about demonstrating how society can benefit from the latest advancements in various fields. It’s also critical to engage with stakeholders, funders, and the public.

One of the most essential skills of a science writer is to be able to convey information and communicate impact accurately. One of the biggest issues facing science writers – and anyone involved in content production – is trust. We can see that almost 40% of internet users don’t believe the information they read online, a situation exacerbated by social media misinformation amplified during the pandemic.

Science writers have an essential role in providing the public with accurate and honest information to help educate, inform, and inspire the public. When you put it that way, it’s a role with huge responsibility.

The role of scientific writing in sharing research

Scientific writing is an essential component of the research process. The dissemination of research findings means the work of scientists and researchers can be understood and evaluated by others, including key stakeholders and the general public. The Government invests around £15bn each year into research, so it’s something that we all have a stake in.

High-quality scientific writing helps to establish the credibility of research and establishes the UK at the forefront of innovation. Take AI, for example. The UK, through organisations like the Alan Turing Institute, is leading the way in establishing the potential of AI, as well as establishing controls.

Science writers work to disseminate the findings of cutting-edge research, ensuring the discoveries are shared with the biggest possible audience. Sometimes, stories are so important they can spread across the world.

Communicating complex ideas effectively

Science and research encompasses complex ideas and concepts that may be difficult for a general audience to grasp. Scientific writing requires the ability to break down these complexities into understandable and relatable content. The ability to make scientific knowledge accessible to a wider audience is the core skill of a great science writer. 

One of the key aspects of effective scientific writing is the use of clear, concise, and accurate language. Researchers use specialist terms to convey their ideas, especially when communicating with other professionals in journals and published research. Science writers process this information and use language accessible to a broader audience.

While clarity is critical, scientific writers use various skills to provide appropriate explanations for technical terms and concepts. As current and former journalists, 42group’s team uses these skills to explain key terms and find interesting and engaging ways to explain the relevance of research findings. We do this by working with researchers, academics, and other key stakeholders to provide a clear, accurate, and engaging narrative around your research. 

It’s a cliche, but the best science writers are storytellers. They understand that humans connect with narratives, with established characters, problems, and solutions. It’s a bit old hat now, and there are better resources for experienced writers, but Building a storybrand is a great place to start. Yes, the book is focused on commercial companies looking to sell products or services, but it captures the power of storytelling and provides some useful techniques for all types of writers, including science specialists. 

Tackling the technical aspects of scientific writing

Of course, every writer knows that scientific writing is a specialised form of communication that requires attention to detail and precision. It is crucial to use proper terminology, and that only comes through understanding. Instead of simply copying information from academic papers, science writers seek to understand it – and then find ways to relate it to the real world.

It’s obvious, but when using scientific terminology, it is important to define and explain the terms within their proper context. This means that readers, who may not be familiar with the specific terminology can understand the concepts being discussed. By providing clear definitions and explanations, you can maintain clarity, avoid confusion, and ensure the integrity of your content. 

Words are (surprisingly) important to science writers, but we’re big fans of using other ways to convey messages. Figures, tables, and other visual aids are valuable tools in scientific writing. One vital aspect is their ability to communicate complex data, trends, and relationships more effectively than lengthy explanations. We work with several design agencies and often use graphs, illustrations, and infographics to support our content. This is especially important in long-form content like whitepapers or reports. 

As a science writer, when developing content, take notes of any ideas you have to visually represent the content you’re writing about. Infographics, illustrations, figures, and tables should be used to complement the text and provide additional clarity or insight. They should not be used as a substitute for clear and concise written explanations but rather as a supplement to enhance the reader’s understanding.

Referencing and citing in scientific writing

Science is based on the accumulation of knowledge, and fundamental to that is referencing. Read any academic paper, and you’ll be struck by the number of references (in some cases, hundreds) that provide the evidence base for their work. 

Citations and references not only support your claims but also allow readers to explore related literature, further expanding their knowledge on the topic. 

We recognise the contribution of all researchers and will always reference all sources used according to the style and preference of the client. To make things a little easier, we use the Cite this for me reference generator. It’s not 100% foolproof (and, like all such tools, needs to be checked), but it can help save time.

AI and scientific writing: Our view

AI is going to change how we work and live, and there’s no profession that’s more at risk than writers. The art of writing has been debased through cheap content mills that will knock out 1,000 words for $5. Now, cut-price agencies can dispense with the human-in-the-loop and pay AI to do it for them. 

So, will AI replace science writers?

In the short term, no. AI can – and will – replace the bulk of boring content creation. We’re talking social posts for double-glazing firms, processing a lengthy report into a bullet point list, and pulling out a few juicy quotes for a story. 

What it can’t do (again, at least for now) is to replace the skill, insight, experience, and integrity of a science writer. 

Do we use AI tools? Absolutely. At 42group, we use several AI tools, including Grammarly and ChatGP, as part of our process. We also run all content through an AI checker (Origanility.AI) to ensure it’s not going to upset any algorithms or impact your website. 

We’re excited by the potential of AI and will always test and iterate to understand how it can augment our content creation processes. But replace them? That’s not going to happen anytime soon.

10 tips for becoming a better science writer

  1. Research before writing: Scientific writing is a unique form of communication that requires clarity and precision. It is not enough to simply convey information; you have to do it accurately and with integrity. If you’re dealing directly with researchers or writing about an unfamiliar subject, spend time researching to give yourself at least a basic grounding in the fundamentals. Not only will this make interviews and conversations with specialists easier, it demonstrates respect. Even if you’re sent a paper, you’ll want to understand the research in a historical context.
  2. Start with the impact: When communicating about scientific discoveries, start with an eye-catching headline that captures the impact. This is the single biggest difference between a skilled science writer and a non-specialist. Your first paragraph should follow the headline, providing some context for the reader and restating the impact.
  3. Be precise with language: One way to achieve clarity in scientific writing is by using precise language. Precision in scientific language helps eliminate any room for misinterpretation. By choosing the right words and phrases, science writers can convey their ideas accurately and effectively.
  4. Credit every source: Academics and researchers spend years building a reputation, and you need to respect that. Be sure you credit every academic. While you may not be able to speak to each academic, you can always share content with them to check accuracy and ensure they feel involved in the process.  
  5. Be concise: Clarity and precision are essential, but so is being concise. It’s crucial to convey information concisely to maintain the reader’s interest and make content easily digestible. Grab a pen and trim unnecessary words and phrases. Focus on the key points you want to convey and remove unnecessary information from your content. If you are finding this a struggle, share it with a trusted colleague, friend, or family member and ask them their opinion. 
  6. Create a logical flow: An effective scientific paper follows a logical sequence of ideas and arguments. You don’t (and shouldn’t) follow this structure, but you will want to ensure that readers feel comfortable that they’re going to get all the information required. 
  7. Show your workings: Science is all about evidence, so always be open and honest about what researchers have done, including limitations. Too many press releases go big on a headline but don’t necessarily reflect the realities of the stage of research. A classic example is a new treatment that shows promise in animal models represented as a potential new drug for use in humans. While making an exciting story, it fails to reflect the time, investment, and risk involved and can give readers false hope.
  8. Tell the story of scientific discovery: Science is exciting, but so much science writing is drab, dull, and formulaic. Why? Because science writers can sometimes be lazy. In a world where millions of pages of content and thousands of press releases are sent out each day, you need your content to stand out. When communicating with stakeholders, you need to focus on the impact and the outcomes (while being conscious to show your workings).
  9. Find engaging ways to make concepts relatable: We call this the nurse scale. Every expenditure in the health service is related back to the cost of nurses. A new HR director? That could pay for two nurses, etc. This works because it grounds it in a measurement we can all understand. This is basic journalism, but many science writers have taken a different route to the role and haven’t experienced an editor shouting at them. Find real-world parallels and use them. It’s a simple, easy, and effective science writing technique.
  10. Edit, review, and refine: Don’t ever send off the first draft without checking with a subject matter expert, editor, and proofreader. This sounds like a lot of checks, but in many cases, this can be one person fulfilling these roles. Spend time analysing great science content, and apply this learning to your own writing. Always build in time to edit, review, and refine – your clients will thank you.

Searching for a science writing agency?

At 42group, we work with leading research organisations, academic institutions, and disruptive start-ups. Our experienced science writers use all these techniques and more, to build human connections.

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