Communicate scientific findings to a general audience on behalf of an organization.
As a science writer in a public relations role, your job is to promote novel and exciting scientific findings on behalf of your employing organization (e.g., an academic university, scientific corporation, scientific publishers, granting agencies). A primary goal is to promote the research in question. This differs from science journalism, which objectively interprets and critiques the findings. Good science writing represents the researchers’ work fairly, while also detailing the motivations, complications, and viewpoints of the researchers themselves. Toward this end, a science writer translates newsworthy research conducted at their institution into an article that is interesting and easily digestible for a general audience.
- Keep your ears open for interesting news, though sometimes the researchers themselves will come to you in the hopes of promoting their work. Or, a higher-up in the organization may bring you a story they wish you to write about.
- Interview several people involved in the process, not just the principal investigator. Ask questions that will improve your understanding of the work, the timeline of notable events (e.g., obstacles and breakthroughs), and how the research fits in the broader context of the field.
- Write the article, with special focus on telling a compelling story, using language suitable for lay-people, and fairly representing the science.
- The article is then typically reviewed by the researchers and an editor before publication.
Find a primary source article that you believe to be newsworthy from your institution or organization, and write a 2-3 paragraph, general audience synopsis. Make sure to promote the work, developing both how it fits into the broader field and its ‘real-world’ applicable value.
For this role, you are a science writer.
Task 1 – Choose a topic
Choose a scientific topic to write about that is close to your own interests, but still appealing to an average person. Pick a particular article about which you would like to write.
Task 2 – Write a hook
Think about how to transform this article into a product suitable for the general public. It is critical to catch readers’ attention immediately. Humans are drawn to stories, so it is often advisable to write in a narrative arc, bolstering the research itself with a behind-the-scenes perspective of different people involved in the project. Think about how to generate readers’ interest by highlighting the implications of the study, noting how the research will affect people and the scientific field, or perhaps by posing a mystery or controversy the research addresses.
For the purpose of this job simulation, it may be unlikely that you have access to the individual’s perspective (unless you want to really go above-and-beyond and contact the researchers directly).
Task 3: Write the article
The approximate length of most science writing publications can range from 600-1500 words, but in the interest of time you should aim for 300-600 words. The article should clearly achieve the following:
- Has a concise, informative, and ideally eye-catching title.
- Grabs readers’ attention early on by setting up the article in an intriguing way. You could do this, for example, by highlighting a controversy the findings speak to, directly relating the work to the reader’s personal life, or offering the promise of a solution to, or avoidance of, a common problem.
- Communicates the work completely yet concisely, in that important details are included and irrelevant details are omitted. Your reader should not be left with begging questions or an inaccurate understanding of the research. However, your article also shouldn’t be so encumbered with details that reading is a chore.
- Is interesting enough to keep your readers until the end of the article, where there should be a satisfying conclusion. Your article should end by tying the work to the bigger picture and making well-grounded (as opposed to overly grandiose) claims. To accomplish this, the ending often (but not always) ties back to the beginning of the article, where you generated interest and highlighted the research’s importance.
The final product should be an abbreviated article that is 2-4 paragraphs; 300-600 words.
General resources to help you get going
- A helpful article about writing to the general public by American Scientist: Tips for Scientists Writing for the General Public.
- Primary sources may need to be accessed through a database with a paid subscription (e.g., PubMed, PsychInfo, ScienceDirect), so you may have to visit your local library or university.
- For examples of published science writing, find Science and Technology articles published by your organization, such as The Source by Washington University in St. Louis. You may also look to well-known magazines, for instance in the United States, you might look into Wired, American Scientist, or Scientific American.
Skills used to perform this task
- Good eye and ear for newsworthy research.
- Being ‘in-touch’ with your audience. Knowing what interests your audience and how to relate to them.
- Ability to convey complicated concepts simply, without stripping the work of its nuances and implications for both the general public and the scientific community.
- Storytelling skills.
- Knowledge of the mechanics and technical skills of writing (e.g., grammar, syntax).
Skills used in a science writing career
- Balancing the needs and wants of the researchers with those of the organization’s marketing and communications team.
- Having good interpersonal skills and a strong backbone—you may find yourself in situations where you must tell a researcher that their work isn’t actually newsworthy, without burning bridges or injuring egos along the way.
- A passion for science in general, and the ability to understand fields outside your own area of expertise. This simulation allows you to choose your topic; in many cases this is may not be true. As a science writer, you may find yourself writing and learning about topics that you may not care about or understand very well.
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Simulation author: Francis T. Anderson, PhD candidate in Psychological and Brain Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis.
Simulation vetted by professionals from Washington University in St. Louis and Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, MO.