Science writing and science communications can be divided into two categories:
- Popular science communications intended for a broad audience of non-specialists
- Technical science communications intended for a narrow audience of insiders to a particular field
Science writing and communication are broad topics and it’s important to define our purview and a little about the approach I’ve taken on this website.
This website focuses on popular science communications, which I define as:
Communicating the significance of scientific research and technological innovation to non-specialists and specialists reading outside of their field of expertise.
My expertise and experience are mostly in popular science communications and the concepts and skills shared on this website fall into that category. I’ll go into a bit more detail below about the distinction between popular science communication and technical science communication.
It’s worth noting that science education materials are somewhat of an edge-case between popular and technical science communications. A book on the solar system for a 5-year-old on the solar system tends towards popular science writing, while a college physics text book edges toward technical science writing (though it does the heavy lifting of explaining concepts and jargon along the way).
A quick aside: You’ll notice that I often use the word “writing” in referring to a broad range of communications mediums. Science stories are told through text, photos, video, infographics, sound recordings, and other multimedia. But as with a Hollywood movie, a written script is often the basis for audio and visual forms of communications in science.
In the worlds of public relations and journalism even photographers often portray their subjects based on a written story draft or note from a reporter/writer. To simplify the discussion, then, I will often use “writing” to refer generally to the core art of crafting a science, medicine, or technology story.
Popular Science Writing vs Technical Science Writing
Popular science writing and technical science writing typically have different intended audiences.
The institutional purveyors of popular science stories range from media outlets like CNN and the New York Times to television networks like Science Channel or National Geographic to universities and non-profit research institutes such as MIT, Stanford, and Scripps Research.
These stories reach a broad audience with diverse levels of education and knowledge about science. An article on particle physics in the New York Times might be read by a Columbia University anthropology professor or by Times Square hotdog vendor, neither of whom has a deep understanding of quantum mechanics.
On the other hand, technical-scientific communication includes, among other things, scientists corresponding among themselves through scientific journals and meeting presentations, grant applications written to funding agencies, and reports of data from clinical trials to the Food and Drug Administration (the people who write these technical reports are typically referred a “medical writers” in job ads).
The highly technical language used in these “insider” venues allows experts to communicate precisely and efficiently – explanations of jargon and core concepts are dispensed with because the audience is familiar with the lexicon of the field.
While tremendously important, writing in this mode of communication is not the focus of this website – although technical science writing certainly wouldn’t suffer from applying some of the concepts you’ll find here. A well-written scientific paper, for instance, is more likely to get published than one that’s poorly written.
What is the Purpose of Popular Science Writing?
Organizations’ goals for creating and disseminating stories and information about science vary.
A CNN news spot hopes to entertain and inform to keep you tuned in to boost the network’s viewership and advertising sales. That university fundraising letter to alumni highlighting the fascinating research taking place at your alma mater hopes to inspire your support for the school and the research with a donation.
While these communications have different goals in mind, many of the same fundamental principles are necessary to communicate successfully in these different venues and towards various goals. Different needs and audiences require variations in messaging, tone, and medium, but at the core, they are variations on a theme.
Popular Science Communication Forms
Science communications come in a variety of packages. Here are just a few of the forms that science storytelling can take, in no particular order:
- News stories from journalistic media outlets
- University press releases organizations
- Industry press releases
- Social media posts
- YouTube videos
- Podcast episodes
- Magazine articles
- Fundraising letters
- University websites
- Presentations at events
- Documentary films
As you can see, the term “science writing” can be applied to many different forms and styles, from a Tweet to a 5000-word magazine article to a feature-length documentary.
But as I noted above, many of the core storytelling concepts apply to all of these different forms and intended goals. My plan is to share those core concepts with the intention of helping you become a science writer or grow your skills if you are already one.
The next article in this series is Why is Science Writing Important?