science writing

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

science writing
"Make no mistake," says Mary Roach, "good science writing is medicine. It is a cure for ignorance and fallacy. Good science writing peels away the blinders, generates wonder, brings the open palm to the forehead: Oh! Now I get it! And sometimes it does much more than that" (Introduction to The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2011). (Serge Kozak/Getty Images)


(1) The term science writing refers to writing about scientific subject matter, often in a non-technical manner for an audience of non-scientists (a form of journalism or creative nonfiction). Also called popular science writing. For more information, visit the website of the National Association of Science Writers.

(2) Science writing may also refer to writing that reports scientific observations and results in a manner governed by specific conventions (a form of technical writing).

More commonly known as scientific writing.

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

Examples and Observations (Definition #1)

  • "Because science writing is intended to be entertaining enough to capture the continued interest of potential readers, its style is much less somber than the usual scientific writing [i.e., definition #2, above]. The use of slang, puns, and other word plays on the English language are accepted and even encouraged. . . .

    "Distinguishing between science writing and scientific writing is reasonable—they have different purposes and a different audience. However, one would be ill advised to use the term 'science writing' or 'popular writing' in a disparaging way. Writing (or providing consultation for others who are writing) popularized accounts based on scientific research should be an important part of every scientists's outreach activities. The wider community is essential to adequate support for scientific endeavors."
    (Janice R. Matthews and Robert W. Matthews, Successful Scientific Writing: A Step-by-Step Guide for the Biological and Medical Sciences, 4th ed. Cambridge University Press, 2014)

  • An Example of Science Writing: "Stripped for Parts"
    "Sustaining a dead body until its organs can be harvested is a tricky process requiring the latest in medical technology. But it's also a distinct anachronism in an era when medicine is becoming less and less invasive. Fixing blocked coronary arteries, which not long ago required prying a patient's chest open with a saw and spreader, can now be accomplished with a tiny stent delivered to the heart on a slender wire threaded up the leg. Exploratory surgery has given way to robot cameras and high-resolution imaging. Already, we are eyeing the tantalizing summit of gene therapy, where diseases are cured even before they do damage. Compared with such microscale cures, transplants—which consist of salvaging entire organs from a heart-beating cadaver and sewing them into a different body—seem crudely mechanical, even medieval."
    (Jennifer Kahn, "Stripped for Parts." Wired.  March 2003. Reprinted in The Best American Science Writing 2004, edited by Dava Sobel. HarperCollins, 2004)

  • On Explaining Science
    "The question is not "should" you explain a concept or process, but "how" can you do so in a way that is clear and so readable that it is simply part of the story?

    "Use explanatory strategies such as . . .
    - Active-voice verbs
    - Analogies and metaphors
    - Backing into an explanation, that is, explaining before labeling
    - Selecting critical features of a process and being willing to set aside the others, as too much explanatory detail will hurt rather than help.
    "People who study what makes an explanation successful have found that while giving examples is helpful, giving nonexamples is even better.

    "Nonexamples are examples of what something is not. Often, that kind of example will help clarify what the thing is. If you were trying to explain groundwater, for instance, you might say that, while the term seems to suggest an actual body of water, such as a lake or an underground river, that would be an inaccurate image. Groundwater is not a body of water in the traditional sense; rather, as Katherine Rowan, communications professor, points out, it is water moving slowly but relentlessly through cracks and crevices in the ground below us. . . .

    "Be acutely aware of your readers' beliefs. You might write that chance is the best explanation of a disease cluster; but this could be counterproductive if your readers reject chance as an explanation for anything. If you are aware that readers' beliefs may collide with an explanation you give, you may be able to write in a way that doesn't cause these readers to block their minds to the science you explain."
    (Sharon Dunwoody, "On Explaining Science." A Field Guide for Science Writers, 2nd ed., ed. by Deborah Blum, Mary Knudson, and Robin Marantz Henig. Oxford University Press, 2006)

  • The Lighter Side of Science Writing
    "In this paragraph I will state the main claim that the research makes, making appropriate use of 'scare quotes' to ensure that it's clear that I have no opinion about this research whatsoever.

    "In this paragraph I will briefly (because no paragraph should be more than one line) state which existing scientific ideas this new research 'challenges.'

    "If the research is about a potential cure, or a solution to a problem, this paragraph will describe how it will raise hopes for a group of sufferers or victims.

    "This paragraph elaborates on the claim, adding weasel-words like 'the scientists say' to shift responsibility for establishing the likely truth or accuracy of the research findings on to absolutely anybody else but me, the journalist. . . ."
    (Martin Robbins, "This Is a News Website Article About a Scientific Paper." The Guardian, September 27, 2010)