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How to NOT Write Like a Scientist

By Gwen Pearson

It’s a secret we don’t talk about openly: Academic writing is dreadful. If you aren’t an expert in a particular sub-field, it can take hours — or even days — to make sense of a publication. Formal scientific writing isn’t irredeemably ghastly; it’s a dialect that has evolved into ritualized structures and tones. It is also, like some language dialects, incomprehensible to outsiders.


The Author hiding behind an issue of Wired Magazine (She’s on page 94).

The writing we’re trained to do as scientists is passive, highly detailed, and dispassionately objective. That’s why switching to writing for the general public — or just trying to make your grant proposals less dull — can be a challenge. I’ll facilitate this Brown Bag Session at the ESA Annual Meeting:

“Don’t Bury the Lede: How to Unlearn All the Terrible Writing Habits you Developed in Academia”

Tuesday, November 18, 2014: 12:15 PM-1:15 PM  (1 hour)
This workshop will be a brief overview of structuring stories for the popular press, and will provide helpful tips for your writing.

The reason I think I can teach something about terrible science writing habits is, I have all of them.

I work full-time as a science writer, but I never had a journalism or writing course other than freshman composition. When I received my PhD in entomology in 1992, the Internet was only two years old, and Wired Magazine didn’t even exist.

Somehow, I managed to get good enough at writing to land a gig at a major tech magazine. I learned mostly by trial and error, and now you can all learn from my mistakes.

Some of the things we’ll talk about are:

  • What makes a good title for a story
  • Why your first paragraph must be grabby
  • What a lede is, and why scientists bury it
  • Why active voice and narrative make a difference
  • What kinds of stories tend to resonate with readers
  • Why everyone needs an editor

I’ll give everyone a checklist of the most common mistakes I make as well, so you can make sure you learn from my fails.

If you’re interested in attending this Brown Bag Session, please let me know by completing this online form. It’s not a reservation; the form just lets me get an estimate of how many people might be there, and what their interests are.

I hope workshop attendees will consider submitting an essay to Entomology Today as their first steps into writing about bugs outside of a journal. I’ll provide feedback on the first draft for any graduate or undergrad students who want to submit a post.

See you in Portland!

Gwen Pearson is the entomologist formerly known as Bug Girl. She obtained her PhD in entomology from North Carolina State University, and her Charismatic Minifauna blog appears in Wired Magazine. Follow her on Twitter at @bug_girl.

1 Comment »

  1. Thank you, Gwen! I do stories on some of the cool projects funded by the Southern IPM Center, and I have had to reassure scientists that accuracy and active voice can exist in the same paragraph. I’d love to attend your session, but I’m not attending the annual meeting. Thanks for hosting the discussion!

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