Why science writing is like sex


After last week’s depressing story, I wanted to write about something a bit more positive this time round. It’s about communication of science, and how attitude is everything.

Science is thought of as dull, but only because it’s often communicated in a dull way. As scientists, we’re trained to write in a particular way for the benefit of other scientists, but it doesn’t work if you try to use the same language with the lay public.

I want to talk about a different approach. Language is amazing. It lets you connect with people on a deep level, and share images and ideas and emotions. But language is a massive barrier if you use the wrong words the wrong way.

These are my three rules for science writing, and they have nothing to do with scientific knowledge or technical writing skill, but everything to do with attitude.

Rule Number One: Be Yourself

If you don’t put your soul into your writing, nobody is going to connect with you. It doesn’t mean be whacky or gimmicky, just imagine it as part of a conversation. Write with your enthusiasm and love for the subject in mind and it’ll come out through your words.

Science writing is like sex; unless you make a mental connection, nobody’s going to get it. Sure, you can go through the motions, but without a mental connection it’ll be as exciting as a Victorian missionary.

Rule Number Two: Forget What You Know

Think like a beginner and forget everything you know; about writing and about your subject. Rebuild the picture from scratch and take the reader with you. Think creatively, ditch the rules about neutrality, get excited, and you’ll get your point across.

Rule Number Three: Believe in Your Audience

Science is hard to explain, there’s no avoiding it, but you have to put the effort in if you’re passionate about your subject. Take the view that “if I can’t get a point across, it’s my fault!”

In my book, I’m writing about quantum confinement, quantum tunnelling, reciprocal space, surface reconstructions… you name it. But these are just words! My belief in my audience is that if you read it, you’ll understand it. You’ll get that mental picture and that connection.  It might be a hell of a lot of work for me, but that’s my goal.

So that’s it.  If you don’t have passion for your subject, get out of the game.

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6 Comments on “Why science writing is like sex”

  1. martywalpole Says:

    I like that attitude, “be yourself” excellent advice. I particularly found the relationship to sex interesting. Yes, one does need the mental connection. I liked the “Victorian missionary” comparsion. may I use it?

  2. Bernardamus Says:

    “If you don’t have passion for your subject, get out of the game.” … yeah, excellent point indeed. This is my personal struggle with science.

    Is it really possible to have passion for science??… I mean true passion! What I always experienced for science was intellectual stimulation, nothing comparable with passion for music, art, humanistic topics or sex.

    I personally believe Science can be a funny GAME, once you discover the rules you can enjoy like a kid, may be… but passion? I doubt it. I am personally searching for some true passion in my life, I hope you convince me Science writing is like sex, seriously!

    • jjjhayton Says:

      I mean in a metaphorical sense (I don’t literally get sexually excited by science!), it’s about making a connection through writing. If you’re bored by your own subject, you can’t get anyone else excited by it.

      The best scientists are obsessed with what they do, but often don’t convey any excitement when teaching or writing, and that affects the way an audience responds.

      • Bernardamus Says:

        You pronounced a key word “OBSESSED”!
        I personally believe people so often confuse OBSESSION for PASSION. You can get obsessed with almost anything….but I believe you can be REALLY passionate about few areas of existence.
        Intellectual pleasure is a thing…. passion requires something physical at some level… art/music can be a passion because it’s communication beyond brain capabilities, the same applies to humanistic field. I guess passion requires EMPATHY.
        Can we empathize with atoms or solid state matter? do we get any physical/emotional feedback?
        That’s the problem :D

      • jjjhayton Says:

        Isn’t there an emotional response when you look up at the stars? Science is about nature, and there’s beauty in it, without doubt. It’s too easy to forget when you get caught up in the day to day process, because it becomes a job!

        As a writer, I’m trying to disconnect from the professional way of looking at science, look at it afresh and rediscover the excitement at looking at really, really cool things.

  3. mad4science Says:

    I couldn’t agree more with you. Contrary to what many people think, science is not just a collection of dry facts. Great science is about passion, and so is great science writing.

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