As scientists, we are all writers. That is, we write. But we all know that the papers and reports that we produce have very specific, narrow audiences. For most of us, even our most cited papers are read by only a negligible fraction of the population. I suspect that many of us who aspire to write for broader audiences could use some advice—advice that will likely prove useful for scientific writing as well.
Stacey Solie is a Seattle-based journalist and contributor to Weather.com, the New York Times, the Seattle Times, and the Daily Beast, and she got started writing as the creator and editor of the in-house Nature Conservancy newsletter, the Science Chronicles. She can write for diverse audiences. I met Stacey about eight years ago at a writing retreat hosted by The Nature Conservancy in wintery Millbrook, New York. I recently invited her to talk to my lab group at the University of Washington. She provided us with a plethora of suggestions, which I have boiled down into six tips.
1. Write first, edit later
If you are like me, you write a sentence, then you rewrite it. Then perhaps you write two more sentences. Then you go back and rework those three sentences—one step forward, three steps back. Solie suggests a powerful alternative—write first, edit later. Get it all out as fluidly as you can. It will be messy, it will be ugly, and it will be incomplete, but it will get the ideas down that you can work with later. Her advice reminded me of some offered to me by one of my postdoc advisors: write drunk, edit sober—probably not the best advice, particularly if you do a lot of writing. Solie’s advice is in the same spirit, but better for your liver.
2. Practice free writing, daily
Solie advocates freewriting. Freewriting is exactly what it sounds like: one writes, well… freely, without regard for grammar, spelling, form, or even topic. Inspired by a book, Writing without Teachers, by Peter Elbow, Solie recommends doing a bit of freewriting every day. She assigns the graduate students in her Environmental Science Writing for Impact class at the University of Washington 15 minutes of daily freewriting. Solie does her daily freewriting by hand, and she writes about anything — food, life, what’s happening outside her window. Like other pursuits, the more you practice, the better you’ll become. While preparing to write on a specific topic, Solie recommends employing focused freewrites, which allow you to put questions and concerns on the page without judgement, and to pursue tangents and free-associate, which can help stimulate original thought.
3. Prime the pump
This one is somewhat radical. Solie suggested treating the first draft of a piece as a practice run. Sit down and write a very rough draft, quickly and freely. Then put that draft aside and write an entirely new draft—without looking at the first. This can also be done on a paragraph-by-paragraph basis. Treating the first draft lightly instills confidence. While the first words you jot down may not be the best, the idea is to trust that more and better words and sentences will come to you if you provide the opportunity by letting go and creating space. I have to admit, I haven’t tried this one yet, but I want to.
4. Talk it out
It can help to discuss what you are writing with someone else. You may find that after telling someone what you are writing about, you have a firmer grasp on the matter yourself. Solie gave me a concrete example when I talked to her shortly after she returned from Darrington, Washington, where she was reporting on the Oso landslide. She talked me through the story she was working on and afterward noted that doing so had given her a bit more direction through the complex pile of leads and details she had amassed.
5. Keep a journal
Particularly if you plan on writing for nonscientific audiences, you will want to amass the fodder for good stories. Jot down details while you are in the field—the color of the sky, the sound of the river, the size of the bull moose that almost didn’t back down when you turned the corner to find him and his 6-foot rack blocking the trail. This stuff may come in handy.
6. Read good writers
This is advice we all likely give our students—read the literature and note how the really good papers are written. Not surprisingly, the same goes for popular writing. Solie gave my lab an excellent example to read—a piece by Robert Sapolsky.
These suggestions will not work for everyone—you need to find your own way to your voice. But I have found Solie’s tips to be useful for writing for both scientific audiences and for the general public. And they have already helped my writing—believe it or not. What are your favorite writing tips? Leave a comment.
Josh Lawler, a 2013 Leopold Leadership Fellow, is an associate professor in the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences at the University of Washington. Follow him on the web and on Twitter @jjjlawler.