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What is Science Writing?

kgould's picture

 What is Science Writing?

(And Why Does The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Not Count?)

 Having been in Facing Facts, a course on non-fiction prose, it seems silly to propose that there are any definite characteristics that make something Science Writing. We have been barely able to say, for certain, what makes something non-fiction—other than not being fiction—and if Science Writing is not fiction, what does that mean?

That said, I will do my best to outline what is Science Writing, what is not Science Writing, and what makes a piece of Science Writing successful (and why, despite all appearances, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot is not good Science Writing).

Moreover, I want to consider what broader implications that this kind of analysis has for the ultimate purpose of Science Writing—communication.


What is Science Writing?

It has to be said that Science Writing should be distinguished from scientific writing, like that done in lab reports and research papers and textbooks, writing directed towards an audience of researchers or members of a particular field.

Science Writing is meant for a general audience, accessible to all levels of knowledge and understanding, for non-experts and “non-scientists.”

This piece is going to make some sub-categories of Science Writing, but will make no claims that any of these sub-categories are factual or actually exist. They often exist in the context of bookstores and websites for the purpose of organization and these categories will be discussed because not only do they suppose particular readers and interests, but they also represent the largest number of book and publication topics, the ones that have become the most popular.

This is interesting for us because it reflects the majority of what the public considers “science.”

These sub-categories can be illustrated as follows:

·      Science Writing

o   Science Journalism

o   Science Narrative

§ General

§ Medical

§ Nature (Ecology and Environment)

§ Social

§ Technology

(Both Science Journalism and Prose deviate into these areas of interest, as well as many more not listed here for the sake of brevity). 

Science Journalism:

In the simplest terms, Science Journalism is writing done in article form, long or short, that explores recent events in science and explains them to a general audience. This includes publications like Scientific American, Discover, National Geographic, Wired, Popular Science, and more, including websites and blogs.

Science Narrative:

Science Prose is longer in form than Science Journalism, usually taking the form of books, and explores more than just recent events in science—they run the gamut from historical science narratives (The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson) to personal medical narratives (My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor Ph.D.) to clinical experiences turned narrative (The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks).


The smaller sub-categories, more aptly called “areas of interest,” are self-explanatory.

Medical concerns areas of medicine, ranging from categorizing diseases and their impact on people, culture, and medicine (The Family That Couldn’t Sleep: A Medical Mystery by D.T. Max) to the changes and progress of medicine over time (see Stiff: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach).

Nature (Ecology and Environment) looks at areas of nature: plants, animals, ecosystems, with the hope of educating and preserving (A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson).

Social usually talks about a science topic in the context of sociology or its impact on society, such as food science (Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal by Eric Schlosser) or gender in the body (The Woman in the Body: A Cultural Analysis of Reproduction by Emily Martin).

Technology talks about just that, technology, and the realms of industrial science, mechanics, computers and applications of technology on other areas of science (The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google by Nicholas Carr).

General is a catch-all for anything that doesn’t seem to fit well into any more specific categories (like A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson).

It has to be noted that most of these books don’t fit neatly into any of these single areas of interest and, depending on the bookstore or website, you can find them in many different places. Categories are useful for organization, but not for definition.


What is Not Science Writing?

It’s kind of like asking what is not fiction—it’s not really accurate, it gets confusing, and there’s actually a lot of crossover between categories. Despite that, let’s try our best.

Your textbook from Biology class is not Science Writing, although Science Writers might have contributed to the information therein.

And, despite’s attempts to the contrary, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, Sixth Edition, and the disturbing number of diet books are not Science Writing.

Here is why: Pride and Prejudice is fictional and contains no science content (although literary Darwinists might disagree), the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, Sixth Edition is a style manual for writers of social and behavioral scientific papers (i.e. not meant for a general audience), and diet books, while containing some science information, are how-to guides in losing weight, rather than explanations and explorations of science topics in, maybe, metabolism and food and biology (see The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan).

For more information on what is not Science Writing, consider the bulleted outline below on what makes successful Science Writing.


Successful Science Writing:

Facing Facts recently read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, which is often categorized as Science Writing and used in science classrooms. While I don’t deny the benefits of science students learning about the use of biological material and the ethics surrounding consent in the fields of biology, chemistry, and medicine, The Immortal Life is less Science Writing and more of a tragic and heart wrenching account of a woman, her family, and the legacy of her cancer cells. The science involving HeLa cells is relatively brief—Skloot chooses to focus more on the family, their discussions, and the social wrong committed by the medical establishment than what HeLa cells are, the ethical pros and cons of using biological material with or without consent, and the science behind them.

Skloot “gives a voice to the family” of Henrietta Lacks and she does it well. But she does not give an in-depth science narrative concerning HeLa cells and the ethics around them. Yes, the Lacks family is poor and faces lots of health issues. Yes, Henrietta Lacks’s cells were used without permission. Yes, HeLa cells have been and are used by the medical establishment to produce new treatments and therapies for a whole range of diseases and conditions. But Skloot passes over the science of cell cultures, of cancer, of how cancer treatments have been developed from HeLa cells, focusing more on the exploitation of the family and the process of digging up information on Henrietta Lacks.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is not successful Science Writing.


Successful Science Writing should:

·      have a narrative element to it—it should tell a story—in an aesthetically pleasing and compelling way.

·      give the reader an understanding of a science topic that they did not understand or understood less than before they read it.

·      frame a science topic in the context of historical and cultural issues, of how the science has changed over time, of the implications it has for us in the present and the future.

·      be approachable for a general audience without “dumbing down” or skipping over scientific details, with a thorough explanation of the science.



Why does any of this matter? Why should we care about what Science Writing is or isn’t, or what makes it successful? 

Science Writing is a co-constructive conversation between writer and reader, a means of telling a story and communicating an interesting set of information, of furthering investigations into the world around us and into ourselves.

In order for a reader to understand what the writer is trying to say, the writer has to understand the reader, their aims and purposes and how they understand (1).

The writer has to anticipate any struggles or gaps in comprehension that the reader might have; they have to properly introduce and communicate data and information in a way that is digestible and understandable for someone who may not have a background in science.

In this way, Science Writing (or any kind of writing for that matter) is a two-way street. The reader learns and gains a greater understanding as they read and the writer learns and gains a greater understanding as they write. It is a form of communication, a way of storytelling, which produces a joint effort to perceive, interpret, and ultimately understand more about science: the world and our place in it.

Learning more about the world and ourselves is a good thing and, moreover, a necessary thing, because the world is constantly changing and us in accord, and in order for us to continue living, working, being, we must continue to explore and challenge and understand the stories told around us and about us.

Science Writing is an effort to make science, something often seen as cold and analytical, something enthusiastic and approachable. Science is more than just beakers in a lab or men in lab coats. Science is life and is something worth appreciating for everyone. Science Writing is storytelling, plain and simple, and a means by which we can learn and communicate.






Anne Dalke's picture

turtles all the way down....


so at the risk of toppling the stack of turtles:

could you tell me, first, what science is?

Here's my conundrum: it seems as though you construct a very elaborate--really meticulous--catalogue of various kinds of science writing, to the end that you can then exclude some exemplars--such as Henrietta Lacks' Immortal Life--that don't fit in any of the categories you'd drawn up. But then it's as if you throw it all away, by saying, @ the end, that "science writing is storytelling plain and simple." Which suggests that there really is nothing--@ least in narrative form--which lies outside science(?). So why then, spend all that time constructing all the cells in this honeycomb (to mix metaphors and species...but you get my drift?)

kgould's picture

I knew I wanted to write on

I knew I wanted to write on what science writing is, but I was really uncomfortable writing this none-the-less. The idea of defining anything after taking this course seems silly and, really, arrogant.

I didn't even want to get into what science is, even though it's an integral part of science writing, because that would take... a long time. More than four pages.  I don't know that I can even accurately define what it is, anymore.

It seemed silly, and it still does, to define something this way after this semester. But I wanted to try, to the best of my ability, to qualify and endorse this field--because it is important to me and my understanding of science and writing.