Science Writers Writing Science

My ultimate destination on the weekend was the place you see above, Marquis Hall at the University of Saskatchewan. In three days, I spent twenty hours in this room, absorbing much-needed writing skills. And eating, for it is in this room that an endless supply of some of the best muffins and worst coffee I’ve ever encountered were served. Overall, it was a comfortable venue with well-managed acoustics and well-spoken participants.

I knew no one here, except the fellow who helped me and my wheelchair get around the campus. Gerhard Maier is a good friend, and both the city of Saskatoon and this meeting were of some interest to him. Gerhard is a science writer, having published African Dinosaurs Unearthed. His book is an in-depth chronicle of the century-old discovery of the biggest dino dig in Africa. Without Gerhard’s help and the excellent work of the organizers at the Canadian Science Writer’s Association I probably would not be here. The organization had brewed up an irresistible roster of speakers and topics. We would hear Jay Ingram, a tireless science communicator who once hosted CBC’s Quirks and Quarks and Discovery Channel’s Daily Planet. Also, from Brooklyn via Skype, we learned how to latch on to news trends by one of the proprietors of Mashable. There were various panels – food security, critical thinking, clear writing – which included about 50 scientists and panelists. There were tours on the South Saskatchewan River, and in the University of Saskatchewan’s dairy research centre, vaccine centre, and the Canadian Light Source synchrotron, Canada’s brightest light, which is used to decipher RNA code among many other things. There was much more, of course. Lunch speakers, more tours, and some obscure thing called “networking” which I couldn’t figure out very well.

I had joined the science writer’s organization less than a year ago. I have spent the past couple of years trying to learn how to communicate science, but it has been a haphazard education. I picked up a few good writing books (Steven Pinker’s Sense of Style, for example) and I read articles and blogs about writing whenever I could. I had heard that incessant writing builds skill, so I try to publish a blog piece every week at this site and at my geophysics blog, The Mountain Mystery. The idea that becoming a writer requires a lot of practice was confirmed by some grizzled reporters at the conference. I also gleaned some clever tools to help me write more clearly. Science writing for a general audience, for example, should be similar to story-telling in a conversational tone. Try to avoid high-falutin words like apiarist when beekeeper says the same thing in a simpler way. Emotional appeal, humour, and personal perspectives are encouraged when conveying science messages. Analogs are useful tools but caution should be exercised to be certain they are accurate enough. (One example is the now discredited and over-used analogy of the atom drawn and explained as if it were a miniature solar system. It isn’t.)

It was a great conference, but don’t expect this blog to suddenly blossom into a phenomenal work of art with well-written witty tales about beekeeping. I will try, but I don’t anticipate miracles will happen. Not for a few days, anyway.

About Ron Miksha

Ron Miksha is a bee ecologist working at the University of Calgary. He is also a geophysicist and does a bit of science writing and blogging. Ron has worked as a radio broadcaster, a beekeeper, and Earth scientist. (Ask him about seismic waves.) He's based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
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