Shedding Sentence Deadweight to Help Science Stories Soar

 

Under deadline pressure, science journalists often stick to what works. As a novice writer, I often experimented with my prose. Now, as a time-crunched freelancer, I find myself turning to my favorite words and go-to phrases. But hewing to the tried and true can produce stories that sound stale—stories that risk boring me and my readers.

Strong sentences can propel science journalism and bring the fun back into the craft. To write stories that resonate, reporters can spice up bland verbs, rethink repetitive nouns, transform dry descriptions, and freshen their text with wordplay. Creative and evocative prose not only keeps audiences awake but can better explain scientific concepts and the research that reveals them.

 

Invigorating Verbs

Boring verbs are the bane of all writers. And repeatedly using common words to convey scientists’ actions—study, analyze, investigate, examine—can induce yawns.

To liven up sentences, Constance Hale, a journalist and author of the book Sin & Syntax, suggests thinking of verbs in the following categories: Static verbs include passive verbs, various forms of to be (such as is, was, are), and wishy-washy words (appear, seem). Dynamic verbs deliver action; for example, study and analyze fall into this category. But a subset of dynamic verbs, which Hale christens “dynamos,” are the punchiest of the bunch, portraying specific movements that a reader can visualize. Think clatter, gush, crinkle, sway.

When describing a scientific study, journalists can find dynamos by moving closer to the action: What, exactly, were researchers investigating or analyzing, and how? For example, in a 2018 feature for The New York Times about the identity of an Egyptian mummy, reporter Nicholas St. Fleur used powerful verbs to reconstruct scenes in scientists’ labs. To describe efforts to extract a tooth and its DNA, he wrote that researchers “snaked” a scope into the mummy’s mouth, “clamped” onto a molar with dental forceps to pop it free, and “drilled” into the tooth’s crown.

Boring verbs are the bane of all writers.

Carefully chosen verbs can also help reporters explain abstract ideas and bring policy issues to life. Rosanna Xia deployed this tactic in a 2019 story about how California’s coastal communities are responding to rising sea levels. The story revolves around the concept of “managed retreat,” which means moving people and buildings—and even communities—instead of defending them against anticipated natural disasters, such as with seawalls or other structures. When the story was published, the term was “terribly wonky and inside baseball,” says Xia, an environmental writer at the Los Angeles Times who focuses on coastal issues.

To write what she calls one of the most difficult paragraphs of the story, Xia first pared the definition down to three sparse actions (italics added in the following passages):

[T]here’s what scientists and economists and number-crunching consultants call “managed retreat”: Move back, relocate, essentially cede the land to nature.

The next sentence’s verbs turn what could be a dull policy discussion into drama-filled action:

These words alone have roiled the few cities bold enough to utter them. Mayors have been ousted, planning documents rewritten, campaigns waged over the very thought of turning prime real estate back into dunes and beaches.

Later in the story, when describing residents’ livid response to a managed-retreat proposal, Xia’s verbs become even more concrete:

Homeowners flooded city meetings, knocked on neighbors’ doors and plastered signs around town.

To add more action to stories, Hale suggests that reporters review their drafts and circle ineffective verbs. Xia looks for adverbs so she can substitute sharper options; for example, “walked quickly” can become “trotted.” Reporters also can take note of vivid verbs in their day-to-day reading. Newspaper articles, in particular, may be a good source of inspiration. Because her stories are subjected to restrictive word limits, Xia says she has been conditioned to make every verb count. “There’s no room for weak verbs or filler words in a newspaper feature,” she says.

 

Noteworthy Nouns

Repetitive nouns can render writing insipid. Beat writers, in particular, contend with the challenge of reusing the same words over and over. For instance, Xia has to work with a small number of synonyms of the word coast (shore, shoreline) or ocean (sea, water).

Sometimes, reuse of a specific and accurate word can’t be helped. But to find more creative alternatives, Hale suggests the following exercise: Circle a noun, think of five synonyms, and look up the best synonyms in a dictionary or thesaurus to create a longer list of words. Next, think about rhymes and alliterations that can make the prose more fun. “Part of what’s surprising and evocative in language is our musical elements, like tone, rhythm, or sound,” Hale says. “The more synonyms you have, the more possibilities you have for playing around.”

For instance, in her book The Canon, writer Natalie Angier uses clever phrases to stand in for the word electrons. She calls them “fidgety flecks,” employing alliteration, and “the most totable of motes,” forming a delightful rhyme.

Creative constructions emerge when writers employ metaphors, similes, analogies, and allusion.

Such creative constructions emerge when writers employ metaphors, similes, analogies, and allusion. Even a simple metaphor that connects a scientific concept to something familiar can enliven a story, says Traci Watson, an editor for Nature’s news section. “I can forgive a writer a lot of sins and a lot of sloppiness if they use metaphors,” she says.

One way to find metaphors is to consider the object’s form or function. In his book Full Spectrum, Adam Rogers came up with memorable substitutes for the word brain that captured the organ’s texture, location, and role in making sense of the world. For instance, Rogers called the brain “the thoughtful aspic” inside the skull, “a lump of gelled protein and fat that is everything you are,” and “electrified meat and jelly.” In addition to making the text less repetitive, these phrases explain through allusion. And by referring to edible items, they add an ick factor that provokes “a visceral spine tingle,” says Rogers, a senior correspondent at Wired.

To brainstorm metaphors, reporters can free-associate and write whatever words, phrases, and images come to mind. Leaving the computer for a walk or a shower may help writers think more adventurously and less critically about their ideas.

Writers can also create memorable metaphors by combining objects or concepts from disparate realms, says Susan Milius, a staff writer at Science News. For instance, she once interviewed a scientist who referred to an ocean critter’s feeding shell, which was made of mucus, as a “snot palace.” The phrase forms an unlikely connection between dribbling goop and the world of architecture, and calling the structure a “palace” rather than a “house” heightens the juxtaposition.

 

Delicious Descriptions

When reporters churn out descriptions of scientific processes or objects on autopilot, the resulting text can be dry and shopworn—at worst, the equivalent of a Wikipedia entry. To create passages with more oomph, journalists can try strategies that Milius learned from her mother Helen, a magazine writer with “Shakespeare tastes” who “at times turned to bare-knuckle jobs such as writing advertising copy,” as Milius describes her. “I often hear her voice wafting over the keyboard.”

One of her mother’s “secret superpowers” was referring to food, especially desserts, Milius says. Helen Milius’s male competitors during the Mad Men era of advertising may have looked down on this technique, considering it undesirably feminine. But “food-related words can have visceral appeal,” Milius says. Food can conjure beautiful colors; for browns, think chocolate, coffee, or cinnamon. Or it can depict texture, as in pudding, Jell-O, whipped cream, or ketchup.

Food can conjure beautiful colors; for browns, think chocolate, coffee, or cinnamon. Or it can depict texture, as in pudding, Jell-O, whipped cream, or ketchup.

Marina Koren, a staff writer at The Atlantic, has added scrumptious references to her stories about space. To describe a SpaceX astronaut capsule that had returned to Earth, she pulled up a photo and, noting a resemblance to a campfire treat, wrote that it was “roasted like a marshmallow during reentry”—a description that calls out to the pleasure of food while aptly capturing the vehicle’s fiery journey through our planet’s atmosphere. When Koren was searching for the right adjectives to describe Mars’s hue for another story, she asked her Twitter followers for ideas. Of the responses, “butterscotch-colored” captured the desired shade and fit her piece’s upbeat, playful tone. Writers can also look to online color palettes or paint names for fresh words to describe colors.

Milius has added a corollary to her mother’s advice: “A tasteful reference to sex also livens up text—at least as much as a reference to food.” She took this approach in a 2021 feature for Science News about conserving forests to slow climate change. To keep readers engaged after technical passages about deforestation and tree anatomy, Milius sprinkled in what she calls “purple glitter” about plant reproduction:

Plants invented “steamy but not touchy” long before the Victorian novel—much flowering, perfuming and maybe green yearning, all without direct contact of reproductive organs. Just a dusting of pollen wafted on a breeze or delivered by a bee.

The literary reference, inspired by Milius’s reading of the novel Middlemarch, also grabs the attention of readers who may find plants too familiar and thus boring. By bringing in Victorian England, Milius decouples trees from people’s everyday experiences to shake readers out of their torpor.

 

Getting Witty with It

Elaborate comparisons aren’t the only way to catch readers by surprise. Reporters can add playful touches by drawing on pop culture, memes, jokes, poetry, and even clichés.

Clichés capture shared cultural meanings, making them valuable when writers are tight on space—for instance, in headlines and ledes. In the first paragraph of a 2018 news story for The New York Times, St. Fleur riffed on a common phrase to introduce spineless creatures:

Wasps are the horror-flick killers of the insect world. Sure, their stingers are scary, but it’s their parasitizing practices that really send a shiver down the exoskeleton.

St. Fleur, now a general assignment reporter and associate editorial director of events at STAT, also plays off phrases and wordings that he likes. After reading a quote by British scientist J.B.S. Haldane about the Creator’s “inordinate fondness for beetles,” St. Fleur wrote in The Atlantic about a museum’s plans for “imaging an inordinate variety of insects.”

Wordplay can go beyond frivolity to concisely capture concepts. Rogers points to an example from his mentor, the late Sharon Begley, who wrote about a comet for Newsweek in 1994:

That close encounter ripped apart the icy dust ball (or dusty ice ball: astronomers are divided on how best to describe these chunks of frozen gas and dust).

While reporters may fear that their writing experiments will flop, creative prose requires taking risks.

Not only did Begley turn a phrase of what Rogers calls “Churchillian beauty” by swapping the modifiers, but she captured a huge amount of scientific uncertainty and the work of multiple scientists in few words, Rogers says.

Even when covering somber topics, writers can use wordplay to create a poetic tone. In the lede of Xia’s Los Angeles Times story on the disappearing California coast, she wrote:

But the mighty Pacific, unbeknownst to all, was nearing its final years of a calm but unusual cycle that had lulled dreaming settlers into a false sense of endless summer.

The words lulled and summer echo each other, as do false and endless. And the phrase “false sense of endless summer” has a singsong rhythm that suggests rocking or soothing, which helps Xia evoke a romanticized California dream.

For inspiration, reporters can tap sources high and low. While St. Fleur occasionally works dad jokes from Twitter into his ledes, he also looks to poetry. To get out of a science headspace, he Googles terms such as “mummy poetry” or “T. rex poetry.” Even if it’s silly, “it just gets you thinking about the subject from a different manner,” he says.

Writers can cache memorable bits to use later. Koren keeps a Google doc called “vocabulary” where she saves words and phrases that resonate with her. She recently added the word unspool, “a beautiful way of saying something unfolded.” Before she writes a story, Koren checks the document to see if any of her stashed vocab can enrich her sentences. As words or phrases get overused, Koren cuts them from the list.

While reporters may fear that their writing experiments will flop, creative prose requires taking risks. Especially on early drafts, “one should write extravagantly,” Milius says. “You should write as if nobody’s editing.” It can be hard to tell if your sentences are dipping too far into purple territory, but a trusted editor or writing partner can help you pull back later if needed.

If the prospect of producing scintillating prose seems intimidating, start with perking up just one word at a time. Watson advises that every sentence include a vivid word, “whether it’s a powerful noun or powerful verb—some kind of identifiable, punchy piece of vocabulary.” Like flecks of gold, these brightened words can make a story sparkle.

 

Carolyn WilkeS. Wilke

Carolyn Wilke

Carolyn Wilke is a TON early-career fellow sponsored by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund and a Chicago-based freelance science journalist. Find her on Twitter @carolynmwilke.

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