The Craft of Science Writing:
Selections from The Open Notebook

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Science journalism has perhaps never been so critical to our world—and the demands on science journalists have never been greater. On any given day, a science journalist might need to explain the details of genetic engineering, analyze a development in climate change research, or serve as a watchdog helping to ensure the integrity of the scientific enterprise. And science writers have to spin tales seductive enough to keep readers hooked to the end, despite the endless other delights just a click away. How does one do it?

Here, for the first time, is a collection of indispensable articles on the craft of science writing as told by some of the most skillful science journalists working today. These selections are a wealth of journalistic knowledge from The Open Notebook, the online community that has been a primary resource for science journalists and aspiring science writers for the last decade.

The Craft of Science Writing gives you a crew of accomplished, encouraging friends to whisper over your shoulder as you work. In these pages, you’ll find interviews with leading journalists offering behind-the-scenes inspiration, as well as in-depth essays on the craft offering practical advice, including:

  • How to make the transition into science writing
  • How to find and pitch a science story to editors
  • How to wade through a sea of technicalities in scientific papers to spot key facts
  • How to evaluate scientific and statistical claims
  • How to report on controversial topics
  • How to structure a science story, from short news to long features
  • How to engage readers in a science story and hold their attention to the end

 

CONTRIBUTORS

Christie Aschwanden, Siri Carpenter, Tina Casagrand, Jeanne Erdmann, Dan Fagin, Dan Ferber, Azeen Ghorayshi, Geoffrey Giller, Laura Helmuth, Jane C. Hu, Alla Katsnelson, Roxanne Khamsi, Maggie Koerth-Baker, Jyoti Madhusoodanan, Apoorva Mandavilli, Amanda Mascarelli, Robin Meadows, Kate Morgan, Tien Nguyen, Michelle Nijhuis, Aneri Pattani, Rodrigo Pérez Ortega, Mallory Pickett, Kendall Powell, Tasneem Raja, Sandeep Ravindran, Julia Rosen, Christina Selby, Alexandra Witze, Wudan Yan, Ed Yong, Rachel Zamzow, Sarah Zhang, Carl Zimmer

 

ADVANCE PRAISE FOR THE CRAFT OF SCIENCE WRITING

“If I had to strip my go-to shelf of reporting and writing books down to a very few, this one would remain. I am neither a scientist nor a science journalist, but The Craft of Science Writing offers valuable tips for any reporter or editor, of any experience level, covering any topic. In an era when facts are under assault, this book is especially welcome.” Jacqui Banaszynski, Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter and editor, Knight Chair Professor Emerita at the Missouri School of Journalism, and editor of Nieman Storyboard

“Since 2010, The Open Notebook has served as an indispensable online guide to science writing. With The Craft of Science Writing, they’ve distilled those years of insights into an excellent survey of the field. You’ll find the nuts and bolts here—how to read a scientific paper, how to craft a lede, and so on. But you’ll also get a sense of what it’s like to wake up every morning and face the delights and dread that this job brings.” Carl Zimmer, journalist and author of She Has Her Mother’s Laugh

“Listen up, journalism professors, students, and media professionals! You won’t find a better guide to the art (and craft) of science writing than this book. The Open Notebook has produced a fascinating, informative, empathetic, and pragmatic tour through an increasingly vital set of skills. Whether you cover politics, education, national security, transportation, or business, the ability to write intelligently about science is now essential. Luckily for us, TON has distilled almost ten years’ of expert observation and insight to light the way.” Jennifer Kahn, contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and Narrative Program Lead, University of California, Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism

“Accessible, informative, and engaging, The Craft of Science Writing can serve as an excellent resource for both classroom instruction and self-study. A welcome contribution!” Barbara Gastel, MD, professor and Science Journalism Program coordinator, Texas A&M University

 

PRAISE FOR THE OPEN NOTEBOOK

The Open Notebook is an incredibly generous project, a gift to the science writer community. Everyone involved—the TON creators, the interviewers, the writers who reveal their methods—is helping teach the rest of us a master class in science writing.” Laura Helmuth, Washington Post health and science editor and past president of the National Association of Science Writers

“I recommend The Open Notebook to every writer, not just science journalists. Their story dissections are amazing, their pitch database is a goldmine, and their profiles of other writers are the best way to score insider tips and/or feel less alone in the struggle.” Nicola Twilley, author of Edible Geography, Gastropod podcast co-host, and New Yorker contributor

“Writing is a lonely art. The vast majority of the process, from coming up with ideas to structuring a piece, is carried out in solitude. When you start out, you barely have a clue about what you’re doing, let alone what seasoned professionals get up to. Getting those pros to deconstruct their own methods for all to see is a massive boon to aspiring science writers.” Ed Yong, author of I Contain Multitudes and science writer at The Atlantic

“By interviewing those who have distinguished themselves in the fields of science reporting, feature writing, blogging, and multimedia, The Open Notebook transcends hackneyed print-vs.-digital dichotomies to deliver tips, advice, and food for thought that can be directly put into practice in today’s hyper-competitive freelance environment. The site also offers something that’s harder to define but just as essential: a sense of collective ethics and joy in our hard work. I love The Open Notebook.” Steve Silberman, journalist and author of Neurotribes

 

ABOUT THE EDITOR

Siri Carpenter is co-founder and editor-in-chief of The Open Notebook. She is an award-winning science journalist and editor whose writing and editorial work has appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Science, Discover, National Geographic online, Scientific American, bioGraphic, Science News, Science News for Students, and many other publications. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin.