The Dank Side of the Moon
Join Date: Sep 2009
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Good article/interview on Science Writing from The Guardian
Science writing: how do you make complex issues accessible and readable?
As London's Royal Society prepared to award its annual book prize, we asked five top writers – Steven Pinker, James Gleick, Brian Greene, Lone Frank and Joshua Foer – to debate what makes good science writing in a technically minded age
ast Monday, five of the world's foremost science writers gathered in London to learn if they would receive the Royal Society's Winton prize for science books 2012. Prior to the evening's awards, we gathered them in the society's library to talk about reporting on what one of them, James Gleick, called the "very edge of what I'm able to understand". Writers such as Gleick play a vital role in how we comprehend the world around us. And as science discovers more and more about our universe, its theories and findings become more and more technical and data-driven.
So the role of scientists and science writers, such as the five assembled here, in turning this complex work into accessible, illuminating prose becomes trickier and more vital. The sixth nominee for the prize, Nathan Wolfe, author of The Viral Storm, was unable to attend on account of being in the Congolese jungle. No live satellite link-up was needed, however, since the judges awarded the prize to Gleick for his book The Information.
Ian Tucker: Why is popular science reporting important?
Joshua Foer: When the Royal Society was founded in 1660, it was still possible for an educated person, a polymath, actually to know something about everything. Today, that is not possible. Steven Pinker might be a great cognitive scientist but I bet he can't explain how they discovered the Higgs boson.
Brian Greene: He just explained it to me earlier and he did quite a good job.
JF: That speaks to why we need great interpreters more than ever. And what we do becomes more and more important because as science becomes more esoteric it requires people to help the rest of us to understand it.
When you are writing where do you set the difficulty dial? Do you want your readers to finish your book in one sitting or work hard at every sentence to glean some insight from it?
Steven Pinker: Before I wrote my first cognitive book, I got a bit of advice from an editor, which was probably the best advice I ever received. She said that the problem many scientists and academics have when they write for a broad audience is that they condescend; they assume that their target audience isn't too bright, consists of truck drivers, chicken pluckers and grannies knitting dollies, and so they write in motherese, they talk down. She said: "You should assume your readers are as smart as you are, as curious as you are, but they don't know what you know and you're there to tell them what they don't know." I'm willing to make a reader do some work as long as I do the work of giving them all the material they need to make sense of an idea.
BG: The ideal thing is that readers can take in a book at a variety of levels. If they really want to dig in deep to understand every last thing, including the end notes, then God bless you, that's fantastic! But others who just want get the gist of it, to let the ideas wash over them, I hope the text has enough momentum to propel them through that. It's a hard balance to strike, but I think people appreciate it when you are at least close to that target.
Lone Frank: A lot of people will say don't use difficult technical terms, but basically you can explain anything to people if you do it by good writing using plain words.
more at the link....