Lydia Morris: An Update and Practical Tips for Academics Wishing to Break into Scientific Writing
The PhD/Postdoc blog series features two scientists at different stages of career development as they explore and plan for their next steps. Over the course of six months, Lydia Morris and Divya Shiroor will give monthly updates on their progress. Check back every 2nd and 4th Wednesday of the month for new posts.
Current position: Postdoctoral research trainee with a Ph.D. in Genetics and Molecular Biology
Postdoc start date: January 2013
Institution: University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (affectionately referred to as UNC)
Update: In the last month, I had another medical writing job interview (by phone); I was hired as a contract medical writer at a company I sent my resume to in March; and I am still volunteering as a data manager (assisting a Clinical Research Association) on a clinical trial at the Clinical Protocols Office at the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center. Overall, I’ve been pretty busy since my postdoc position ended at the end of April.
The medical writing company I interviewed for helps medical researchers develop, write, and manage the submission process for their scientific manuscripts. They also perform a variety of other management activities to help scientists manage their research programs. I’m excited to hear about potential next steps, which would include a writing assessment and an in-person interview.
The company that hired me as a contractor develops medical education and training materials for the pharmaceutical, biotech, and medical devices industries. I will be writing about medical conditions and therapeutic products for professionals who will then educate health care workers about different disease states and the drugs developed to treat them. I’m excited to receive my first assignment and start writing!
As I mentioned in my first blog post back in March, I have a strong interest in writing about medically-related topics. Working with patient data on an active clinical trial has really opened my eyes to the vast difference between basic research and clinical research. One major difference is that I am solely working with data, not generating it. Also, each research subject (patient) is completely different from the next; it’s fascinating to see how patients progress from one check-up to the next in response to treatment. Moving over to the human health side of research has given me a deeper understanding of how scientific research influences healthcare and has solidified my desire to pursue medical writing.
From my experience, many graduate students and postdocs who wish to transition into medical writing generally start out by doing different types of scientific writing geared for general audiences. Not only are there a lot of volunteer (and some paid) opportunities for this type of work (campus newsletters, blogs, magazines, etc. are always looking for good science writers), but it’s a good way to stretch yourself beyond academic writing and get more clips to use for job applications.
One of the most frequent tips I’ve received or read about when writing about science for general audiences is to imagine you are describing the research for an intelligent family member (like your grandma) without a science background. It takes patience and a desire to really connect with your readers to pull off good scientific writing.
For this post, I want to go a step further and offer a few practical tips that have helped me start to learn the basics of writing about science for diverse audiences. I am far from an expert science writer, but I have learned a lot through trial and error, research, attending workshops, and working with great editors. I want to share what I’ve learned along the way with the hope is that my advice will serve as a starting point for other scientists looking to break into scientific writing.
The following tips are probably most applicable to writing feature articles/blog posts, but they are also relevant to the many other types of scientific writing. As a real example, I’m using the first paragraphs of a piece (see below left) I submitted to land the contract writing position I mentioned above and a technical summary (see below right) geared toward researchers interested in cancer biology. For further details, see my references at the bottom of this post.
When writing for a non-scientist, using jargon and formal language might leave them wondering if you both speak the same language. Finding other ways to explain scientific topics will ensure you and the reader are on the same page (literally and figuratively).
In my example, I did not use DNA repair, providing a definition and context without ever using the technical term. Also, I used fruit fly instead of the proper species name Drosophila melanogaster, which is a foreign term to most non-scientists.
If you do use technical language, make sure to provide a concrete definition. In the last sentence of the general summary, I provided a very basic definition and included homolog in parentheses because I wanted to use it later on in the piece. In the specialist summary, I assumed that scientists will understand the concept of a homolog. Here’s another example: Motor neurons, the type of brain cells that control your muscles, are damaged in Parkinson’s disease patients.
Aside from avoiding language that is too technical, word choice can also help set the tone for your piece. There’s an example in the next section for using specific words to build intrigue.
Lead by Engaging the Reader
In academic writing (manuscripts, abstracts, etc.), we need to give our fellow researchers (and those reading our work for didactic purposes) background information. Then, we can dive into the why we are doing the research and finally, what we did and what our results mean. I used this structure, the “inverted pyramid,” in the specialist summary, which makes sense based on the audience and purpose for writing the summary. By contrast, we need to entice the more leisurely or non-specialist reader from the beginning with why the story we are telling is interesting or important so they will want to keep reading.
In my first sentence, I put the main point up front by explaining the goals for the research. I used the words harsh and protected to help convey a sense of urgency and significance. I eliminated the discussion of diseases that most people are not familiar with. I did use cancer, a ubiquitous word with specific connotations in our society, to both emphasize the importance of the work and connect with readers intellectually and personally.
Based on conversations I’ve had with my non-scientists friends and family, that fact that I used fruit flies in my research is always surprising and amusing. I used this fact to make a connection between the general public’s experience with fruit flies, why the bugs are useful to the scientific community, and their importance to public health. Finding common ground is a great way to draw the reader into your story.
Using numbers strategically is another effective way to provide context and concrete examples. This strategy can apply to presenting research results, explaining methods, and discussing background material. I used numbers to convince general readers that fruit flies are a bona fide research tool by explaining that they have been used since 1940 and that fruit flies have counterparts to many of the same genes that are involved in human cancer.
I hope these tips and examples will offer a starting point for those of you interested in transitioning from academic writing to scientific writing for general audiences. Next month, I’ll be back to update you on my progress and, hopefully, talk a little bit about writing as a contractor at the medical education company I mentioned above.
References (also see for more detailed advice):
Tops for Communicating High-Level Scientific Concepts to Various Audiences by Mark Derewicz on the UNC Science Writing and Communication Club website
Everything You Need to Know to Start Your Freelance Medical Writing Business Six-book series by Emma Hitt Nichols, PhD
Science Communication Series Workshop with Dr. Amy Sayle sponsored by UNC Training Initiatives in Biomedical and Biological Sciences