Narrative in science writing

Chaired by Alok Jha, science correspondent for The Guardian, this talk provided the hints and tips of three top professionals on how to make your article a truly addictive read.

Up first was features editor for New Scientist, Richard Fisher. Fisher shared some of his experience in how to move from shorter pieces to feature writing. In interviews your need to ask the right questions, report for narrative and “observe the telling details”. Avoid the formal interview-source situation and be more casual, he explained. Ask questions like: “What inspired you? Did you experience any setbacks?” Try to build up a mental image in your piece and analyse characters and scene in great detail; avoid pointless colour, however. “No one cares if they have a brown beard,” Fisher joked.

You need a solid structure that resists spoilers, holds back information and has a hook. Every plot needs a protagonist, inciting incident and a goal, advised Fisher, adding that he was sure that everyone in the room would create such a plot in their next (or perhaps first) feature.

Tom Levenson, professor of science writing at MIT was up next, his talk focusing on character, scene and meaning. “The element of a story is to make people not want to stop [reading],” he began, explaining that his goal was to make people care about the character. “In any good science writing ... [the aim] is to make the piece consequential to the reader,” he explained. But characters do not always need to be human. Make nature a character, not just an object; let people get inside Nature’s mind.

Levenson proceeded to explain scene, a technique used for longer pieces. Scene creates a larger significance to what you are doing, providing an insight into the character’s mind, situation or even predicament. The notion of significance led to Levenson’s final piece of advice: all good stories need a meaning. You should “construct a framework for the readers to follow to an end,” he said. Good pieces should have a main story, but also a deeper meaning within to hold the reader.

Manjit Kumar, author of the book Quantum, focused on the importance of making a piece unique. As there have been many books written on quantum mechanics, Kumar asked himself, “Was there a need for another one?”

Kumar therefore adopted a different approach in his book, focusing on the relationship between Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr and taking the reader on a historical and cultural journey through 20th century physics. The structure of the book was to begin with a photo, go backwards in time, explore the relationships between the two physicists and finally return to the starting image: a cyclical style of writing. Kumar gave a riveting account of the way an idea guides an author’s mind. This was a talk that showed just how important a clever and unique idea is in longer piece writing.

Daniel Sharpe, UKCSJ student scholar