Writing Science

I recently read two posts on the INK blog that have left me thinking about how we write science specifically, but nonfiction in general, for children.

The first was “Struggling with Academic Texts” posted by Melissa Stewart.   Stewart discusses:

  • The effect of No Child Left Behind on science teaching (it has reduced the amount of time given to science curriculum).
  • The resulting need to integrate science learning into language arts curriculum.
  • The fact that today’s students are struggling to read academic level texts.
  • That nonfiction texts for children today are farther removed than ever from academic texts.
  • Whether or not there is something superior in academic style writing when it comes to imparting fact or if it is simply the act of writing about something that helps solidify your thinking on it.

The second was “What’s Good for the Gosling. . .” posted by Susan E. Goodman.  Goodman discusses:

  • Her work teaching in Lesley University low residency MFA program.
  • An exercise she does with elementary school students where she has them rewrite an encyclopedic dry text on brown bats.  They worth through it based on facts in the original that each of them found fun or exciting and selecting a setting that invokes the feel they want the piece to have.  Choosing strong images and verbs are also part of the exercise.
  • Adapting this exercise for her MFA students.

What conclusions have I drawn?  Not many.  So far I have mostly hunches, thoughts and niggling bits, but they are:

Academic does not have to mean boring, but often academic writing is both dull and unclear.

I had a professor who insisted that half of the point behind how academics write was to intentionally “obfuscate the meaning, thus mystifying their power.”  IE, they were intentionally unclear because it makes them seem powerful.

Nonfiction of my youth was dull as dishwater but not academic.  So I’m not sure that I agree that what is published today is, by necessity, less academic.  Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t, but it has very little to do with making it more interesting.  Kelly Milner Halls writes interesting nonfiction that also communicates the science very clearly.

I guess I do have a conclusion or two.  I think you can write scientifically accurate work that is interesting.  Making something interesting doesn’t mean dumbing it down, but it could mean using a word that an academic might not choose.  Not necessarily the wrong word, but my tenure isn’t riding on word choice.  Respect your reader.  Assume that they can understand complicated things.  You simply need to be brainy enough to find a way to explain it.  It may be fiction, but Douglas E. Richards explains the fourth dimension in Stranded.   It isn’t an academic text but I understood it at least in part.  Our goal should be to communicate accurate facts.  If we can make them entertaining as well, so much the better.

Thoughts?  Comments?


2 thoughts on “Writing Science

  1. Hi SueBE,

    Great post! I agree completely with what you said about the fact that academic writers should assume that the reader can understand complicated things. My son was always doing math problems in his head, and the teachers said, “show your work.” I think academic writers don’t show their work; they make the reader fill in the blanks, and that’s the point, really. Just like the whole point of an education is to learn to think for yourself.

    Your blog is like a school for writers! Should be required reading for anybody trying to break into the biz.

    All the best,


    1. Ruth,
      Required reading? Wow. Thanks for pumping up my ego today.
      And I think you hit on a very important point in your comment — academic writers allow the reader to fill in the blanks. The very best writing does do that, doesn’t it? It is the difference between a subtle message and preaching.
      Definitely some food for thought. Thank you!

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