Ask Stupid Questions: Science Writing Tips I Learned from Carl Zimmer

Science writing is hard. What’s even harder, is science writing that is accessible, exciting, and has mass appeal to non-scientists. Author and blogger Carl Zimmer has been able to crack this code. As an advocate and participant of science communication, I couldn’t turn down the opportunity to hear him speak. From his interview at the National Association of Biology Teachers conference (#NABT2015), I will share with you some of his insight:

Ask Stupid Questions
Having graduated with a degree in English, Zimmer felt this gave him a free pass to ask stupid questions. As a non-scientist, the scientist he was interviewing wouldn’t expect him to speak the language, or maybe even understand the basics of their research, therefore allowing Zimmer to ask basic questions. Zimmer touched upon the fact that if he were a scientist (and heaven forbid have a Ph.D.!), then the scientist would talk to him as a scientist using tons of jargon, in which case, no quotes the scientist said would be publishable because no one would be able to understand it. Asking stupid questions forces the scientist to speak without jargon and thus relate to real people.

What Makes a Good Science Story?
As a science communicator, one of the things that eludes me is what to write about. At first, it was easy – my research, but the more you write, the more you have to branch out. Additionally, I am not only interested in “preaching to the choir,” but reaching audiences typically not interested in science. Therefore, I asked Zimmer, “What makes a good story with public appeal?”

  • Big Leaps in Science. Science stories to write about are those that make big leaps in science. Science is usually a slow process where studies build previous studies, gradually lead to our understanding of a process. Sometimes there are studies that bypass these increments and take a large leap. Zimmer says to have a good understanding of the field, identify when those leaps are happening, and write about it.
  • Stories No One is Covering. In addition to the flashy studies that get a lot of press (those usually from Science and Nature), there are lots of interesting studies that receive virtually no attention. Zimmer peruses obscure journals to identify these diamonds in the rough.
  • Let the Story Come to You. When Zimmer was asked why he wrote about tattoos (Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed), he stated that he had to, and that the story came to him. At a party, he found a scientist with a science tattoo and decided to post a photo of it on his blog, asking how common it was. In hours, he started to get photos of scientists and science-fanatics who had similar science-y tattoos. He asked audience how many people had science tattoos and about one-fourth raised their hands. He had no idea how prevalent this was (me neither!) and decided to write about why people would suffer such pain for such a tattoo. Sometimes the story comes to you.
  • Find a Story Where the Floor Goes Out. When writing a larger story (e.g. book), find a topic where the floor falls out. When you research it, you discover more and more, leading you to a world of virtually endless discovery. Even after Zimmer published Parasite Rex, he still was finding amazing stories about parasites. He warns to be careful about this though, and sometimes the floor can fall so deep that it can become overwhelming. Like your dissertation, you have to choose a topic that will maintain your interest for at least a year to come.

Finally, it’s not hard to get people interested in science. Most all people have a innate curiosity and fascination with science. It’s really our job to explain it in a way that everyone can understand. If you are having a tough time with it, just have someone ask you stupid questions.

NABT president-elect Bob Melton interviewing Carl Zimmer.
NABT president-elect Bob Melton interviewing Carl Zimmer.
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