Debbie Knight

“Don’t be such a scientist …”

In observation on November 15, 2011 at 4:54 pm

I had the honor of writing a blog post for the Scientific American Guest Blog, which was published online yesterday. As I dug through the scientific literature preparing for the post, I found I had a difficult time taking off my “scientist” hat and putting on my “writing” cap. As a result, the first draft was way too … “science-y.”

And after reading the book on science communication by former-scientist-turned-filmmaker Randy Olson, “Don’t Be Such A Scientist,” I kept hearing those words echoing through my head as I worked on the post.

Don’t.

Be.

Such.

A.

Scientist.

Simple words. But it’s hard to actually live by – especially when I’ve basked in “science speak” for so long. I sometimes forget that something that’s obvious to me might not be so obvious to the reader. For example, not everyone might understand the implications of a silver nanoparticle binding to a  strand of DNA (hint: one possible outcome is the nanoparticle might act as a roadblock for the protein that is trying to make a copy of the DNA). And, to be honest, I’m not sure if the “hint” I just gave is simplified enough – I’m still assuming certain terms are understood.

Olson stresses that you should tell a story, create tension, peak the reader’s interest (“arouse the audience” as he puts it) and then fulfill the reader’s expectations. But I think there’s one more element: the reader needs to walk away feeling like she’s learned something.

Before I sent the final draft to the editor, I needed a “test” audience, so I recruited a few friends to read the story.  I picked friends who I hoped would be brutally honest. Two of them said (independent of one another) that they felt they learned something.

That was THE best compliment they could give a writer!

Of course, the happy buzz quickly wore off when my sister said: “It’s so long!” She has absolutely no interest in science, so I felt she was the litmus test. Obviously, I scored pretty low marks in that category. <sigh>

I had hoped the topic was controversial enough to generate discussion on the Guest Blog, but as of this moment, all I hear are crickets chirping. I had toyed with the idea of voicing more opinion in the post — you know, stir the proverbial pot a bit. But I really didn’t want to freak the readers out. My goal was to increase awareness. Hopefully I accomplished that.

I will come back to this topic of science communication in a future blog post. I have more to say … much more.

But in the meantime, I will try to “not be such a scientist.”

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