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Best Shortform Science Writing: July-September 2018

(A Highly Subjective Round-up of Standout Science News)

An illustration of the Cassini spacecraft approaching its Grand Finale. Image by NASA/JPL-Caltech. (public doman)

It happens every cycle.

A piece comes in, and we love it. But when we move it from the “cattle call” spreadsheet to the “long list”, we’re not quite sure how to classify it.

Over time, our categories for stories have become less about length and more about how the stories make us feel. “News & Trends” pieces wow us with their ability to weave science, policy, and personal stories together. “Single Study Deep Dives” take us behind-the-scenes of the latest research. And so on…

But this time around, we had a whole cluster of excellent stories that looked at the back-and-forth behind recent papers and pre-prints. (Examples in this round-up include pieces by Shannon Hall, Dyna Rochmyaningsih, and Ramin Skibba. )

Such pieces reveal science for the lively yet paperwork-laden and highly subjective enterprise that it is. They incorporate elements of investigation, science explaining, and trend reporting. And they’re a vital part of covering science. But are they news? Are they investigative? Or are they a more critical form of the ubiquitous “Science Study of the Day” story?

I’d say they’re kind of all three.

Most standout pieces of science writing accomplish many things at once: the best essays both inform and move us. Trend stories update readers on the latest developments while also incorporating historical tidbits. “Science Study of the Day” stories do double duty as cute animal infotainment and science mystery story. This versatility is part of what makes science writing so compelling as a genre.

But it does make things more difficult when you need to sort stories.

So we’d like to ask you, our readers, for feedback on our category system: Which categories make sense to you and which don’t? Do we need a separate category for evergreen “Explainers” or for “What Went Wrong With This Study?” stories? Do we need categories at all?

Please share your thoughts in the comments!


We received 281 nominations this cycle and narrowed them down to the 50 pieces listed below. (For people counting, that’s a 17.8% acceptance rate.)

About Our Editors

This edition’s editors include: science writer and editor Alex Arreola; digital strategist and nonprofit consultant for MarTech Digital Anne Berlin; science writer Madeline Bodin; freelance writer, video maker, and USCG Licensed Captain Teresa Carey; science writer and copy editor Michael Dhar of Purch/Tech Media Network; Heriot-Watt University MPhil graduate student Jess Hudgins, currently working with Sharks and Rays Australia; writer and digital strategist Lauren Hudgins, MFA: NIH postdoc Aparna Kishor, MD, PhD; freelance science writer Malissa Stark-Rodenburg; and me (science writer Diana Crow).

About the Round-Up Format

The stories are grouped into “Top Picks” and “Honorable Mentions” but are not ranked within those groups. The stories are in alphabetical order by the author’s last name.

As always, our selection is driven by serendipity and whoever decides to send suggestions via our crowdsourced nomination/submission form. The form for October-December 2018 is here.

Anyone interested in our selection criteria can check out our rubric here.

If we’ve left out short piece that you adored, please share them in the comments.

You can follow the Best Shortform Science Writing Project at @SciShortform on Twitter and on Medium.

Onward to the standout stories!

A Chinese white dolphin swimming near the coast of Hong Kong. Photo by Leonard Reback via Wikimedia Commons (CC A-SA4.0 International)

SHORT SHORT (600 words & under)

Top Picks:

Honorable Mentions:

A fire burns in Klamath National Forest. Photo by Corporal Michelle Piehl via Wikimedia Commons. (public domain)

NEWS & TRENDS (601–1200 words)

Top Picks:

Honorable Mentions:

Polar bear pelts hang on wooden boards in Ittoqqortoormiit, Greenland. Photo by Hannes Grobe via Wikimedia Commons. (CC-BY-SA-2.5)

SINGLE STUDY DEEP DIVES (601–1200 words)

Top Picks:

Honorable Mentions:

The aftermath of a 2008 coal ash spill near Kingston, TN. Photo by Brian Stansberry via Wikimedia Commons. (CC-A-3.0 Unported)


Top Picks:

Honorable Mentions:

DNA suspended in a vial. Photo by Carl Davies of CSIRO via Wikimedia Commons. (CSIRO)

COLUMN, OP/ED, OR BLOG POST (1200 words & under)

Top Picks:

Honorable Mentions:

An artist’s depiction of the Turritopsis jellyfish life cycle. It appeared in the 33rd volume of Popular Science in 1886–1887. Via Wikimedia Commons. (public domain)


Top Picks:

Honorable Mentions:

The proton synchotron control room at the Large Hadron Collider is home to lots of computers. Photo by Wikipedia user Rama via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-A-SA2.0 France)

INSTITUTIONAL (1200 words & under)

Top Picks:

Honorable Mentions:

A beaver dam on the Snake River in Grand Teton National Park. Photo by NPS/Adams via Flickr. (public domain)

HONORABLE MISFITS (over-length, in a different language, or just plain hard to classify)

And those are our picks for July-September 2018!

If you have stories you would like to nominate for the October-December 2018 round-up, you can do through this form or by tagging @SciShortform on Twitter with a link to the piece.

We are currently looking for 2–3 new editors to join us for the October-December cycle, contact Diana at

Check back with us in January for the next round-up!




The Best Shortform Science Writing project highlights outstanding science writing through quarterly round-ups, Q&As with science writers, and more!

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Diana Crow

Diana Crow

Fledgling science journalist here, hoping to foster discussion about the ways science acts as a catalyst for social change #biology

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