There are few writers as skilled at their craft as Ed Yong. He’s something of a science writing prodigy. His writing spans topics ranging from orca conservation and language genes to the microbes that inhabit our bodies and most recently, his award-winning writing on the global pandemic.
If you’re trying to find a way into the science writing game, then reverse engineering Yong’s pieces that strike a chord with you is a good place to start. Unsure where to start? You might try deconstructing how Ed does some of these things:
- Takes the reader on an emotional journey
- Sets up a back story for expert sources
- Encourages introspection from readers at key moments
- Grabs the readers' attention with a lede. Or as Yong says:
“People often talk about ledes in terms of grabbing attention, and conveying information. All true, but ledes are also signals: Their tone and style cue readers into expecting a certain kind of story. And personally, as a reader, when I read a standard inverted-pyramid news lede, I know that I mentally prepare myself for fast, skimmy reading. If I read a narrative start, I prepare myself to read the whole piece.” – Ed Yong
In fact, two of the biggest takeaways I’ve gained from reading Yong’s work are the following:
- To be a science writer, start writing about science: Yong wrote thousands of posts on his now retired blog ‘not exactly rocket science’ before his ‘official’ career as a staff science writer began. Medium is good place to get started.
- Reverse-engineer the work that moves you: As Yong suggests, “Actively deconstruct the work of good journalists in an attempt to decipher and reverse-engineer what makes their writing sing.”
Ed Yong currently covers science as a staff writer for the Atlantic. You can also find his work in National Geographic, Nautilus, Scientific American, Wired, Aeon, Nature, the New York Times, and more. To boot, he was also recently awarded the Victor Cohn Prize for Excellence in Medical Science Reporting for his pandemic coverage with the Atlantic.
Yong is an ardent advocate for recognizing the diversity of voices that actually produce science in our world. And he reminds us that the power of good science writing lies not in the fact dump but in the emotional trajectory a story propels us along: a journey outward geographically and inward psychologically. As he said recently at the Scripps Research Auditorium to a room full of science writers:
“If you take away just one thing from this talk, let it be this. You cannot displace a feeling with a fact. It just does not work. You can only displace a feeling with a different feeling.”
Below you’ll find 4 tips for science writing that Yong shared to new journalists at the National Press Club Journalism Institute in 2020.
#1 Don’t write to impress
Yong says, “Remember that you’re not writing to impress your sources or other journalists; you’re writing to help your readers make sense of the world. Take that responsibility seriously; view journalism as a profession and a craft whose standards you must uphold.”
As an academic writer, a good goal I try to keep in mind is this: writing should help my readers make sense of the world, not obscure it. Unfortunately, the desire to clarify and the desire to impress can blur together if I’m not careful.
There are a few ways the desire to impress can creep into my writing as an academic. Overusing jargon is one of them. Jargon-filled writing with paragraph length sentences is one side-effect of receiving a PhD. There’s a lot of social signalling going on in this kind of writing, usually aimed at alerting one’s peers that you’re competent in your narrow field of research, and that they can take you seriously. See where the desire to impress can slip in?
For example take this ‘sentence’ I wrote in my PhD dissertation:
“In sum, if a site of engagement is the moment when multiple discourses and practices are linked up through the compositional configurations of semiotic and material resources produced through action, a nexus of practice involves the networks of practice-linkages that are recognizable as repeating configurations of these connections.”
Yikes. I still have to read that a few times myself, and I wrote it!
Jargon serves a purpose of course, like a shorthand to convey a constellation of ideas to help communicate technical knowledge to your peers (whether journalists, academics or other social groups). But the drawback is our writing acts as a silo, likely taxing to read for the peers we’re trying to impress, and uninteresting to the wider audience we otherwise could have reached. Write to help your readers make sense of the world.
#2 Prize thoughtfulness over salaciousness, depth over volume, light over heat.”
Thoughtfulness over salaciousness: Yong says, “When you make mistakes, correct them quickly and transparently.” We all make mistakes. According to the Poynter Institute for Journalism, some of the 10 biggest mistakes in science writing include getting the science wrong, overselling research outcomes, and suggesting ‘another side to the story’ to suggest there’s debate around a scientifically established finding (like the earth is round and climate change is caused by humans).
Depth over volume: Remember in high school when you needed to hit a certain word count or number of pages for an essay? You already made your point but realized you needed to fill some space. Volume is the unnecessary padding we add to a story. But a story needs bones to walk, not just flesh. As Ursula K. Le Guin puts it: “To believe that you can achieve meaning or feeling without coherent, integrated patterning of the sounds, the rhythms, the sentence structures, the images, is like believing you can go for a walk without bones.”
Light over heat. I think what Yong means here is this: an important goal of science writing is to shed light on the topic under focus, not generate a salaciously hot story out of sh*t. What do you think?
#3 “Judge your peers for the quality of their work, rather than judging their work based on who they are”
And “aim to be judged according to the same standard.” This advice speaks for itself. But in my experience, this is also good advice for dealing with those moments when your work gets rejected.
4 Rituals to Help You Bounce Forward When Your Work Gets Rejected
The Power of Ritual to Cope With Professional Rejection
In a nutshell, when our writing gets rejected – whether by magazines, academic journals, or other venues we submit it to – we tend to view that rejection not of a piece of our writing, but of our very identity as a writer: many writers, including me, are susceptible to taking it as a rejection of who we are. This can easily lead to a spiral of self-judgment.
In those moments, it’s good to remember, as the work psychologist Adam Grant puts it: “No one is rejecting us. They are rejecting a sample of our work, sometimes only after seeing it through a foggy lens.”
#4 Be cautious about all the advice you receive…
“…including this, recognizing that everyone is speaking to you from some combination of luck and privilege,” says Ed Yong.
‘Do what is right, not what is easy.’ ‘Learn something new every day.’ ‘Don’t be afraid of being afraid.’ And another piece of advice I read recently: ‘the arrow doesn’t seek the target, the target draws the arrow.’
There’s lots of advice out there, and on writing in particular. I digest and share a lot of it. I take Yong’s ‘advice about advice’ here as a good reminder that what works for others, won’t necessarily work for us. Worse, it might actually hinder our progress.
This is kind of a piece of ‘meta-advice,’ but I’ve found in my experience that one reason for this is that writing advice needs to fit into a ‘system’ for writing: our writing workflow. I tend to collect pieces of writing advice like Christmas tree decorations: they look nice when I get them, but if I try to put them all on the tree at once, things get cluttered quickly.
I think the biggest challenge for writers is to prioritize developing a personal ‘writing workflow’ rather than amassing an ever-growing collection of writing techniques; techniques that don’t really fit together as a coherent efficient system but clank together in the wind like a silverware wind chime.
With that said, here’s some more advice from Ed Yong which I recommend (cautiously) taking:
Check out this excellent interview Ed Yong did recently on ‘Journalism in the Time of Crisis’: