Here are my recommendations for five great books which will improve your science writing, making your work clear and engaging for your charity’s audiences.
I’m sometimes asked by people who write about science in medical research charities for recommendations of books to help improve their craft. So here’s a few great books on science writing that I have really enjoyed reading. They cover everything from the mechanics of writing an engaging article, finding interesting angles to topics, or and even just the basics of writing clearly.
I’ve included links to buy each of these books from Bookshop.org, an online bookshop where every purchase supports local, independent bookshops. And I’ve gathered all these suggestions on my Bookshop page.
[For full disclosure: if you buy any of the books via the links below or on my Bookshop page, I may earn a commission from Bookshop.org, but money will still go to support local bookshops.]
On Writing Well – William Zinsser
What it’s about: It may be called “The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction”, but with good reason. Originally published in 1976, it’s full of great advice for writing well, from the principles of writing clearly, to different writing forms, and finding your own voice as a writer. It’s useful to a wide range of non-fiction writers, but the principles Zinsser covers are universal: make things simple, avoid clichés and take pride in your craft. Far from being a stale textbook on the do’s and don’t’s of grammar, it’s funny and a joy to read.
One great idea: The chapter on Usage is particularly insightful. It covers the use of verbs as nouns (and vice versa), jargon, and colloquial language.
Who is it for: Anyone looking to improve (or refresh their memory) of the fundamentals of good writing, without the textbook dreariness.
The Science of Storytelling – Will Storr
What it’s about: This book looks at why stories matter, and how great stories are crafted. It’s not so much of an instruction manual. There are great advice and tips scattered throughout, and a framework for crafting great stories as an appendix. For me, it’s more of a fascinating look at what makes stories good, at multiple levels – analysis of different stories (from Where’s Spot? to Citizen Kane), the neuroscience of the effects of stories on the brain, and the effects of stories on human relationships and societies. The format of the book – short-ish chunks of ideas grouped together into broad themes – make it really easy to read.
One great idea: The concept of a character’s ‘sacred flaw’, which pops up regularly throughout the book: an irrational belief which they hold dear, which eventually leads to their undoing.
Who is it for: Anyone fascinated by stories, their power, and why they matter.
The Craft of Science Writing – The Open Notebook (edited by Siri Carpenter)
What it’s about: A collection of articles from the fantastic website The Open Notebook, a non-profit organisation which helps scientist journalists improve their skills. Although it has science journalists in mind, there’s a lot here that anyone who writes about science will find interesting and useful. The book covers plenty on finding and sharpening ideas, good research, and how to tell compelling stories. Plus, technical aspects such as reading papers and spotting shady statistics. Each ‘chapter’ is an article from the website, which is all relatively short. It’s easy to read with great advice.
One great idea: I particularly love the sections on writing ledes (opening paragraph(s) to grab attention) and nutgrafs (paragraphs summarising the idea behind the article, and give readers an idea of what’s in it for them)
Who is it for: Anyone writing about science who wants to improve their skills and emulate journalistic style and techniques.
Houston, we have a narrative – Randy Olson
What it’s about: Scientist-turned-filmmaker Randy Olson shares his take on why science needs a story. And how to bring Hollywood storytelling techniques to telling stories about science. At its centre it has some useable and simple techniques for identifying the core essence of a story. Told mostly through anecdotes of his own experience, it’s funny if a bit rambling at times.
One great idea: Olson’s probably most famous for the ‘And, But, Therefore’ technique where you boil a story down to a paragraph. Basically: establish the facts with sentences that you can join with And. Then set the story in a new direction, with But. Then carry on with the journey that happens as result, with Therefore. (The Narrative Gym is his latest book which I haven’t read, but I understand goes into more depth about this.)
Who is it for: Anyone who loves a good Hollywood movie and wants to steal some ideas to apply to their science writing.
Telling Science Stories – Martin W. Angler
What it’s about: This is a comprehensive textbook on different elements of science storytelling (again, with an emphasis on science journalism). It covers a huge range of topics, from elements of stories to finding and telling good stories, narrative structure, and borrowing techniques from screen and literature. There are extensive references, and each chapter has example articles that you’re encouraged to refer to. Although it is a difficult read at times, the content is great – it’s comprehensive and full of usable ideas.
One great idea: Chapter 2 on the elements of a story is really great. Angler frequently refers to Theme – a fundamental underlying message of the story, distinct from the Topic, which acts as a thread to bring everything together. It’s something I’m trying to use in my own writing all the time.
Who is it for: Anyone looking for a deeper dive into storytelling in science writing.