Science professionals (scientists, public information officers, science journalists, instructors, and students) can benefit from the technological advancements by learning the nuances of science communication through various delivery systems. This special series review looks at four books that can help readers improve their writing and narrative skills in communicating complex and scientific information to diverse audiences.
Handbook For Science Public Information Officers
W. Matthew Shipman. 2015. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. [ISBN 978-0-226-17946-9. 144 pages, including index. US$24.95 (softcover).]
Handbook for Science Public Information Officers is an excellent resource for public information officers (PIOs) that covers the many complicated facets of a PIO’s position. Novice PIOs will learn how to pitch stories about science and technology, train researchers to give interviews, use social media effectively, handle crisis communication, and meet institutional communication goals. Experienced PIOs may learn new tips, especially in handling online communication—a constantly changing part of their job.
Shipman’s writing style is direct and easy to read. I was impressed at how quickly he makes his point, yet he covers topics in a comprehensive manner so that even the least experienced PIO can follow his advice and come off as a seasoned professional. The book’s pithy aspect makes it ideal for working professionals who do not have time to pore over lengthy chapters. Students can also learn a great deal about science writing from this book. For instance, before explaining how to write news releases, Shipman covers a very important science communication aspect , how to work with scientists and researchers so that they agree to share and explain their work with the PIO or other reporters. It does no institution any good to send out news releases to media outlets only to have researchers who avoid reporters or do not know how to talk with them during an interview. In fact, by not preparing researchers to work with media personnel, an institution could suffer bad press because of this poor relationship. Shipman thoroughly explains in this handbook how a PIO can build relationships with researchers to help them see the value of sharing their work with the public.
The guidance on writing news releases, grant announcements, media advisories, op-ed pieces, and news tips is succinct and supported with examples within the chapters and in several appendices. Readers will learn how to write engaging ledes, as well as announcements and stories, about highly technical projects for various key audiences, including audiences outside of the science community. Since a large part of being a PIO is making contact with other reporters who want to write their own news stories, the chapters on pitching stories and using multimedia effectively are vital to understanding important aspects of the PIO’s job. It is extremely beneficial to have an entire chapter devoted to using social media effectively in this line of work, and Shipman discusses the advantages of disadvantages of using contemporary social media platforms and how to build a following. Likewise, he provides detailed guidance on writing blog posts and creating story tags. These efforts mean nothing, however, if they do not follow an institution’s communication plan, and Shipman explains how to align communication efforts with an institution’s goals. He also gives direction on how to collect metrics and re-evaluate plan communication accordingly. One of the worst things about being a PIO is handling bad news, therefore the book ends with details about how to manage bad news and mitigate any further damage.
A quick, but comprehensive, book, Handbook for Public Information Officers is highly recommended for working PIOs, journalists, students, and professional writers in science and technology communities.
Houston: We Have a Narrative. Why Science Needs Story
Randy Olson. 2015. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. [ISBN 978-0-226-27084-5. 260 pages, including index. US$20 (softcover).]
Many technical communicators who work with scientists most likely would not argue the position that scientists can improve the way they communicate with non-scientists. Many scientists would probably agree with this statement as well; thus, one of Olson’s main points in Houston: We Have a Narrative. Why Science Needs Story that scientists need to learn to communicate their work in more interesting ways is not a new concept. His solution is to let Hollywood show academics how real writing is done; thus, he gives readers his ABT (and, but, therefore) template for storytelling. This model does appear to be one way to write about science in more intriguing ways than simply listing facts.; however, the book is padded with so much superfluous inner dialogue that Olson almost discredits himself and his model.
Olson unveils his Narrative Tools for science writers that includes a word template (The Dobzhansky Template), the sentence template (ABT), and a paragraph template (The Logline Marker Template developed by Dorie Barton). He focuses mostly on ABT, which he claims is a “universal narrative template” (p. 97) and tests it against published articles in several disciplines. These example tests do indicate that the ABT template is a viable way to write about science so that a story evolves versus a static listing of facts.
The ABT template is the only valuable take away from Houston: We Have a Narrative, which could be explained in less than a quarter of the pages. One of the most off-putting aspects of Olson’s book is his ethos, which is damaged by his sweeping generalizations and rants about academics and Hollywood. He treats the academy, humanities, and Hollywood as monoliths, and uses anecdotal evidence to support the most negative stereotypes. For instance, in the chapter “BUT the humanities are useless for this…” (“this” being teaching students how to write narrative), he stated “what everyone pretty much knows about academia,” is that “The place is a refuge for culturally detached blowhards, some of whom are good for teaching and research but often limited in their ability to function outside the ivory tower” (p. 57). Such diatribe against the entire academy comes across as grossly personal, inappropriate, and completely unnecessary. Even though Olson sees Hollywood as the supreme solution in teaching people how to write well, he provides scathing stories about the depraved morals of those involved in the entertainment industry—again with sweeping generalization.
Science writing is not a new topic in technical communication (a field which Olson never acknowledges). Ample research and several models within the discipline exist that can elicit similar results to what Olson claims his ABT template will do. For instance, readers may want to consult the many contributions made at the annual Iowa State University Summer Symposium on Science.
Communicate Science Papers, Presentations, and Posters Effectively
Gregory S. Patience, Daria C. Boffito, and Paul A. Patience. 2015. Amsterdam, The Netherlands: Academic Press. [ISBN 978-0-12-801500-1. 285 pages, including index. US$49.95 (ebook).]
Communicate Science Papers, Presentations, and Posters Effectively offers a straight-forward, comprehensive, and prescriptive approach to teaching about scientific communication to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) graduate students, professors, and practitioners. The authors begin with a technical analysis and explanation of the publishing industry and why it is important to publish, how to choose publications that provide authors with the most visibility, and how to increase productivity and the number of people citing a work—all crucial criteria for tenure and promotion. The book also addresses writing style, reporting data in tables and graphs, writing a scientific paper, preparing effective presentations, and writing and designing attention-getting posters.
One strength is the abundant examples in each chapter, especially in demonstrating one writing style over another. For example, in “Writing Style” the authors present helpful comparisons of redundant/concise wording, vague/precise passages, and passive/active voice that effectively illustrate how to revise scientific writing, which tends to be convoluted and wordy. In “Paper Essentials,” a chapter on how to write sections of a scientific paper, examples include descriptive and assertive titles; long “hanging” titles versus concise, direct titles; passages for the abstract and introduction; and replacing unnecessary phrases with active verbs. Likewise, the chapters that explain graphs and tables provide ample graphical comparisons showing readers how to present numerical data in the clearest manner.
Two other assets of the book are its comprehensive coverage of topics and the helpful exercises. In “Presentations They Will Remember,” the authors explain how to summarize important information, write effective talking points on slides, order slides appropriately, and deliver an intriguing presentation. In addition, they show readers how to create attention-getting graphics that can take the place of wordy slides, with a detailed discussion about color, including mathematical explanations of why some colors are complementary and others are not. Exercises in that same chapter ask readers to apply this information to examples of poor slides and prepare for difficult questions from the audience during a presentation.
The prescriptive approach to writing as presented is direct and helpful; however, it leaves little room for individuality and modifying writing style for different contexts. For instance, in chapter 2, discussions on the use of “we,” and the statement that “quantitative values are better than qualitative statements. Leave boosting for romance novels” (p. 35) are not true in every context. The use of “we” depends on the publication style or style guide, and the use of quantitative or qualitative data depends on the study, as well as the publication. Although the direct writing in Communicate Science Papers, Presentations, and Posters Effectively comes across as authoritative and demonstrates a communication approach for which the authors advocate, it might leave some readers with the impression that only one way exists to write and that individuality or individual writing style and voice do not play a role in scientific writing—which is not always true. This prescriptive approach is not a flaw, but it is worth noting given the trend to bring more narrative into scientific writing.
Writing in the Biological Sciences: a Comprehensive Resource for Scientific Communication
Angelika H. Hofmann. 2015. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. [ISBN 978-0-19-024560-3. 332 pages, including index. US$27.95 (softcover).]
Writing in the Biological Sciences: A Comprehensive Resource for Scientific Communication holds up to its intended purpose and audience of being a “ ‘one-stop’ reference guide to scientific communication for budding professionals in the life sciences and other fields” (p. xvii). The part I would emphasize is “other fields,” as this book is relevant for most professionals who compose any type of scientific communication.
Hofmann opens with an explanation of the scientific method and covers a range of issues associated with scientific writing. The result is a four-part practical guide for effectively communicating complex information. “Scientific Writing Basics” is an introduction to style, which approaches writing from a reader-centered standpoint and emphasizes similarities between scientific writing and expository writing, an approach that echoes many composition courses. This familiarity is helpful to students who can build on previous concepts while they learn a new form of writing. Statements about scientific writing being for limited and smaller audiences, however, might be reconsidered as scientific writing permeates mainstream society, especially through blogging, news, and even entertainment. Students in the sciences should be made aware of how public science—and scientific writing—are in today’s society instead of thinking they will be writing mostly to colleagues with similar backgrounds. Within the chapters of this section, Hofmann breaks down the writing basics into simple categories that clearly explain how to choose the right words, structure sentences, and organize paragraphs. Relevant examples accompany every category and clearly demonstrate preferred wording and organization.
“Working with References and Data” is an extremely helpful section for professionals who constantly use outside research and numerical data. For instance, key science databases are included and show students where to find the most recent and relevant information in their fields. They also learn the difference between related and relevant sources and where to place references in a scientific paper. Chapters on statistical data and creating figures and tables introduce students to the basics of statistics (terminology and tests), and the difference between reporting data versus reporting statistical significance. More discussion on ethical issues surrounding the use of statistics and graphical representation of data would be helpful for busy students who may not always pay attention to such details but who need to know the consequences for these unethical practices.
“Introductory Writing” teaches students how to summarize and critique journal articles and compose research and laboratory reports. Document outlines illustrate where information is expected in certain types of documents—details that make a difference in the workplace where busy professionals raid documents for the information they need and expect to find it there. “Advanced Scientific Documents and Presentations” includes chapters on oral presentations, posters, proposals, and job applications as well as provides a cursory introduction to each topic.
Each chapter ends with a helpful summary of concepts and exercises, but teachers are limited on how they can use those exercises because Hofmann includes the answers to most exercises are in the back of the book. As suggested in the Preface, Writing in the Biological Sciences will serve students well as either a standalone text for a science writing course or as a supplemental text for a writing-intensive science course.
Hofmann, Angelika H. (2015). Writing in the Biological Sciences: A Comprehensive Resource for Scientific Communication, 2nd ed. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. [ISBN 978-0-19-024560-3. 332 pages, including index. US$27.95 (softcover).]
Olson, Randy. (2015). Houston: We Have a Narrative. Why Science Needs Story. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. [ISBN 978-0-226-27084-5. 260 pages, including index. US$20 (softcover).]
Patience, Gregory S., Daria C. Boffito, and Paul A. Patience. (2015). Communicate Science Papers, Presentations, and Posters Effectively. Amsterdam, The Netherlands: Academic Press. [ISBN 978-0-12-801500-1. 285 pages, including index. US$49.95 (ebook).]
Shipman, W. Matthew. (2015). Handbook for Science Public Information Officers. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. [ISBN 978-0-226-17946-9. 144 pages, including index. US$24.95 (softcover).]
About the Author
Diane Martinez is an assistant professor of professional and technical communication at Western Carolina University. She previously worked as a technical writer in engineering, an online writing instructor, and an online writing center specialist. She has been with STC since 2005.