Image: Stella Lohnap interviewing a science student at Nasarawa State University, Keffi in Nigeria.

01/04/22

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How to write simple science news stories

Speed read

  • Before your start to write simple science news, make sure you understand the information.
  • Even the biggest news outlets write simple science news.
  • ‘Simple’ means the story can be understood easily.

It can be difficult to write simple science news stories. Complex ideas must be ‘translated’ into plain and simple text. Studies that have taken years to conduct must also be synthesised down into punchy, short sentences. For a science journalist, these can be tricky challenges to navigate.

Simple science tip: Keep your audience in mind

It is important when you write simple science news to keep your audience in mind. Be mindful that most people do not study science after school – or the level at which it is compulsory. So, readers might not be familiar with scientific terms. For those who did study a field of science, they might not be familiar with the technical language of different fields.

Joseph Pulitzer, who is often considered the grandfather of journalism, had simplicity in mind when he said:

Put it before them so they will read it, clearly so they will appreciate it, picturesquely so they will remember it and, above all, accurately so they will be guided by its light.

Simple science tip: Make sure you understand the information

Complexity creeps into science stories when writers are unclear about the science itself. So, before your start to write simple science news, make sure you understand the information.

As we say in the Script course, you can only translate what you have understood. Make sure you have done your background reading and relevant research before starting to write a science story. Talk to scientists to gain knowledge around the subject. Keep asking questions until you understand the issues clearly before ‘translating’ it into news.

Simple science tip: Use a simple outline

To write simple science news stories, it helps to create a simple outline before you start. The oldest and most used structure in news is the inverted pyramid. This is where you start with the most important facts first. Try fitting as many of the who, what, why, when and how in the first sentence or paragraph as possible.

Then follow with the next most important facts, and then the next. Keep going until you have covered the main points of your story but aim to keep the story as short as possible. Most news stories are between 500-800 words.

To learn more about the inverted pyramid, see the Science communication skills for journalists Script course.

Simple science tip: Use simple language

When writing write simple science news it is vital to use simple language. when writing a science news story. In our online Script course, we explain how the goal of a journalist is to collect information from various sources, package it accurately and transmit it to their audience.

The audience receives the information through a medium – a written article, a podcast or a video. They then interpret that information and act upon it. Any barrier along this chain such as complex jargon or technical language acts as a hurdle to this process. It can disrupt clear communication as well as any goals you might have from the story.

Keep in mind that you will be communicating through your story with non-specialists. Avoid using jargon. Replace it with everyday phrases and words. For example, a CNN story used the phrase “remnants of the virus” instead of “RNA fragments”.

Explain technical terms if you must use them. the International Journalists’ Network created this handy list of medical terms that you are likely to come across when reporting on COVID-19. It can help you in interpreting and simplifying the terms.

And finally …

Even the biggest news outlets write simple science news. It might surprise you to learn that many news outlets write to a reading age of around 12. If you are unsure whether your writing is simple enough, use readability checkers like Readable. They give reading age scores that give an indication of how difficult your writing is to read and understand.

And remember that simple does not mean simplistic. As we point out in the Script course, ‘simple’ means the story can be understood easily. ‘Simplistic’ means it is not thorough. A thorough story can use simple language if it presents information and views from multiple sources, interprets the facts and explains the likely outcomes.

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