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Science. Communication. Community.

The “I” in Science Writing

As scientists and journalists, we strive for objectivity. As writers, though, it helps to remember that a pinch of personality can go a long way toward creating an engaging narrative.

by Rachel Bernstein

brontosaurus-cover

(Image credit: Book cover — My Beloved Brontosaurus by Brian Switek)

Scientists and journalists alike understand the importance of objectivity as the only way to truly get to the bottom of a complicated story. I was recently reminded, though, that writers have a slightly different remit. It isn’t enough just to find the answers; writers also have to communicate them clearly and engagingly, and a personal perspective can be a great tool for the job.

Brian Switek beautifully illustrates this principle in My Beloved Brontosaurus: On the Road with Old Bones, New Science, and Our Favorite Dinosaurs. The book is a fun, well-researched jaunt through dinosaur science old and new, and in some ways it’s also Switek’s personal love song to the prehistoric beasts that have fascinated him since his childhood. He doesn’t try to hide his personal investment in the topic. Instead, he enriches the book with personal anecdotes about childhood visits to New York City’s American Museum of Natural History, more recent field visits and museum trips across the Southwest, and his feelings about his favorite dinosaur and the book’s mascot, “Brontosaurus,” which has gone through a bit of an identity crisis. (According to naming conventions, “Brontosaurus” should more correctly be called Apatosaurus, but for some reason “Brontosaurus” just won’t seem to go away, creating general confusion and heartbreak for some.)

For those of us trained as scientists, this intensely personal perspective in a science book can come as a surprise, because in technical scientific writing, we are more accustomed to authors almost hiding their identities and their true feelings to create a more “scholarly” work. In technical writing, the data should stand on their own and provide the persuasive evidence for the author’s argument; adding personal embellishment would be at best redundant and at worst self-serving and misleading. With this perspective, at first I found Switek’s tone in My Beloved Brontosaurus a little too chummy. What unanswered questions was he hiding behind the adorable stories of childhood dinosaur obsession? What poorly researched controversies were lurking amid the discussions of his favorite museums?

When I finished the book, though, it seemed pretty clear that none of my initial suspicions had any merit. I’m not a dinosaur expert, but Switek’s discussions of complex topics, like the color of dinosaur skin and the contentious debate about whether or not Triceratops and Torosaurus are distinct dinosaurs, seem quite thorough and clear. Switek’s personal touches make the book more engaging and provide a personal narrative to frame the technical discussion of dinosaur anatomy and behavior without diminishing the level of scholarship.

Of course, this example doesn’t mean that all science writing should start with childhood anecdotes or personal stories. Nonetheless, My Beloved Brontosaurus provides an important reminder that there are some cases when including our individual perspectives and personal stories in our work is not only acceptable, but may be the best way for us to connect with our audience, thereby increasing the work’s overall effectiveness. Each assignment requires unbiased journalism and technical science explanation, but a personal perspective, if used appropriately, can really make a story sing.

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About Rachel Bernstein

Rachel was a 2010 AAAS Mass Media Fellow at the Los Angeles Times, and is now a freelance science writer living in San Francisco. Among other things, she is interested in scientific publishing, education, and backpacking, especially in Yosemite.

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This entry was posted on July 2, 2013 by in Uncategorized.
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