This guide on how to write a science essay will help you submit an essay to the UNSW Bragg Student Prize for Science Writing. But it’s also useful information for anyone who is learning how to write a science essay for class, or if you want to write for a living.
Before you start surfing a minefield of information on the internet, narrow down your scientific essay’s topic. Think about what inspires you, or exactly what the assignment has asked of you. There’s plenty you could write about, and if you are passionate about the topic, this will clearly come through in your essay.
Choose your angle
The task when writing your scientific essay is not to write a comprehensive report of everything known about the topic – especially if you’re writing in less than 800 words for the UNSW Bragg Student Prize. So it’s important to choose the angle of your story early on.
For example, will you:
• report on new research?
• discuss your own ideas?
• justify or critique the importance of your topic?
Also known as the ‘hook’, the angle both narrows the focus of your article and grabs your reader’s interest. In news stories and most blogs, you’ll generally find the angle is in the lead sentence or first paragraph of the story.
Your angle needs to be attention grabbing and have relevance to your audience. In other words, it is not old news and has not been written about before, or if it has, try to take a fresh approach or offer a new point of view. The rest of your story will hang off your angle, so it’s important to get this right first.
This is not always easy and you may find that you need to do some more research to pin down your angle.
Things to keep in mind while writing your essay:
• Who/what is your story about?
• Why is it important?
• Is there anything new about it?
• What’s changed or what will change?
• When and where did it happen/is it happening?
• Who/what will be affected by it and why/how?
A great first line
First lines are great hooks for your readers, like a baited line, it entices them into your story. You could start with a quote, something surprising, a short definitive and challenging statement, an unbelievable fact, or a moody description that sets the scene. Here are five memorable first lines in science from The Best Australian Science Writing 2017:
The cow stares at me with chocolate eyes, a trail of mucus swinging from one nostril as she chews her cud.
The Machine Generation, Bianca Nogrady, author & freelance science writer
The Universe was a trillionth of a second old, and it was at war.
The mystery of the missing antimatter, Cathal O’Connell, researcher & science writer
Inches above the seafloor of Sydney’s Cabbage Tree Bay, with the proximity made possible by several millimetres of neoprene and an oxygen tank, we’re just about eyeball to eyeball, this creature and me — yet we couldn’t seem at a greater remove.
Alien Intelligence: The extraordinary minds of octopuses and other cephalopods, Elle Hunt, Commissioning and communities editor – Guardian News & Media
Get your facts right
The mantra of writers is “Accuracy, brevity and clarity”. There’s a reason accuracy is a top priority – people often take the written word as truth. So it’s important for you to do your best to ensure the facts are correct. As a writer, your reputation will depend on the accuracy of your work. Keep this in mind as you research and write your scientific essay. Once you’re finished, get someone else to check it, or check it again yourself. Myriad resources are available today at your fingertips. Keep track of references and websites you’ve visited from the start. Not only will this help you with your research, it’s also useful when you check your copy once you’ve finished.
1. Use reputable sources
These can include but are not limited to:
• Journal articles published in reputable journals – journals that are well known or make an impact.
• Websites or research reports from government-sponsored organisations, higher educational institutions or government departments – be sure to check dates, however, as information can quickly become dated.
• Books, blogs, newspaper and magazine articles written by experts in the field, individuals who have studied and become qualified in this area and who regularly write about it.
• Expert commentary – interviews with people who are working with or involved in the area you are writing about can be excellent sources of information. However, keep in mind everyone has opinions – and their information may inadvertently be out of date (or wrong). Make sure you clearly attribute the information that came from these sources.
2. Check names, dates, places and facts
Double-check everything you write by at least two reputable sources and, if you have time, run the text past someone who is knowledgeable about the topic.
Don’t write too much
When you read over your scientific essay, you’ll find you can edit some of the information that you included at first. Once you’ve figured out how to write a science essay, you’ll know that writing short pieces is often harder than writing long pieces. You’ll make life a lot easier for yourself if you keep it brief and to the point in the first place.
While you shouldn’t be afraid to use ‘colour’ – the thoughts, feelings and descriptions that bring writing to life – your goal in a short article is to keep your writing simple and to the point. Avoid long-winded sentences, and try to only present one idea per paragraph.
General tips on how to write a science essay:
• Try to use active verbs where you can.
• Keep clauses short and simple; where possible, avoid acronyms or initials.
• Make sure that your first sentence is clear, brief and engaging.
• Make sure your paragraphs are concise – shorter stories tend to have shorter paragraphs than longer articles.
• Keep your word count down by avoiding long-winded and passive sentences (e.g. use ‘Director Marie Curie’s lab research was world-changing’ rather than ‘The research by Marie Curie, the Director of the lab, changed the world’).
• Be ruthless with your writing – it’s better than having someone else (like an editor, or a teacher!) be ruthless with it.
Keep it clear
As a writer, you need to become an expert on the topic for the duration of your writing. Don’t expect everyone else to be an expert, however. Keep in mind the audience you are writing for. What is their assumed knowledge? What needs to be spelled out? Avoid jargon or confusing sentences – you’ll quickly lose your audience.
Leave it and then read it again
It’s useful to give yourself some time away before you review your work. If you can, leave it for a day. Get someone else whose opinion you trust to read the piece and offer feedback. If you don’t have time, a useful practice is to read your piece aloud as if you were on the radio. This will help you identify awkward sentences or mistakes.
Finishing up your scientific essay
One of the best tips we can give you on how to write a science essay is to ask yourself these big questions as you finalise your piece:
1. Do you have a successful story angle? Is it interesting, new, relevant, amazing? Would you tell your friends about it ?
2. Did you present your story angle in the opening paragraph, or is it buried too deep into the story? If your readers only take in the opening paragraph, they should still have a clear idea of what the story was about.
3. Did your story address the angle? Does the rest of the writing support the original premise? Did you include too much information, or meander from the point?
4. Is it accurate? Check again that you have confidence to support your facts and claims. If they’re not your facts, identify the source in the article so your readers know where the information came from.
Author: Heather Catchpole
Heather co-founded Careers with STEM publisher Refraction Media. She loves storytelling, Asian food & dogs and has reported on science stories from live volcanoes and fossil digs