FIGURE 3-1 Advice from John Emsley about including chemical formulas in science writing.
SOURCE: John Emsley, University of Cambridge.
the technical words or be interested in having all the details carefully spelled out. There really is no time to do that in popular writing, because “you have got to keep the story flowing, you have got to carry people with you.”
Emsley strongly advised not using technical terms. If it is necessary to use a technical word, then the next word in the sentence has to explain what it is. For example, rather than saying nuclear magnetic resonance, it would be better to say it is a magnetic technique used to determine chemical structures. He also said not to include complex chemical formulas in writing, such as shown in Figure 3-1. He said that structures such as H2O and CO2 are fine, but nothing more sophisticated than that should be used. Otherwise, most readers will not understand it and will tend to stop reading at that point.
Emsley cautioned—as many in journalism do—not to overestimate peoples’ chemical knowledge, but also not to underestimate their intelligence. He also said not to expect people will read every written word. He said he was told when he was a newspaper writer, “Assume you are writing for someone who has got a degree in history, who is no scientist.” A writer also should not assume that people read every word of an article. He said, “Tell the beginning of the story quickly, tell the whole story quickly, and then go into depth later on.” Many people never get past reading the headline of a newspaper article.
Emsley provided some insights on choosing what to write about. He said people want to read about something that is new. They like something that is an answer to a previously unsolved problem or that overturns a widely held belief. They like a news item that promises a better future or appeals to national pride. One place to look for ideas is in areas where chemistry is important to people’s lives. While writing for magazines and newspapers, he would look through the short papers at the back of the Journal of the American Cancer Society. He suggested approaching an editor and saying, “I have just read this, do you want me to write something?” Other “hooks on which you hang a story” that he mentioned included sex, health and money, discovery and novelty, danger and confrontation, and national benefit.
Commenting on how to make chemistry interesting to a nonscientist, Emsley said that it is important to include a lot of human interest information. “The general reader is looking to read about people rather than things,” he said. For example, when talking about a research finding, it is good to give the names of the researchers, their status, age, where they work, and their role in the study.
Emsley ended his remarks with this: “It is difficult to start out writing. When I lecture students at Cambridge, I always end up saying, become a writer, but don’t give up your day job just yet.”
Ivan Amato elaborated on the reasons he thinks the field of chemistry does not get the attention it deserves:
1. Chemistry is the back story. For example, stories written about pharmaceutical drugs tend to focus on the impact of the drug, such as saving a person’s life, rather than about the brilliant chemistry and reaction discovery that went into putting that drug into the hands of a physician.
2. Chemistry is hard. Amato said, “Chemistry is why so many pre-meds do not go on to medical school. It is the thing that took the 4.0 or 3.5 [grade point average] down to 2.5.” Chemistry is often thought of as being hard and not the most enjoyable experience, rather than something that is fun and interesting.
3. Chemistry is invisible. While chemistry is everywhere, in materials, medicines, fuels, and more, it tends to go unnoticed by most nonscientists. “The molecular bases of things are invisible and they are a harder thing to talk about than looking up at night at the stars or a medical drama where there is life and death,” said Amato.
4. Chemistry is an umbrella term. Chemistry covers many areas of specialization that are not always identified as chemistry. Areas under the disciplinary umbrella of chemistry can also be somewhat disparate, such as polymer chemistry and biological chemistry.
5. Chemistry is an arcane language. Talking about chemistry can be like talking in a foreign language. Amato said, “I think it is very hard for the chemistry community or for anyone who gets close and works with this language all the time to keep it in mind.”
6. Chemists are culturally biased against publicity. This is not peculiar to chemistry, but it is a cultural issue that comes both from the science community and from the editors and the editorial boards of journals. There seems to be a sense of power that comes from using tough language that only specialists can understand.