Talking About Science Writing to 8th Graders

Note: Content has changed a bit since I first posted this article.

A few days before this past Christmas, my buddy Dave asked me to help talk to some 8th graders he works with at the Christa McAuliffe Charter School in Framingham, Massachusetts. They’re in the process of writing papers not only to bring their knowledge of space together but to celebrate and honor Christa Corrigan McAuliffe and the Challenger Crew at the annual Christa McAuliffe Remembrance Event. Since the school is an Expeditionary Learning school, they put on this culminating event every year to showcase scholars work and to honor their namesake. About 400 people from the community will attend the event in remembrance of Christa McAuliffe. The students’ space articles will be published and bound in a space magazine that the school will put together. Their teacher, Dan Anderson, was worried about the articles sounding too “scientific and dry.”

I knew Dave through working at Marshall Space Flight Center, the National Space Society, and the local NSS chapter, HAL5, so he knew I was a space writer. I’d even written an article on alien space fish, so it seemed like a natural fit.

The questions they gave me to answer were:

  • How do you start writing your articles?
  • How do you incorporate feedback from your editors or peers?
  • How do you choose a title for your article?
  • How do you get your non-science friends to read these science articles?
  • Do you like writing about science? Is it your passion or is it just a job?

Talking via Skype, the format was set up to be a set of three 15-minute discussions, one with each class, during which Dave and I would be answering these questions and offering some general feedback on the articles Anderson sent us to review. What follows below are my original notes (I have to be prepared before I speak in front of people–even youngsters).

Original Answers

Note: Dave answered these three during the talks, I answered the others. The text below were my intended answers.

How do you start writing your articles?

The two most important questions I ask of an editor when getting a new/unfamiliar assignment are: “Who is my audience?” and “How do we want them to react (to topic X)?” That reaction piece is what determines the article’s “slant.”

I usually start researching content on the topic from what I consider “authoritative” sources.

When I’m writing space-related articles, I look for content generated by organizations or individuals doing the work. If I want color commentary to make things more interesting, I’ll reach out to someone I know in the community who will have an informed opinion about the story and ask for their reaction.

I don’t ask subject-matter experts too many questions of fact. I should know what I’m talking about so I can ask more detailed “what if?” questions.

How do you incorporate feedback from your editors or peers?

Depending on the length of the article, the deadline, and the publication, I could go through one or many editing cycles (where I submit content, then the editor returns any changes). Generally, I accept the changes people make unless I disagree with them.

Edits take one of three forms: mechanics/grammar, content, or style:

  • Mechanical edits (punctuation, spelling, grammar) are straightforward, and I usually just accept those!
  • Content changes might include suggestions on things to add or delete. Additions would be to make the article more in-depth. Deletions could be made because I wrote something a sponsor wouldn’t like (because something I wrote would make their product/people look bad), the information was incorrect, or because the article was getting too long.
  • Stylistic changes are revisions to how I wrote something compared to what I wrote. Some of those I let slide because the editor’s version sounds better. Some I push back on, especially if I feel that their revision changes what I meant to say. I try to keep any discussions polite, of course, as I’m likely to work with the editor again in the future.

How do you choose a title for your article?

It varies by customer. When I’m writing for my own blog, I choose the title with no editorial input. In that case, I try to find an entertaining or eye-catching way of explaining my “slant” on a story. Most of the time, when I’m writing for someone else, I do the same thing. However, nine times out of ten, the editor changes the title for reasons that elude me. Sometimes they think my title is too serious, sometimes not serious enough. Sometimes they just have a better feel for a title that will appeal to their audience, and I’ve learned to accept that.

Answered aloud

Note: Because I was answering these aloud, I decided to shrink my original prose into brief talking points.

How do you get your non-science friends to read these science articles?

Don’t use a lot of equations or acronyms in their daily language.

Use common terms for explaining complex subjects rather than the highly technical term.

Relate astronomical phenomena to people’s everyday experience (e.g., “If you were to stand on the surface of X planet, you would quickly freeze to death and die of asphyxiation because of the lack of breathable atmosphere” or “That’s one third Earth’s gravity”).

Avoid using a lot of jargon.

Use active voice (“The scientists moved the magnet” instead of “the magnet was moved”).

Include a “so what?”—a reason for my audience to care about your topic—something about it that could affect or relate to them personally.

Do you like writing about science? Is it your passion or is it just a job?

I’m interested in space exploration and some of the science that goes with it, but I’m much more excited about the engineering side of things. I got a master’s degree specifically to work in the human spaceflight business.

I’m an impatient person. Science is always learning or always in flux. I want to know what we know right now and so we can do something with that knowledge that’s useful.

Also, engineering is a human activity: we know why hardware is built because we designed it with a specific purpose in mind. We may never figure out the universe. I respect what scientists do, I just relate better to the folks who make things.

Who is your audience?

The two most important questions I ask whenever I get a new assignment are: who is my audience and how do I want them to react to what I’m writing?

Who my audience is affects how I’m going to write. For example, I’ve written for members of Congress and I’ve written for professional cheerleaders. These two audiences have very different backgrounds and interests. I need to make sure that I’m writing in ways that will meet their interests.

Classroom Interactions

What follows here are my impressions from the actual discussions we had with the kids.

Group A

Originally I thought we were talking for 30 minutes–turned out to be more like 15. Given the time constraints, my answers were a lot brisker and focused on the big points (“Try to write like you’re talking to someone in the cafeteria, explain why it’s important if we find alien space fish on Enceladus”). Dave did an excellent job as well with his answers, and he had a visual advantage, in that he was writing from the workroom floor of Dynetics, where they were fixing an X-ray machine. A couple kids weren’t quite awake yet. As I learned when writing for that obesity management class, teenagers need a lot more sleep.

Group B

This group was a bit more awake. I found myself offering slightly different advice from the previous class, possibly because I thought of slightly different things. I felt I was rushing to cover all my thoughts in a short time, but on all three occasions Mr. Anderson made sure that Dave and I summarized what we were saying.

Group E

Dave and I had our patter down by the third group. I was more relaxed, at any rate.

Parting thoughts

Not going to lie: the writing these kids put out impressed me, especially given the students’ ages of 13-14, and the complexity of the material. I’d have to go back and look at my writing from that age, but I’m not certain if I was quite that coherent at that age.One of my many side jobs in the past was grading English Comp 101 papers at a local university, and those weren’t as well written.

The students were doing good technical writing–conveying complex material correctly and clearly. However, I was brought in to help them polish their writing to make it more general-public (article) friendly.

In any case, the students were a lot more well behaved than I remember being with a guest speaker at that age, so that’s progress of a sort as well. I’ll be interested to see how their writing changes–if at all–after these little sessions. I also forwarded my “alien space fish” article to Mr. Anderson, so we’ll see if they get any inspiration from that as well.

While Dave and I were talking with Anderson during a tech check earlier in the morning I got a request from another teacher to talk to her social studies students about writing for a textbook. That should prove interesting. The process of educating continues, even if I lack the patience to stand in front of a classroom on a daily basis. Interesting times.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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