Writing About Science vs. Engineering

Updated 8/1/19, 10:18 a.m.

I have addressed the topic of writing about science vs. writing about engineering previously, but Heroic Tech Writing reader Nick asked about my experiences writing on the science side of things. While I haven’t done a lot of science writing, I’m happy to pass on my thoughts. I also suggested that he review the writings of my peer from Huntsville, Dauna Coulter, who did a great job writing for Science@NASA.

How the Writing Differs

If I had to characterize the primary difference between writing for scientists and writing for engineers, it crystallizes on the level of mystery involved in the content. Scientists have a higher tolerance for the unknown. This makes sense because science is the process of learning how the physical universe works while engineering is the process of using what’s known about the physical universe to fabricate or do something with a specific human end in mind.

On the job, scientists are asking questions such as:

  • Why does X happen?
  • What might be the result if X happened?
  • What is the connection between X and Y, if any?
  • If X is true, how would you quantify, measure, or control for it in an experiment?
  • What more do I/we need to study to understand X?

Engineers, on the other hand, are asking different questions:

  • What can I do with X?
  • What are the physical limits of X?
  • How do I test the limits of X?
  • What do I need to do to ensure that the widget I’m making with X operates safely and successfully?
  • Having built my widget successfully in Y context, what else could X be used for?

Notice that both disciplines ask questions that eventually lead to future work. While the scientist is seeking out newer and deeper mysteries to find out how the universe works, the engineer is seeking to build better gadgets within what’s known about the universe.

How the Work Differs

Down the rabbit hole

One thing I noticed about the difference between science writing and engineering writing is that science writing involved (for me, anyway) a lot more reading and researching to understand what was going on and why.

Let’s say I was writing about what makes stars work. I could start with something simple like explaining that they use nuclear fusion, which involves fusing lighter hydrogen atoms into heavier helium atoms. Great. How does that work? I dig a little deeper and learn about the pressures inside stars. How are those generated? Dig a little deeper and learn about gravity and how stars are formed. What causes that? Shockwaves from nearby supernovas compressing material in nebulae? How did those happen? Which equations are used to determine how all that works? Do I need to know Newton’s theories on optics or  Chandrasekhar’s Limit to tell this story? Et cetera.

If I’m writing an explanatory article about a science topic, I end up going down an endless rabbit hole, to the point where I can’t find the bottom or I end up reading all the way back to the Big Bang, which is not what I wanted or needed–I just wanted to write an article about how stars worked.

If I’m writing about the politics of a scientific issue, it can be somewhat easier. This is because politicians only want/need “the basics,” which for them translates into, “What’s going on, and what do I need to do about it, if anything?” That makes the scientific exposition a bit more concrete:

  • Carbon dioxide from X is heating up the planet, here’s why, and here’s what happens if it gets out of control.
  • An asteroid the size of a railroad car has an X% chance of hitting Earth; here’s what might happen if it does.
  • Company X is dumping chemical Y into the water and here are the known or potential effects.

On the whole, though, science writing requires a lot more grounding in the material to write with authority. You need to understand what’s going on and what’s the right level of detail to include in your document (e.g., an article for the science-interested public). I’m not quite there yet.

Writing for engineers

Engineering writing, on the other hand, has a definite end, both figuratively (having a specific outcome in mind) and literally (eventually you run out of material to read/learn to understand what’s going on).

An engineered object has a human purpose in mind. People who arrived before me designed Widget X. They know what they want it to do, at what level of performance, for whom, and to accomplish which end(s). If I have a question about how something works, I can find a source and get an answer I can understand.

I short, if I get confused, I can ask someone how or why something works the way it does; I don’t have to research all the way back to the start of Creation to get answers.

Bottom Line

Perhaps learning more and more might be for you. Great! There are some mighty fine science writers out there (my buddy Dauna among them) who love diving into a pile of books and papers to learn how X works. I like that sort of thing, too, up to a point. However, more often than not, I’m on a deadline and I don’t have the time or patience to research every possible publication or fact about a topic. In that situation, engineering writing is more deadline friendly. But hey, that’s me. I’m willing to interview any science writer out there who can explain the error(s) of my ways.

About Bart Leahy

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