16 Writing and Audio/Visual

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This chapter gives an overview of science journalism in the form of written articles and audiovisual media.

Sections in this chapter

Science Journalism

Communicating science or chemistry to a general audience is a challenging but worthwhile pursuit. You can find science journalism in popular science magazines like Wired or National Geographic, in the local newspaper, in sections of Science and Nature, on the radio, and in Podcasts. These venues share new discoveries, show how something works, or profile the lives of scientists.

Written media

There is a stark contrast between technical writing, for theses and articles, and writing for general interest. Science journalism strives for a balance between accuracy and accessibility. Popular science articles are usually short, taking only 5 minutes or less to read, but should have a way for the reader to learn more if they become interested in the topic. The tool at readtime.eu is useful for knowing how long your text takes to read. This paragraph takes around 30 seconds.

Here are some popular venues for chemistry writing geared towards a general audience:

When writing for a general audience, authors must skim or reframe the technical details to explain not just what was done, but WHY, and what are the consequences? Writing for science communication must be more engaging than technical writing. It can also be more subjective, bringing in the author’s opinions and interpretations, whereas technical writing usually strives for objectivity.

What makes a good popular science article?

Tim Sandle outlines these eight points for what makes a good ‘popular science’ article in this OpEd (summarized below):[1]

  • Avoid jargon and define all terms
  • Go into detail using analogies and metaphors
  • Explain the significance
  • Represent multiple points of view
  • Discuss future applications
  • Cite and link to the original research paper
  • Mention related research that might interest the reader
  • Get direct quotes from the researcher
  • Note who funded the research
  • Be skeptical
  • Respect the reader


1. In 100 words or less, explain what a toxin is to a general audience.

Click here to show an answer

Toxins are chemicals that are poisonous. Traditionally, the term ‘toxin’ was used only for chemicals produced by animals or plants, like snake venom, but recently the term is also given to all kinds of synthetic chemicals.
This broad use of the word “toxin” can be confusing and contributes to people’s fear of chemistry and science. It’s also not very useful, because no chemicals are inherently poisonous — the dose makes the poison! In this article, we’ll use the traditional definition of a toxin, and anything else will be called a “toxicant” or a “chemical”.


2. Find the mistakes in the following paragraph about a recent article and then rewrite the paragraph.

“A new discovery from the group of Zhe She allows scientists to detect cells and toxins using TLRs. The researchers developed their biosensors on electrode surfaces in a way that they can selectively detect whole bacterial cells with high sensitivity. Their biosensor was able to detect Gram-negative bacterial cells in samples as small a 100 mL. These shelf-stable sensors are ready for real-world applications.”

Click here to show an answer
  • TLR is not defined for the reader.
  • What is the selectivity? The authors describe their sensors as non-specific, but selective for Gram-positive cells.
  • The sensor detects Gram-positive cells (Gram-negative was the control)
  • They were able to detect against their control at a threshold of 100 CFU (colony forming units, i.e. bacteria) per mL, not in a 100 mL sample
  • The shelf-stability of the sensors is described in the paper as a challenge, and it’s clear that the sensors are not yet ready for real-world applications.

Audio/Visual Media

There is a huge range of audio/visual science communication, with an equally broad audience. Science TV shows like Bill Nye the Science Guy, the Magic School Bus, or Daily Planet communicate science for children and adults alike. More recently, you can find web-based shows designed for effective science communication. Then there are radio shows, including the long-running CBC Quirks and Quarks or Dr. Joe’s Montreal show. Queen’s Chemistry Professors are often featured on the “Element of Surprise” radio segment of All in a Day with Alan Neal. Recent years have seen a surge in science podcasts, with some setting a high bar with fantastic quality and high journalism and fact-checking standards.[2]

Science Podcasts

Here are links to some excellent science podcasts!

Science Vs Podcast Radiolab | WVXU in it's element podcast

The makings of good science audio are similar to those for science writing: know your audience, avoid jargon, find the key message and communicate the significance! Audio, like a podcast, also usually incorporates some aspect of either 1) Interviewing, or 2) Storytelling. In writing, you may choose interesting images from a research article or related to a science topic, but in audio, these must be described or replaced with sound.

The RadioLab podcast is known for how well they use sound when telling science stories: see this episode in particular (below), where a choir sings in spectral frequencies of rainbows beyond the visible spectrum (19:08 min).

To learn more about making science podcasts read this career column by science journalist Katherine Bassil.[3]

  1. Tim Sandle, March 23 2016, "How to write a good science article", Digital Journal,  Accessed: 2020-08-26
  2. Jane C. Hu, Nov. 7, 2016, "Scientists ride the podcasting wave"
  3. Katherine Bassil, July 4 2019, "Lessons I’ve learnt from creating a science podcast", doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-02096-4


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Principles of Scientific Communication Copyright © 2020 by Amanda Bongers and Donal Macartney is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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