ScienceWriters 2018 panel: Raising your voice

Raising your voice: Using essay techniques in science writing

By Elizabeth Suk-Hang Lam

Science may always give the impression of cold hard facts. Yet by adding a personal voice to these "cold hard facts", science writing can create compelling stories that resonate with readers.

Essays come in many varieties, but each one has a personal voice, moderator Amanda Mascarelli said. Her session invited five writers and editors to share their experiences incorporating their voices in their writing.

Sabrina Imbler, columnist for Catapult, used marine biology to talk about her life. Sharing her essay about immortal jellyfish and her queer childhood, she illustrated how the analogy has made her story more appealing to readers. With a habit of keeping her personal journal, she has recorded her feelings in daily life. This has helped her to discover things that have moved her in life that she may include in her story to make it more interesting.

Michelle Nijhuis, an editor for the Atlantic, said essay writing is much more than the summation of "me" and a bunch of adjectives. She shared her edited sample about the toughness of right whales. From the editorial perspective, she said that even though the voice is important, the key is still the idea itself. She also said that personal voice is not everything about the writer, but rather a polished way of presenting oneself.

Angela Chen, science journalist at The Verge, shared her writing about "Why I No Longer Make Predictions." She pointed out that personal voice could make story ideas more relevant to both science and personal experience as it could connect concepts in science reporting with the people outside the field. When asked how to discover her voice, she recommended writers dig from their unpublished writings to find their own natural voices.

Joanna Marchant, a science journalist and an editor, used her writing about the oldest cave paintings to illustrate how a personal voice could add color to her article. By identifying the things that have moved her, she is more aware of her emotions and recognizes what the incident means to her. That helps her to make it relevant to the audience.

Pamela Weintraub, editor of Aeon, showed the use of personal voice in her piece, "Haunted by History". She pointed out that a personal conclusion could illustrate what it all meant to her and readers. The story idea comes first, but personal voice enriches it. Therefore from the editing point of view, she advised writers to say why they are the suitable author for the story in their pitch.

The session emphasized the benefit of using a personal voice to make essays more relevant and appealing to readers. One of the tips is to be more aware of our own emotions. Keeping a personal journal is a way to articulate and recognize personal feelings as Joanna and Sabrina advised, though Michelle reminded writers not to hit 'publish' during the moment with strong emotions. Personal voice adds color to science stories, but the idea is still the key.

Perhaps becoming more aware of our internal movement enables us not only to present "cold hard facts" with our own unique voices, but also to have a deeper understanding of ourselves.

October 14, 2018

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