Popular Science

Why write popular science?

Many scientists today engage in communication and outreach in order to widely disseminate their scientific findings.  Popular science communication is a great way to help a wider audience understand scientific concepts.  Whether you’re writing in a personal blog, a magazine, or creating web content, it’s important to think about how to make the content both clear and captivating.  Additionally, popular writing can be helpful when creating presentations for audiences who are not experts in your field.

Rules of thumb

We compiled some tips from two writers who spoke at the Nicholas School in Spring 2015: Dr. Craig McClain and Sheena Faherty, a Duke graduate student.

  1. Don’t dumb it down.  The goal of popular writing is to write high quality content that is understandable but not “dumbed down.”
  2. You’ve got 10 seconds to convince your readers.  A rule of thumb for online media or popular articles, such as a newspaper or magazine article, is that you have 10 seconds or 10 words to capture the reader’s attention.  The first sentence in your writing is key to drawing the reader in.  Starting with an anecdote or a question might be ways to garner interest.
  3. Top-heavy is good.  Put the most important information at the top of your article.  People tend not to read past the first paragraph of an article, so make sure to get as much of your important information in the first paragraph as possible.
  4. Write stories, not topics.  Where applicable, think about humanizing the topic– make it so that readers can relate to it.
  5. Avoid big words or jargon.
  6. Think about what will interest your readers.  According to Sheena, people love dinosaurs, space, and health news.  Readers love an interesting story with compelling characters that they can relate to.  Give the readers reasons that they should care about your topic.
  7. If you’re trying to spread the word about your writing, or if you’re trying to disseminate the information you gathered to a larger audience, make sure to use social networks to share your writing.


The Nicholas School blogs have examples of popular writing that combine personal, scientific, and policy topics.

Examples of popular science communications include: Deep-Sea News, Water Wired, and other blogs like Musings of a Jungle Queen.  Sites like Scientific American are good examples of popular writing.  Duke’s own Sheena Faherty has blogged for Scientific American.

Check out our environmental communications page for more links.

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