Written By: Zhao Gu Gammage
STEM writing can consist of anything from a lab report to a newspaper article and focuses on helping people understand what are often complex scientific concepts. STEM writing is important because it helps people understand the world around them, from developments in the cars they drive to the foods they eat. Without clear and comprehensible writing on these topics, many people without a STEM background would not be able to understand how aspects of the world work. More broadly, effective writing is important because it allows others to analyze new ideas, opinions, and topics.
This blog post will focus on STEM writing for the general public using mRNA vaccines as an example.
Tip 1: Finding a Topic and Understanding the Content
How do I find a topic?
Ask people around you what science topics interest them, and have them explain their topics to you; if what they say sounds interesting, do some independent reading and further explore the topic.
Once I have my topic, what do I do?
Once you’ve found a topic you’re passionate about, research it thoroughly to gain a full understanding of it. Look at a variety of sources (e.g., interviews, research studies, videos) to develop a solid understanding of the topic.
Make sure to fact-check what you read and focus on verifying the credibility of your sources.
If you’re unsure whether you understand a topic, explain it to a friend or family member and ask for feedback on your explanation. If they respond with follow-up questions that you don’t know the answer to, return to research.
Ask a science professional (teacher, researcher, scientist) any questions you can’t find the answer to online and make sure you understand what they’re saying.
mRNA research: For this example, I would look at the Mayo Clinic’s article on mRNA vaccines, this video from Harvard University, and this interview conducted by The New York Times about an mRNA researcher.
Tip 2: Writing an Introduction
How do I start writing?
Think about how to grab a reader’s attention. Instead of immediately jumping in to explain your topic in the first sentence, begin more broadly and work your way to your topic. The first sentence can include anything from a question to a personal anecdote. This is always the first thing that the reader reads, so be sure to pique the reader’s interest.
When writing the introduction, ask yourself: What’s there, and why care? Why is your topic important, and why should readers learn about it?
mRNA introduction (without tip 2): The mRNA vaccine gives cells instructions for how to make the antigen to the COVID-19 virus so they can produce S proteins and build antibodies for the immune system to fight the virus, specifically preventing the viral cells from multiplying.
This first sentence does not hook the reader and instead sounds like something straight out of a science textbook. The technical jargon may confuse those without prior knowledge of epidemiology or biology. The sentence below may work better since it explains what the vaccine does, but only after certain words (antigen, S protein, antibodies) are defined.
mRNA introduction (with tip 2): mRNA vaccines, such as those from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, have drastically reduced hospitalizations and the spread of the virus. But how exactly do these mRNA vaccines work?
The first sentence clearly demonstrates the importance of mRNA vaccines, and the question posed piques the reader’s interest.
Tip 3: Explaining the Topic
How do I explain the topic effectively?
When you’re writing an explanation, consider any questions readers may pose as they’re skimming through, and be sure to address them.
Fully explain the concept: this means explaining the different parts of the concept - how they work individually and how they work together. Be sure to use the correct scientific terms when necessary, and explain the terms as needed.
mRNA explanation (without tip 3): By encoding genetic instructions into the polymer mRNA, these vaccines allow cells to produce the S protein antigen to the COVID-19 virus. The antigen itself is the S protein, and when it comes in contact with a COVID-19 cell, it will eradicate the cell, thus preventing vaccinated people from becoming ill if they contract the virus.
Despite correctly explaining how mRNA vaccines work, this explanation does not break down the technical terms used (mRNA, S protein, antigen, polymer). It could have included more details about how, for example, mRNA vaccines give cells instructions to produce antigens and how immune cells recognize COVID-19 cells.
mRNA explanation (with tip 3): mRNA vaccines contain messenger RNA, which gives our cells instructions on producing the S protein (spike proteins which are seen on the COVID-19 cells). The S proteins trigger the body to produce antibodies, which are cells that fight against the COVID-19 virus. The S proteins also contain a marker that tells the body when a COVID-19 cell has entered the body and sends antibodies to expel the infected cells.
This explanation defines the scientific terms necessary (S protein, antibodies, mRNA) and follows with a step-by-step explanation of how mRNA vaccines work.
Tip 4: Citing Sources
Why should I add sources?
Sources allow you to strengthen your writing by showing that you have done extensive research on your topic. They also allow the reader to verify what you’re saying.
How do I add sources?
Use transitions such as “according to” or “a recent study found that” to introduce your data. You can also choose to provide images and explain those.
Don’t forget to cite your sources! This can be in the form of a hyperlink, footnote, or works cited page!
mRNA vaccine introduction (without tip 4): mRNA vaccines, such as Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, have drastically reduced hospitalizations and the spread of the virus. But how exactly do mRNA vaccines work?
Without any sources, the reader has no way of confirming whether mRNA vaccines have reduced hospitalizations and the spread of the virus, so citing a source here would be beneficial to support this statement.
mRNA vaccine introduction (with tip 4): mRNA vaccines, such as Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, have drastically reduced hospitalizations and the spread of the virus. The graph below from The Washington Post reflects the vaccines’ effect on COVID cases, with daily cases in mid-January rising to more than 200,000 and falling to around 60,000 in a matter of weeks. The release of vaccines from January through May has decreased the case rate to below 20,000 cases per day. But how exactly do the mRNA vaccines work?
With this data, readers can visualize the impact of mRNA vaccines, and by hyperlinking the source, readers can verify your statements on their own.
Tip 5: Writing a Conclusion
How do I write a conclusion?
A conclusion should summarize your writing and leave the reader with clear key takeaways. There are many ways to write a conclusion, including ending with a quote, statistic, or final message. Don’t introduce new research or new terminology and instead stick to topics already mentioned.
Avoid cliche phrases like “in conclusion.” Keep in mind why you wanted to write the article in the first place, and end with something impactful to the reader.
mRNA conclusion (without tip 5): As seen through the data, mRNA vaccines have been highly effective in reducing COVID-19 rates. By understanding how these vaccines work, we can understand more about our world.
This conclusion lacks content - it’s two sentences long! Although it summarizes the vaccine’s impact and why we should care about it, it could certainly do a better job.
mRNA conclusion (with tip 5): The mRNA vaccines have been integral in helping us emerge from pandemic life and return to a semblance of normality. Yet, with more than 50% of the US population unvaccinated according to the Mayo Clinic, as well as the emergence of the Delta variant, COVID-19 could get worse before it gets better. mRNA vaccines have proven to be effective in preventing the spread of the virus, but it is up to us to use them effectively.
This conclusion presents the mRNA vaccine’s current status in fighting the pandemic: they have been effective but there are still many challenges ahead. The concluding sentence leaves the reader with the overall message of the piece and provides an evocative call to action.
Congratulations on writing your article! Now that the hard work is done, consider how you will share it with the public.
Bonus Tip: Publication
How do I submit my article online?
First, find STEM publications or publications that accept STEM-related articles. Next, read the publication’s rules on submissions. (If they don’t have any, go to the contact page and directly contact them about publishing your article.) Last, submit your article to multiple publications and wait for a response! It usually takes between 1-4 weeks for a publication to respond, so be patient and if your article isn’t selected, submit it to other publications.
By learning and applying these tips, you can start your own STEM writing journey! Becoming a STEM writer doesn’t require any prior writing experience or a degree in English; it simply requires patience and creativity. Through writing, you’re not only building others’ understanding of STEM but also learning to form your own voice. And don’t forget to have fun in the process!