By JANET RALOFF
I’ve been a science journalist for more than four decades, over the years probing the long-range transport of persistent organic pollutants, counterintuitive low-dose impacts of many toxicants and the myriad ways humans have inadvertently been altering the biogeochemistry of our planet.
My reporting has taken me to the Grand Banks off Newfoundland, to Alaska’s “science city” (Barrow), to the windswept South Pole and to nuclear- and chemical-weapons facilities. And I’ve covered electromagnetic-pulse weaponry, helped pioneer coverage of hormone-mimicking pollutants and was the first reporter to showcase the emerging global threat of pharmaceutical contamination of surface waters.
But the last decade has unquestionably proven the most satisfying.
Why? It’s since then that I started bringing news of science and tech advances to a much younger audience — notably tweens and teens — through the magazine I edit, Science News for Students.
I’ve learned a few things along the way. Freelancers take heed — whether you’re writing for us, for other news products reaching that younger audience or even for adult audiences.
Kids are insatiably curious. Most are not yet jaded by politics, economics or rigid religious filters. They just want to know the why and how of something — and what prospects new developments might hold for the world they intend to soon begin managing.
My challenge has been learning how to articulate all of this in a way that not only informs but also captivates 12-year-olds. We don’t patronize, intimidate or leave kids asking more questions than when they began.
In short, we try to offer sound, engaging journalism, parsed in a vocabulary and sentence structure that even naïve readers can follow.
Science News for Students covers every field of research, including quantum physics and materials science to neuroscience, cosmology, microbiology and plate tectonics — all without dumbing anything down. And in most cases, it’s not really proven all that hard.
But it can be quite different from what many of us get away with writing for adults. Indeed, when I repurpose a Science News story for tweens, I typically hear the original author of that story say: “Gee, I should have written it that way for our readers,” most of whom have at least one graduate degree in some STEM field.
In other words, I’d argue, writing effectively for adolescents can pay dividends in helping us learn to make complex topics accessible to adults as well.
It’s the same, only different
Many people assume that writing for kids will translate to science “lite.” They seem to think you can superficially describe a trend or link and that’s it, you’re done.
But that’s what I call black-box science. You describe something that goes into a proverbial box. Then once inside — voila! Magic happens. You don’t explain the processes and what triggered them.
Yet kids are intensely curious about those processes, or mechanisms. So for our magazine, at least half of which is written by freelancers, I’ve had to push our outside writers to dig into and explain details to the same extent they would in any story for adults. They also need to explain not only what prompted the new research, but also what still remains unknown, and why.
There are a few “tricks” to doing this effectively for the precollege set. Start by using visual and sensory language. Don’t say something is big. Say it’s a school-bus sized rock. Or the crustacean is no bigger than the tip of a ballpoint pen. Point out that some newly created membrane is as thick as a sheet of paper but as flimsy as a piece of the plastic wrap used to cover a leftover casserole.
Numbers can be hard to convey to youngish readers. We might tell adults that 18 percent of Americans die from some particular form of cancer. For kids, we’d typically say the disease ultimately will claim the lives of one-in-six Americans. That’s much easier to visualize for adult readers as well.
Metaphors are useful. For instance, one of our recent stories about gravitational waves began by noting that “Pulsars are the dense cores of dead stars.” Playing on that idea, we went on to describe these as “zombie” stars that can communicate by issuing intense beams of light. (Kids, by the way, will read any story with zombie, vampire or “biggest ever” in the headline.)
A flipped coin worked as the metaphor for a story on organic LEDs. It noted that changing a semiconductor’s recipe lets designers change the hue and other features of this light source.
“For instance, instead of just green, an OLED can be tuned to produce a vivid emerald green or a pale lime green. Still, whatever [chemical] recipe is used, each semiconductor layer has been able to emit only one color at a time … [and] That’s because the semiconductor normally has just one of two electronic states. It’s like a coin with two sides. When it lands, it’s either heads or tails. In the semiconductor’s case, it can be one color or another. Never both.”
Sentence length matters
Perhaps the biggest difference in writing for adults and kids is sentence length. In Science News , we might write: “‘Tomatoes cause cancer,’ says John Brown at the University of California, Berkeley in the February 12 issue of Nature.” The density of that sentence yields a Flesch-Kincaid “readability” score of 14.8. That means it’s ostensibly appropriate for someone about to enter their junior year of college.
In our teen magazine, we’d rephrase that, saying: “John Brown studies diet and cancer at the University of California, Berkeley. His work has just linked eating tomatoes with cancer. His team described that new finding in the latest issue of Nature.” The new readability score — 7.7 — is now appropriate for kids about midway through seventh grade.
What’s more, any mention of a jargony term — such as abyssal, albedo, pilus, piezoelectricity, RNA, seismic wave, El Niňo, ecosystem or jet stream — will require a parenthetic phrase (if not a sentence or two) to explain what it means.
That too, can stretch a story. Indeed, I have repurposed some 130-word “briefs” from Science News, and without adding a single additional factoid, ended up with a kids’ version that ran up to 270 words.
This is why I argue that when writing for kids, looking to measure the reporting effort and remuneration on a per-word basis can be misleading.
I love science, live science and have spent my career helping others understand what research is telling us about our universe. Dozens of specialty publications — not to mention most newspaper and broadcast outlets — offer adults a steady feed of news on science and tech.
In future, I hope to see more outlets do the same for children and teens. There’s a huge, largely unsatisfied appetite for deeply reported journalism that’s aimed at the post-Millennials.
For more than 35 years, Janet Raloff has been writing about the environment, nutrition, climate and science policy for Science News. Her writing has won awards from a number of organizations, including the National Association of Science Writers. She has a background in physics, and undergraduate and graduate degrees from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.
* From the quarterly news magazine SEJournal, Spring 2016. Each new issue of SEJournal is available to members and subscribers only; find subscription information here or learn how to join SEJ. Past issues are archived for the public here.