Carl Zimmer

2021 Graduate Student Science Writing Workshop

Tuesday, March 16, 2021
Tuesday, March 23, 2021
2:30 PM - 4:30 PM
via Zoom

Instructor: Carl Zimmer

Workshop registration: Workshop registration opens December 18, 2020 to all graduate students. To register, please complete the registration form at (note that you will be required to sign into your Yale account). If you do not have a Yale ID and wish to register and attend the sessions, please email

Workshop objectives: This workshop will introduce science graduate students to writing about science for a broad, non-scientist audience.

About the instructor: Carl Zimmer is professor adjunct, Yale MBB, a columnist for The New York Times, and the author of 14 books about science.

Course schedule:

First meeting: Tuesday, March 16th 2:30 - 4:30

This session will begin with a discussion about science writing, considering techniques required for good science writing. We will use the assigned reading below as the basis for the discussion.

I will describe in some detail how I produced one of my own articles, starting with the paper on which it was based.

Finally, we will discuss the course assignment (details below).


Ian Bogost. “Scholars Shouldn’t Fear Dumbing Down.” The Atlantic, October 26, 2018

I highly recommend these two books:

Steven Pinker, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. (Amazon page is external))

Siri Carpenter, editor. The Craft of Science Writing


Nicola Twilley, “How the First Gravitational Waves Were Found,” The New Yorker
Ed Yong, “Why the Coronavirus Has Been So Successful,” The Atlantic


The papers:

Gonzalez-Reiche, Ana S., et al. "Introductions and early spread of SARS-CoV-2 in the New York City area." Science 17 Jul 2020: Vol. 369, Issue 6501, pp. 297-301 DOI: 10.1126/science.abc1917

Maurano, M. T., Ramaswami, S., Zappile, P., Dimartino, D., Boytard, L., Ribeiro-dos-Santos, A. M., ... & Hogan, M. S. (2020). Sequencing identifies multiple early introductions of SARS-CoV-2 to the New York City Region. Genome Research. DOI: 10.1101/gr.266676.120

The article:

“Most New York Coronavirus Cases Came From Europe, Genomes Show” New York Times, April 4, 2020

Questions to consider: What in the papers is in the article? What is missing? How does the article go beyond the papers? How does the article portray the way science is done?


Pick a new scientific paper in an area of your choosing. Write a 600-word explanation of the research.

You are free to choose the style in which you write your assignment. It may be an opinion piece, a piece of straight news reporting as you’d see in a newspaper, or a more creative piece you might find in a magazine.

However, you approach it, you must explain why the scientists did the research, how they did it, and what they learned from it-and in such a way that a lay reader can understand it (and even enjoy it).

The first step towards good writing is good language. So, avoid all jargon, no matter how tempting. See here for an index of words I’ve banned from previous classes:

To research your piece, read the paper, look for any commentaries in the journals, and find background reading for context. If necessary, try to find a grad student at Yale or elsewhere who can take you through the research.

Be sure to include the citation of the paper on your assignment.

Since the assignment is due three days after the first workshop, I’d recommend starting on it before we meet. It may look like a quick task, but many grad students who have taken my workshop have told me it took a lot longer than they expected!

Assignments are due by Thursday, March 18, 2021 at 5 pm . Email them to me at

Please note that I will only be able to evaluate pieces by the first 20 students who registered for the workshop. However, all registrants are welcome to attend both sessions, complete the assignment, and participate in the discussions about the assignment in the second session. In order to participate in the second session, waiting list students will need to read the writing assignments I distribute for discussion, and write comments.

On Friday, March 19, I will send all workshop students 2 pieces. Over the weekend, all participants in the second session (Including waiting list students) will be required to write a 100-word critique of each article we will be discussing. The critique should describe a strong point of the article, and suggest a way to improve it. Workshop participants will email copies of their critiques to me and the authors by Sunday night and be prepared to discuss them in the second meeting.

Second Meeting: Tuesday, March 23rd 2:30 pm to 4:30 pm.

We will begin this session discussing the writing assignment. Most likely, you will have encountered unexpected challenges, which you are encouraged to describe. We will also discuss the sample pieces I will have distributed the previous Friday. You will be expected to offer constructive criticism about how the stories could be improved.

After discussing the writing assignment, we will survey the many opportunities for writing about science available today, from magazines to blogs to books to radio. We should have additional time for any topics that students wish to discuss further.


If there are any updates about this workshop, I will email them to all participants and add them to this page.