Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer
2020 Graduate Student Science Writing Workshop

Monday January 27, 2020
Monday February 3, 2020
3:00 PM - 5:00 PM
Bowers Auditorium (205 Prospect St.)

Instructor: Carl Zimmer

Workshop registration: Workshop registration opens December 18, 2019 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 MB&B, a columnist for The New York Times, and the author of 13 books about science.

Course schedule:

First meeting: Monday January 27th 3:00 PM - 5:00 PM

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).


Here are some recommendations I've put together about how to write about science:

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

I highly recommend these three books:

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

A Field Guide for Science Writers In particular, I suggest reading these two sections: 17. Deadline Writing, by Gareth Cook. (p.111); and 22. The Science Essay, Robert Kanigel (p.145)

The Science Writer’s Handbook.

Questions to consider: What is the origin of the negative attitude Bogost describes among academics to reaching a broad audience? How do customs in the world of science in particular lead to this attitude? In Field Guide, Cook and Kanigel describe very different forms of science writing. What techniques are common them? What are the most important differences? Do you think that these differences are a matter of convention or reflect the essential rules of each genre? How do these techniques impair or strengthen articles about science? Do any of these techniques apply to communication such as television or blogs? How do the perspectives of Cook and Kanigel, two journalists, compare to that of Pinker, a scientist who is also an excellent writer?


Nicola Twilley, “How the First Gravitational Waves Were Found” New Yorker

Jon Mooalem “The Amateur Cloud Society That (Sort Of) Rattled the Scientific Community.” New York Times Magazine

Jessica Wapner, “Austin, Indiana: the HIV capital of small-town America” Mosaic


The paper:

Rosenberg, Kenneth V., et al. "Decline of the North American avifauna." Science 366.6461 (2019): 120-124.

The article:

“Birds of North America are Vanishing” New York Times, September 22, 2019

Questions to consider: What in the paper is in the article? What is missing? How does the article go beyond the paper? 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, January 30, 2020 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, January 31, 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: Monday February 3, 3:00 pm to 5:00 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.