Edwin Emery Slosson (1865-1929), Smithsonian Institution Archives, Acc. 90-105, Science Service Records, Image no. SIA2009-3451

Science Service, Up Close: Tips for Writers – Running Starts and Clean Plates

As the Director of Science Service, chemist Edwin Emery Slosson not only edited the submissions of his staff and external contributors but he also dispensed writing tips that remain timely today.

When chemist Edwin Emery Slosson became director of Science Service in 1921, he had been publishing popular science articles and books for over two decades. The fledgling organization's success depended upon producing (and selling) interesting, timely, and scientifically accurate news stories. Because so many writers submitting these stories were novices, Slosson grabbed a blue pencil and began editing. He also dispensed advice, liberally, like salt over a bowl of popcorn.

Edwin Emery Slosson (1865-1929), Smithsonian Institution Archives, SIA Acc. 90-105 [SIA2009-3471].

Whether on the stage or the page, first acts matter: "Don't fail to put your best foot forward. Otherwise you may not have a chance to use the other foot." Too many first sentences, though, could spoil the effect: "Don't back up too far to get a running start. Remember the man who wanted to jump over a hill. He ran a mile to work up momentum and was so tired when he got to the bottom of the hill that he had to sit down and rest. So will your readers."

Good writing involves more than good grammar. When attempting to explain complex science, an author should imagine that her reader is "interrupting you every ten lines to ask, 'Why?' 'What for?' or 'Well, what of it?'" In 1925, he urged a young medical school student (who had applied to be a regular contributor) to think about the potential audience during her commute to morning classes. Look at "the men and women opposite you reading the papers, and imagine yourself telling them directly and personally about the new discovery and modulate your language accordingly. Remember that you have to get the interest of the casual reader on the street car or it is no use writing."

"Don't overestimate the reader's knowledge and don't underestimate the reader's intelligence," Slosson explained to another writer. A reader "may not know as much as you about this particular thing – let's hope not anyway – but otherwise he may be as bright as you are – let's hope so anyway."

Edwin Emery Slosson (1865-1929)

As an ardent supporter of suffrage and equal rights, Slosson frequently railed against the constraints of gendered language: "It seems to me that we are drifting inevitably into the use of the word 'they' in the singular for lack of a pronoun referring to both him and her. For instance, I am this afternoon addressing an audience of a thousand teachers of whom nine-tenths are women, yet I must refer to the teacher as 'he' or use the absurd locution 'he or she' or follow the path of least resistance and use 'they'."

He understood the special challenges in explaining complicated science. The "Clean Plate Rule" should not be applied to good science writing: "Don't try to tell all you know in 500 words. Leave some over for another time." And don't assume that what is "old" to you will not be "news" to your readers. Many of them, he observed, "are still living in the nineteenth century."

To those familiar with Slosson's propensity to pick other's intellectual pockets (a practice that I am not endorsing), it will be no surprise that geneticist Thomas Hunt Morgan had written much the same thing. In a December 10, 1921, letter, Morgan admitted that scientists often failed when writing popular science because "we think it incumbent upon us to condense everything we know within the range of the article in question, no matter whether it is long or very short. What has taken us years to get into our heads we think we can transfer to other heads in a few minutes, and of course we can't." Slosson cleverly reduced those ideas and produced a "clean plate."

Having already violated several of Slosson's rules, I will quote one more: "Don't imagine that you must add a pretty but superfluous paragraph at the end, like the coda of a sonata. The most effective close is to quit when you get through."

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