Course Name: Eng 399: Science Writing

Instructor: Jody K. Biehl

Classroom: Norton 216

Class schedule: Tuesdays and Thursdays 11a.m. to 12:20 p.m.

Office hours: Mondays, 12:00 p.m. to 2:00 p.m.

Course overview

This course will teach you to find, research, and write stories about science in a clear, engaging, accurate and interesting manner and help you become a more educated reader of science stories appearing in mainstream media.

Classes will focus on finding the most interesting news angles in published research, interviewing scientists, writing with creativity and style, and editing your own work and that of another. The course will cover journalism and writing basics and discuss how best to apply those skills to stories about science.

You will write three short articles and one major piece over the course of the semester. There will also be in-class exercises. Most classes will begin with a “Science News Round Up,” in which we discuss noteworthy science (and some current event topics) in the mainstream press, mainly The New York Times and The Buffalo News. Each student will contribute at least once to these round ups. Students can earn extra participation credit by emailing me articles for the Round Up. Articles must be in by 10 a.m. the day of class. Sometimes Round Ups will include a segment from the previous Friday’s NPR Science Friday program.

For the major course assignment, you will propose at least two ideas for a substantive story (1000-1200 words) about a research project at UB (or elsewhere with approval). You’ll interview the scientists involved and write three drafts. As part of the revision process, you will peer-edit one of your classmate’s work.

This is a seminar-style class with regular contributions expected from everyone. Be prepared to talk about the assigned reading and to discuss your writing. Participation, in-class assignments and attendance will count for 25% of your grade.

Deadlines are critical for all writers, so I will expect to receive your assignments on time. First drafts are due at the start of the class on the day they are due. I will return the drafts with a grade and my comments. Most second drafts are due in class one week after you receive my comments. Plan ahead to meet all deadlines.

We’ll also discuss science writing as a career. Writers work as freelance journalists and at online news sites, magazines, newspapers, university news offices, research labs and federal agencies, museums, and many other venues. If this kind of work interests you, be sure to ask about it as the course goes on.

Required texts and reading

  • A Field Guide for Science Writers, Second Edition (2005, paperback) Editors: Deborah Blum, Mary Knudson, Robin Marantz Henig
  • On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction 30th anniversary edition (2006, paperback) by William K. Zinsser
  • Periodic handouts of recent and/or relevant science stories

(For a list of publications you should read/browse in the course of the semester, see below)


I will give a grade for each assignment. On the piece, you will see a breakdown of your grade and where you lost/got points. I will write comments on your papers about aspects that work well and changes you should make to write an effective revision.

Good revisions go beyond the specific marks made by an editor. Editors want writers to rethink the entire piece, to search on their own for areas to strengthen, cuts to make, phrases to add, paragraphs to reorganize or move, and so on. Use my editing as guidance to improve and tighten each piece as thoroughly as you can.

You will also be graded on attendance and class participation. If you miss an in-class assignment on a day you are absent, you will be allowed to make up the assignment for half credit.

I will be as generous as possible with your grades. This is a progressive class and the assignments build on each other. If you show steady improvement over the semester, I will keep that in mind when rounding up or down your grades.

The grade breakdown will be as follows:

Assignments 1-3 draft effort grade: 20% (Assignment 1: 5%, Assignment 2: 7.5%, Assignment 3: 7.5%)

Effectiveness of revisions/final grades on rewrites of Assignments 1-3: 30%

Participation in class discussions, in-class assignments/Science Round-Up, peer editing: 25% (attendance: 28%; in-class assignments/Science Round Up: 60%; peer editing: 12%)

Final assignment: drafts and effort: 10%

Final assignment: revision and final grade: 20%

Earning an A in this course requires concerted work and excellent performance in all areas: attendance, participation, attentiveness, meeting deadlines, and the time you spend to research, draft, and revise each assignment. I also will assess the journalistic quality of your written work: grammar, structure, style, accuracy, and your use of interviews and site details.

My evaluations will describe your efforts in each of these areas and will give you points in each category so you can see where your writing needs work.


The university takes plagiarism – the unattributed copying of ideas, sentences or paragraphs from another source – seriously and so do I. Any documented instance of plagiarism from a published article will result in automatic failure.


Please do come to my Monday office hours, or make an appointment for another time, if you wish to discuss individual assignments or your overall standing in the course. I’m also happy to chat about career paths and strategies for embarking upon them.


Assignment deadlines

Writing sample: Sept. 2

Assignment 1: Explainer (200-250 words)

Draft 1: Thurs. Sept. 11

Draft 2: Tues. Sept 23

Assignment 2: News story (400-500 words)

Draft 1: Thurs. Oct 2

Draft 2: Tues. Oct. 14

Assignment 4: Two pitches for research story (100-150 words each)

Draft 1: Tues. Oct 21

Outline: Tues Oct 28

No revision

Assignment 3: Scientist profile (500-750 words)

Draft 1: Thurs. Oct 23

Draft 2: Tues Nov. 4

Assignment 4: Major research story (1250-1500 words)

Draft 1: Tues Nov. 11

Draft 2: Thurs. Nov. 20 (edited in class)

Draft 3: Thurs Dec 4

Class schedule

WEEK 1 What is this class all about? Why does journalism matter? Why does science journalism matter?

Tues Aug. 26:       Introductions

Overview of science writing and the gap between scientists and the public. Major science topics in the news today.

Review of major assignments and course schedule

Thurs Aug 28:       What is science news? What’s the difference between a reporter and a researcher and why are some scientists wary of journalists? How does the media cover science? What makes a good science story? What makes a bad one? How does reporting shape the public’s view of science and scientists? Basic building blocks of reporting: Facts, observations, quotations, paraphrasing, attribution. The reason everybody takes notes.

Discussion due: Bring in a recent science story. Write 2-3 paragraphs: What makes this science news? Why should readers care? What is good/bad about the content/writing?

WEEK 2 In the beginning was the word   

Tues Sept. 2:         Explanatory writing: How to describe a science process to a lay reader

In-class exercise: Describe a scientific concept to your classmate/s. Write it up as a team.

Discussion due: Bring in an explanatory passage from a science story.   Be ready to discuss

Writing due: writing sample — describe your room in three paragraphs or less.

Reading due: For 9/2 “Can a Jellyfish Unlock the Secret of Immortality?” Nathaniel Rich (handout)

Thurs Sept. 4: Where do stories come from? How to spot good stories within    scientific work. How to find a story within a scientific paper and/or news release. Discussion of explainer assignment. Plus: Writing workshop based on your samples.Avoiding common problems at the sentence level.

Reading due 9/4: Field Guide, foreword, editors’ notes, chs 1-2 Chapters Zinsser, chs 1-3

WEEK 3 Lead me to your lede

Tues. Sept 9:   Research. Where do I look for info on my topic? What sort of info matters? Where do I find people who will talk to me? Can I really talk to them? What do I say when I approach a faculty member/researcher about my project? Meet the resources available to you at UB.

Thurs. Sept 11: How do I start writing my story? How do I organize my notes? How does news writing differ from academic writing? What’s a lede and why does in matter? In-class exercise: Writing a news lede.

Writing due: Assignment 1, draft 1

Reading due: Field Guide, chs. 3, 4 and 19-20; Zinsser, ch.9                       

WEEK 4 Going deep – how to focus your story and get interviews past the surface

Tues. Sept 16:  Honing in on what your story is really about – finding The Nut Graph. In-class nut-graph writing. Plus, a primer on quotes, attribution and paraphrasing. Think about ideas for your news story

Reading due: Zinsser chs 4,6,8

Thurs. Sept 18: What’s the difference between a good question and a bad one? How do I get people to open up to me? How do I write down what people say while they are saying it? How to ask questions about a scientist’s work In-class interviewing/quote-taking

WEEK 5 Trial by fire – Guest speaker

Tues Sept 23:  Guest: A campus scientist will present a recent study and answer your questions. (You will have a short assignment based on this talk)

Writing due: Assignment 1, draft 2

Assignment 2, draft 1: News story, due Oct. 2

Thurs. Sept. 25: Discussion about scientist talk. What worked and what didn’t?

Other elements of successful reporting: preparation, site visits, observations. Editing exercises based on scientist talk. News story topics solidified.

Writing due: Three best quotes and a lede and nut from scientist talk          

Reading due: Field guide ch.16-17 Zinsser chs 12 and 15                             

WEEK 6 Bias in science – how do I know whom to believe?

What’s the difference between being balanced and being fair?

Tues Sept 30: Medicine

What is a newsworthy in medical news? How certain do studies have to be to merit reports in major news outlets? What happens when news  outlets become tools of pharmaceutical companies who want to sell the latest products?

Reading due: Field Guide, Intro to Part Four and ch. 23-25

 Assignment 2, draft 1: News Story due 10/2

Thurs Oct 2:   In-class interviewing and reporting exercise – autism and vaccines

Writing due: Assignment 2, draft 1

WEEK 7: Guest speaker —

Tues Oct 7: Scientist Talk

An on-campus scientist or science reporter will come and talk to the class.

Thurs Oct 9: Creative story ledes, narrative story structure

Writing due: Identify the best part and write a lead, a nut graph and first quote from speaker’s talk

Reading due:

Reading due: Field Guide, chs. 2

WEEK 8 Writing about Ethically Fraught Topics

Tues Oct 14 : Ideas for Assignment 3 – scientist profile due.

Reading due: Field Guide: ch 27,29

Reading due:

                              Writing due: Assignment 2, draft 1

Assignment 3: Propose ideas for major research story. Submit two     pitches (100-150 words each) due 10/21


Thurs. Oct 16: Climate Change

Climate change is a story that affects nearly every beat in a newsroom. It’s science, but it’s also business (think green energy), politics (legislation), health (is our air safe? Will our coasts disappear and take our houses with them?), education etc. It’s also rife with controversy. Scientists don’t all agree and the general public often doesn’t know what to think. How do you cover this kind of story accurately and without inserting opinion?

Reading due: Field Guide ch 35

WEEK 9 Individual conferences

Tues. Oct 21         Conferences to be scheduled

Due: two pitches for research story

Thurs. Oct 23:      Conferences to be scheduled

Due: Scientist profile draft 1


Tues Oct 28:   In-class presentation of major research stories. How will the story take shape? Why is it interesting to readers? Who will you interview, where will you visit? Who will you talk to? (15-20 students)

Revisions, further reporting, fact-checking

Writing due: Outline Assignment 4

Read: Zinsser ch 22


Thurs Oct 30: In-class presentation of major research stories. How will the story take shape? Why is it interesting to readers? Who will you interview, where will you visit? Who will you talk to?

Reading due: The T-Cell Army, Jerome Groopman (handout)

WEEK 11 Focus on writing

Tues Nov 4:          In-class exercises to sharpen and enliven passages

Revising for brevity, impact, and style

Reading due: Zinsser ch 23

Due: Assignment 3 — scientist profile draft 2

Thurs. Nov 6:       In-class editing practice and exercises

Reading due: Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?(handout)

WEEK 12 Peer Editing

Tues: Nov 11:       Peer editing of major research story (groups of 3-4 students)

Due: Draft 1 final research paper


Thurs Nov 13       Trouble-shooting first drafts

Discussion due: Substantive comments on classmates’ drafts

Reading due: Classmates’ stories

Assignment 5, draft 3: Major research story, due June 6


WEEK 13: The Environment

Tues Nov 18:        In-class speaker: The Environment.


Reading due: Field Guide: chs 32 and 35


Nov 20:                 Discuss speaker. Suggest ideas for leads and nut

Reading due: TBD


WEEK 14 Major Paper


Tues Nov 25:        In-class revisions for major research paper

WEEK 15 Science writing as a career

Dec. 2                    Careers in science journalism; public communication by scientists and the role of technology in changing what journalists do.

Dec. 4                    Class wrap-up. Presentations of major stories

Due: Assignment 4


Suggested Reading:


The New York Times science section

National Geographic

Nature– front section

Science– front section

Scientific American

Science News



Various blogs:

all blogs at (especially Not Exactly Rocket

Science and Only Human)

Institution press releases, such as JHU’s:



Good Handbooks

Elements of Style, by Strunk and White

The Associated Press Stylebook


Journals: (not an exhaustive list)





The New England Journal of Medicine




This course fulfills a requirement for the journalism certificate program


Mission statement for journalism certificate program

The journalism certificate program provides students with a broad understanding of the history of media, an appreciation for the First Amendment and ethical issues in journalism, and practical training in critical thinking, reporting and writing. Our courses help students develop skills in analytical thinking and reading, and in interviewing, reporting, writing and editing. These skills will prepare them for success as working journalists but also in numerous other professions, as socially engaged media producers and consumers. More specifically, the program encourages students to contextualize information by questioning the sources and potential biases of local, national and international news. The program fosters curiosity and encourages students to be active, civic-minded citizens.


The following chart outlines how this course fulfils the goals of the journalism program.


Learning Outcomes Activities Assessment
Question sources, act ethically and demonstrate an ability to apply news values in presenting journalism Much of the course focuses on this goal. Students will write four papers and will practice journalism all semester. The instructor will discuss interviewing, proper source-reporter relationships and how to distinguish trustworthy from untrustworthy sources.


Grades A to C- meet learning outcomes


Grades D to F do not meet learning outcomes.







Students are assessed by their responses to in-class questions and prompts. I take attendance and give a participation grade in every class. This counts toward their final grade.

Answer questions showing they follow, contextualize, and think critically about local, national and international news Students will discuss current events in class every week and each student will present a current news event involving science and discuss the coverage to the class.
Conceive of and implement meaningful projects independently Students have three papers to write for the class along with a final, semester-long paper. Students will also critique each others’ papers and each student will do a presentation in front of the class.
Use proper English grammar and mechanics and be able to write cogent, clear and concise prose This is a core part of the course. We use a writing textbook and I gear my lectures to hone in on mistakes students are making. Students must read a writing book as part of the course.
Write in forms and styles appropriate to the topic, audience and outlet We discuss writing styles for blogs vs print, TV vs online, magazines vs specialized science journals and how formal vs colloquial style and third vs first person narratives affect readers.
Evaluate their own and others’ work for accuracy and fairness, clarity, style and grammatical correctness Students are asked several times in the semester to suggest a grade for themselves according to my criteria. They also critique and suggest grades for their peers.
Gather and evaluate in-depth information from diverse, field-appropriate books, journals, databases and Internet sources


Locate and interview appropriate live sources for useful information and accurately report material from these sources. Students do this for each of the papers they write.


Throughout the course, the instructor emphasizes gathering information, fact-checking and what makes a source/website/database reliable. Students discuss this in class. For every paper, they must gather their own information and find and interview reliable sources.






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