Using scissors to teach writing

Field notes from a biologist turned science writer (and teacher).

Using scissors to teach structure and stories in science writing. Photo: Åsmund H. Eikenes.

Every Wednesday this spring, I teach a science communication class at the University of Oslo. Throughout the semester, students will write a popular science article, an encyclopedia entry, and an op-ed, and also prepare an oral presentation for fellow students. We read, critique, and discuss example texts, and practise storytelling, drafting, editing, and publishing.

We use pens, paper, and sticky notes. And sometimes, we use scissors.

Background: The students come from all of the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields, and the majority are in their fourth year at the university. They are knowledgable about the world, and are eager to learn to communicate their favourite science facts.

The course starts with the students reading and writing a popular science article: a compelling story sprinkled with science and discovery.

Challenge: The students dump most of the information at the beginning of the text, and completely forget to write for the reader's emotions. That all OK, and many experienced writers do the same. The question is not if the first draft is good, but whether or not the writer is able to revise the draft into something with emotion.

Question: How to transform a boring draft into a text that tells a story?

Action: First, I handed the students a draft for a popular science article (a draft selected from my own, unpolished writing). The draft consisted of nine paragraphs alphabetised in random order.

Then, I asked them to grab the nearest pair of scissors.

The rules:

What is the best opening paragraph, and how to end with a bang? Photo: Åsmund H. Eikenes

The results: After 20 minutes, the students presented their re-assembled drafts to each other in groups. They explained, argued, and reflected on which paragraphs could produce sufficient images to engage a reader.

All of the resulting stories were different. Some started with a nature scene, others with introducing the talented, female scientist in the story, and others got straight to lavish descriptions of spectacular experiments.

Some students discovered rhetorical moves in a few of the paragraphs, words and phrases to help them sort the content. Some insisted on using all nine paragraphs, others reduced the story to a bare four. Some cut most of the hard facts, others alternated between light and heavy reading.

Conclusion: By cutting the text in nine pieces and re-assembling them, the students learned a method to transform a pile of paragraphs into a story.

And then: After a quick break and more coffee, I asked the students to bring out their own first drafts. As a substitute to printing and cutting, I asked them instead to transfer the main point of each digital paragraph onto a sticky note (a technique referred to as “reverse outlining”).

Then we used Storymapping-tools to sort, re-order, and think carefully and creatively about the lede, structure, and flow of the draft. Then they headed to the library to write, edit, revise, and edit some more.

Drafts 2.0: Stories! (And some facts.) Fun, quirky, engaging, and beautiful stories about science.

Next: In a few months I'll challenge them to write 10 alternative opening sentences for their oral presentation. Stay tuned for the results.

Let me know if you have comments, ideas, or suggestions for other creative techniques to teach scientists to communicate with stories!

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Science writer in training.

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