Science and technology are all around us, from the chemical processes that form the building blocks of life to the inner workings of our bodies to the algorithms that increasingly govern what we see and what we do. There exists plenty of science and technology journalism explaining new advances—but the science and technology essay is a different beast. The sci/tech essay is far more than breaking down scientific papers or communicating technical details. It is about exploring personal relationships to science and technology (the ideas, the culture, the systems) through narrative and critique and more. It is about making connections between sci/tech and life and about interrogating power, with a focus on craft and beautiful writing. Increasingly, science and technology raise broad, existential questions about who we are, what it means to be human, and how to live a good life. There is poetry and beauty and high stakes in these topics—so where do you begin?
This class is for scientists, doctors, and technologists who want to write essays and essayists who want to write about science, medicine, and technology topics. Students don’t need to have a background in either writing or science, though they should have a desire to think deeply about these issues. This class will discuss and dissect various forms of the sci/tech essay and also cover how to generate ideas, how to write about abstract topics in a way that is both accessible and nuanced, and how to avoid common pitfalls. By the end of the course, each student will have completed and received feedback from the class on two essays.
Class meetings will be held over video chat, using Zoom accessed from your private class page. While you can use Zoom from your browser, we recommend downloading the desktop client so you have access to all platform features.
- An understanding of the genre of the science/tech essay (especially how it’s different from sci/tech journalism, op-eds, and so on) and and how to generate ideas
- Familiarity with methods of writing about science and technology—especially the more abstract topics—in a way that is clear, lyrical, and nuanced
- Confidence in pitching and knowing where to pitch your essays
- A 10% discount on all future Catapult classes
Each week, students should expect to read 1-2 essays outside of class time (some shorter, some longer) and come prepared to discuss. Students will also submit two essays for critique, up to 3,500 words, and give feedback on their peers’ work.
Week 1: What is the science/technology essay?: We will explore this emerging genre and how it differs from science journalism, science communication, op-eds, and other related forms.
Week 2: Story ideas: Where do you find story ideas? What is a story idea versus a “topic”? How do you know if an idea can grow into an essay?
Week 3: Explanation and tone: This week will focus on how to explain the concepts in a way that is accessible and accurate. How do you know when there is too little technical detail or too much? Learn how to get inside the reader’s head to understand what they need.
Week 4: Making the abstract real: Editors frequently want essays to have “scenes” and lots of sensory detail, which can be difficult if you’re writing about atoms or data or somewhat abstract topics. We will discuss workarounds and ways to make the essay come alive.
Week 5: Pitfalls and common traps: What don’t we want to see? Plus, best fact-checking practices.
Week 6: Pitching: How to pitch and where.
Angela Chen is a science journalist and the author of Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex, which was named one of the best books of 2020 by NPR, Electric Literature, and Them. Her reporting and essays have also appeared in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, MIT Technology Review, The Guardian, National Geographic, Paris Review, Lapham's Quarterly, and more.
“Angela is an editor who gently and succinctly points out what writers have overlooked and instantly sees ways to make a story a stronger version of itself. As a wrangler of fiction, Angela is attentive to everything from big-picture stuff—plot, arc, characters’ motivations—to the littler things, such as tense and whether particular images are vivid or muddled. She helped me place connective tissue where it was missing and make the piece much more cohesive. By the end, it felt like a smarter, tighter, tidier version of what I had drafted—familiar, but crisper, as if freshly ironed. When she tussles with nonfiction, Angela points out gaps in logic, arguments that fall flat, and anecdotes that aren’t pulling their weight. Her comments made my book proposal more watertight, and I trust her editorial judgement completely. The only trouble is that I now want her eyes on everything I write.”
“Angela is one of the most precise and conscientious writers I know, an instinct that also translates into editing, workshopping, and teaching. Her gift for analytical thought, which is what makes her own writing so clear, means that she's able to identify not only what isn't working (or is working!), but why. Anyone working on science journalism, creative nonfiction, or at the intersection would be privileged to work with her.”
“Angela is a thoughtful editor with a keen eye and an intuitive sense for translating complex topics for a general audience.”
"A book that makes room for questions even as it illuminates, Ace should be viewed as a landmark work on culture and sexuality.”
“ACE is nothing less than a cultural feat.”
"ACE is a revelation. We can’t stop thinking about it.”