English 791C,  Fall 1993, Science Writing

Thursday (except 22/11 & 29/11), 2:00-5:00; Hagey Hall 230

Randy Harris

Hagey Hall 247, x5362
Home phone (Moffat): (416) 854-1172
E-mail: raha@watarts
Hours: Monday, 9:00-11:00
; Tuesday, 1:00-3:00; or whenever you can catch me.

Course epitome

This course is a creative, non-fiction writing class, focusing on science for non-scientists; other labels for the genre include "popular science" and "science journalism." We will read from this genre, with the intent of assimilating its tone, style, and techniques in order to become practitioners. We will write in this genre, and discuss our work with each other.

The main project will be one piece of science writing–a feature story–intended for publication.

Required texts

Dawkins, The Selfish Gene
Einstein, Relativity
Gannon, Best Science Writing
Ingram, Talk, Talk, Talk

The instant A+

If you sell an article on science, or sign a publishing contract, during the course, and you have completed all course assignments, I will, given appropriate proof, file a grade of A+ for you.

Rules of the game

No late assignments will be accepted, no extensions will be granted, and no incompletes will be awarded, without very strong reasons.

Please complete all assignments to within 10% of the assigned length.

Please have all readings done before class, and be prepared to discuss them.

Since many assignments will involve reworking published material, you will have to be particularly alert to the possibilities of plagiarism; derive carefully.


Discussion Continuous 20%
Small Assignments Weekly 20%
Oral Review 18 November 20%
Feature Story 13 December 40%



Every week, we will have lengthy gab sessions on science writing–based at first on the assigned readings, and later, on our own and each otherâs work–along with slightly more formal sessions. The list of topics below is for the slightly more formal sessions, not all of which have been fully chiseled in stone yet.

All meetings in Hagey Hall 123, unless otherwise noted (in bold). Please note that 22/10 and 29/10 are Fridays.
What is science writing, and why bother?  
Theoretical science: HH 230

Guest: Doug Powell

1. News release
Einstein and Gannon: HH 230
Shortened class; no video
2. News story
Gannon: 1-6
Press conference: Davis Centre 1331

Guests: Mark Tilden, Martin van Neirop

3. News story
Gannon: 7-12
Environmental writing

Guest: Robert McCauley

4. News story
Collaborative writing

Guests: Neil Randall, David Wade

5. Proposal & query letter  
Writing in different media: HH 373

Guest: Jay Ingram

6. News release
Science writing for children

Guests: Design Girl and Illustration Boy

7. News story  
Class presentations Oral Review  
Gender and science; peer review HH 230
Guest: Laurie Hoffman-Goetz
8. Analysis  
Peer review 9. Profile  
Collaborative writing revisited
Guest: Arthur Carty
10. Collaborative story  
(No class) Feature Story  

General reading assignment: Read and skim liberally from among the following: the Saturday Globe and Mail Science page, the Monday Boston Globe Sci-Tech section, the Tuesday New York Times Science Times, the weekly Science ScienceScope and News and Comment sections, Discover, Science 93, The Sciences, Scientific American, The Smithsonian, Omni, and anything else that looks relevant; listen to and watch science programming. Bring your thoughts on these materials to class for general discussion. 
Assignment 1 News release: relativity (150 words).
Assignment 2 News story: relativity (900 words).
Assignment 3 News story: drawing on press releases and wire copy, file a story on pesticides.
Time limit: 5 hours from when your fingers first hit pencil or keyboard (900 words).
Assignment 4 News story: based on the preceding week’s press conference, file a news story (900 words).
Assignment 5 Story proposal & query letter: by this point, you should have a feature-story topic firmly enough in mind to write a proposal (300 words). Accompany this with a query letter (300 words). The letter can be for a magazine story, a newspaper feature, a radio or TV show, or a book. 
Assignment 6 News release: selfish gene theory (150 words).
Assignment 7 News story: selfish gene theory (900 words). Note: For 11/11, be sure to bring a story (your worst, best, most typical, for give someone else; if you choose your selfish gene story, bring an extra copy. 
Assignment 8 Analysis: a stylistic analysis of another student’s story (300 words). Note: one copy for the student, one for me. 
Assignment 9 Profile: a personality and achievement sketch of a specific scientist (for your own work schedule, you might want to focus on a scientist involved in your feature story) (900 words).
Assignment 10 Collaborative story: a story on a scientific issue of your (mutual) choosing, written with at least one other student (900 words). Note: Work from at least one profesional source (e.g., Physics Today or New England Journal of Medicine in addition to something like Scientific American, where you might first find the story idea).
Oral Review This will be a primarily stylistic analysis, of a book of your choice. You will need to tell the class a bit about the content of the book, but your main job is to epitomize and evaluate the writer’s technique in presenting scientific information. The more lessons you can extract from the writer and pass on to the class, the better. Alternately, you might choose to review a relevant movie or TV show or radio program,­but concentrate on the writing. Alternately, you can review a science magazine (not an issue, a magazine), for editorial style and direction (20 minutes).
Major Assignment This is the main assignment of the term,­a feature story, intended for publication in the popular media (1500 - 2000 words).