Science Journalism’s Manifesto for the Simple Scribe

“To make somebody read it”. That is the only reason for writing, according to the renowned Guardian editor Tim Radford, author of the “manifesto for the simple scribe”.

This manifesto, previously distributed to editors at Elsevier and Nature, consistsĀ of twenty-five writing tips that collectively tell a science writer all they need to know to write consistently good copy.

Many, if not all, of Radford’s tips are relevant to writing styles other than science journalism. Some favourite quotes:

You are not writing to impress the scientist you have just interviewed, nor the professor who got you through your degree, nor the editor who foolishly turned you down, or the rather dishy person you just met at a party and told you were a writer. Or even your mother. You are writing to impress someone hanging from a strap in the tube between Parson’s Green and Putney, who will stop reading in a fifth of a second, given a chance.

No one will ever complain because you have made something too easy to understand.

If in doubt, assume the reader knows nothing. However, never make the mistake of assuming that the reader is stupid. The classic error in journalism is to overestimate what the reader knows and underestimate the reader’s intelligence.

Remember that people will always respond to something close to them. Concerned citizens of south London should care more about economic reform in Surinam than about Millwall’s fate on Saturday, but mostly they don’t. Accept it.