Imaginative Science Writing

Imaginative science writing refers to factually-accurate science narratives which are crafted with literary style. This comes under the umbrella of creative nonfiction, and many popular science books, blogs and essays take this approach. Primo Levi, Richard Feynman and Carl Sagan, Oliver Sacks, Rebecca Skloot or Bill Bryson are some excellent famous examples. All of these writers have blended personal journeys with fact, appealing not only to those who love science, but those who love to read.

"The words 'creative' and 'nonfiction' describe the form. The word 'creative' refers to the use of literary craft, the techniques fiction writers, playwrights, and poets employ to present nonfiction—factually accurate prose about real people and events—in a compelling, vivid, dramatic manner. The goal is to make nonfiction stories read like fiction so that your readers are as enthralled by fact as they are by fantasy."

Lee Gutkind, author

Creative non-fiction is about making non-fiction stories read like fiction. The genre covers a wide range or works and often includes personal narratives, weaving the author's story together with scientific fact. You can read more about what creative non-fiction is and the techniques you can use in this kind of writing on the Creative Non-fiction website.

Some examples of creative non-fiction in the include:

  • An excerpt from the diary of a stem cell
  • Your personal reflection on why this science matters to you
  • A day in the life of a stem cell scientist
  • A patient's eye view of stem cell research
  • Non-fiction poetry
  • Graphic non-fiction

Non-fiction poetry

Poems can take any non-fiction approach to the topic. Some examples if you are looking for inspiration:

Graphic non-fiction

Entries in this category can take any non-fiction, static graphical approach to the topic (no animations this year please - but let us know if that would be of interest in the future).  Some examples of different takes on graphic science non-fiction:

Creative non-fiction an approach that EuroStemCell would love to have represented on the website with the specific theme of stem cells and regenerative medicine. You could write blogs, essays, manifestos, or any other nonfiction form or even a letter to a stem cell. This kind of writing takes a lot of thought, research and drafting, but don’t be daunted: here are some tips to guide you on your way:

Know the guidelines. Yes, wading through guidelines and terms is about as fun as gnawing your own leg off. But spending 10 minutes understanding them is better than spending 10 hours slaving, only for your work to be discarded. Consider making a small check list of questions: Are you definitely eligible? Can you write something on theme? Will it be between 900 and 1250 words? Keep referring back to them as you work on your piece.

Read imaginative science writing. Personal style comes from being well read, and imbibing the styles of other writers. The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing is packed with pieces which don't take long to read. If you find an essay or blog post beautiful, look closely at the language: why is it beautiful? Can you use similar techniques in your own work?

Find an angle that speaks to you. If you’re knowledgeable on stem cells and regenerative medicine, go straight to the next step: playing around to see where the story takes you. If you don't know much about the theme, consider looking through the EuroStemCell website and seeing what catches your interest. Then, think about the areas you picked – do they mean something to you? Do you have something to say on these subjects?

Let yourself draft. Drafting can be difficult, especially if you’re prone to criticising every word that comes out. But drafts aren’t meant to be perfect – they are part of a process. So, once you have a couple of ideas, why not play around with them to see what happens? Giving yourself permission to make a big old mess can be liberating and fun, and may lead to stronger ideas later.

Try unusual ideas and structures. Linear narratives can work, but what if the story lends itself to something extra? For example, Genome by Matt Ridley has 23 chapters, one for each chromosome it explores. I also recently read an essay on the tyranny of vicious circles which ended up where it started. These are great examples because they enrich the purpose of the stories being told, whereas gimmicks for the sake of gimmicks can be pretentious.

Rewrite before you polish. Even if your draft has come out well, it will need more than superficial changes. This is a good time to ask questions of what you’ve written. Look it over – do you definitely have a story to tell? Is it a story someone else could appreciate? Does it flow logically? These are important – if you've got nothing to say, people won't care, but if you forget you have an audience, you risk telling a private story, not a personal one.

Get your facts right. This goes for scientists and non-scientists alike – if there's someone in the field who can check over your work, it's worth taking them up on it. When I was writing a comic on stem cells,  I initially wrote 'scientists can turn neurons into skin cells' – but in actual fact, this isn’t true: scientists can grow neurons from skin cells. It’s worth being sure: what might seem like a pedantic word change can affect the meaning of the whole piece.

Be accessible. Avoid unnecessary jargon, and consider using rhetorical devices, such as case studies, analogies and metaphors. I remember learning the hydrogen bonds within the DNA molecule are relatively weak, and so I asked a geneticist why DNA doesn't fall apart. She explained the bonds are like stitches in a sweater: a couple of stitches on their own would fall apart, but an entire sweater holds together. It was simple way of showing the strength in numbers, and it worked.

Ask a friend for feedback the three pen way. When I studied creative writing, my programme leader gave me this great tip to make feedback straightforward. Firstly, find a friend who could be considered part of your audience. Then, give them three differently-coloured pens and ask them to mark up your piece for when they a) get bored, b) get confused, and c) when they think you’ve used the wrong word. You can also add extra pen colours for other issues.

Check for extraneous words. A good way to check this is to read your work aloud to yourself. Words to look out for are 'that', 'somewhat', 'only', 'often', and most adverbs. Reading work aloud also helps you pick up on problems with sentence length. But, this isn't all set in stone. Primo Levi is famous for his beautiful science writing – over-long sentences and adverbs were his style. So, if a particular flourish is integral to your style, keep it in.

Ask another friend to proofread. This is different to the three pen method, as it’s about catching tiny surface issues, such as spelling, grammar, punctuation errors, and any extraneous words you missed. This is important – these are the first problems a new pair of eyes will find distracting, but the last problems a tired writer will notice.

If you’re after more tips, Lee Gutkind’s Keep it Real and Dinty Moore’s Crafting the Personal Essay are brilliant guides to writing creative nonfiction. There is also advice on good science writing from The Guardian and The Wellcome Trust.


This guide to creative non-fiction was written by Barbara Melville.

Barbara is a writer, book critic and magic consultant. She's published blogs, articles and educational materials on a wide range of science subjects, including genetics, medicine and astrophysics. She was Writer in Residence at the MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine, assisting with various public engagement projects including EuroStemCell. She's also the creative director of Edinburgh-based storytelling collective Illicit Ink.

Visit Barbara's website

Image credit: Chris Blakeley writing in the sun via photopin (license)