Please see the Readings page for detailed information and full citation of readings.

Class #1: Class Overview and Introductions, Writing for a General Audience

Assignment #1: Write an Introduction Letter

Write a letter to me introducing yourself to me as a writer: What’s your relationship to writing? What are your hopes (and fears?) for this class? What happened with you and writing in high school, or elsewhere? Anything else about you & writing you want to tell me?—e.g., is English your second language, writing you’ve done on your own, what you like to read... 1 page, word processed, single-spaced with space between paragraphs (i.e., letter format).


  • William Zinsser’s “Science, Technology and Nature,” a chapter from his popular book On Writing Well (now in its 7th printing). Zinsser has been a journalist, nonfiction writer, and writing teacher. He writes about writing well from the point of view of a journalist, not an academician.
  • The first three entries in the Steven Strogatz “On Math” series (you may, of course, read more!). A former MIT professor, Strogatz now teaches at Cornell. Strogatz demonstrates how even abstract topics can be written about in a lively way.
  • Dennis Overbye’s “Gravitational Waves Detected, Confirming Einstein’s Theory,” a news story from the New York Times written a few days after the event. This article is given as a web link because it contains a cool embedded video, plus a sound link.

For class discussion: We’ll take time to look at the main ideas and the writing in each reading, as well as the examples Zinsser uses. Notice how Strogatz engages you, and how you respond. How does Overbye present complex theory? That is, read actively. Read these and all homework assignments actively—that is: Notice who wrote it, and her or his background. Think about what the title means. Mark passages you like, that puzzle you, and that you think contain the essay’s core ideas. Notice how the essay or article is put together. Ask questions in the margin, summarize points, and talk back to the writer. Leave time to read each assignment thoroughly—and ideally, more than once.

Class #2: The Pleasures and Challenges of Science Writing; The Importance of Metaphors in Science Writing; Describing and Explaining: Clarity, Liveliness

Assignment #2: Idea for The Science of Everyday Life

Write a one short paragraph proposal for The Science of Everyday Life—what would you like to write about? Why? We'll discuss in class.


  • Rinku Patel’s “Bugged,” which appeared in Popular Science in the summer of 2015.
  • From the NY Times, “How Layers in a Latte Form.”

Read actively! Make comments and ask questions in the margins; take notes. Notice how these writers explain their various subjects; mark passages that you think are especially effective.

For class discussion: While these essays are different in subject matter and approach, all exemplify the range of possibilities of essays on topics in science or technology. We’ll look especially at descriptions and structure: how does each writer tell the story? How do they create a clear focus? And we’ll think about audience: How do they engage readers?

Class #3: Focus, Accuracy, and Making it Fresh; A Writer's Voice

Assignment #3: The Science of Everyday Life 

No Assigned Readings

Class #4: Workshop on Essay 1

Assignment #4: Workshop Essays, Book Talk

Re-read and critique your workshop partners' The Science of Everyday Life essays. Select a book for your book talk. Feel free to ask me questions about the books.


  • Kevin Patterson’s “The Patient Predator.” Patterson is a physician and writer with a quiet but powerful voice.
  • Atul Gawande’s “The Pain Perplex.” Gawande is a surgeon at Brigham & Women’s hospital and a best-selling writer on medical topics.
  • The 1st chapter of Elise Hancock’s Ideas into Words, and skim the 2nd chapter.We’ll discuss these chapters in class.

For class discussion: Besides being interesting, both of these essays on medical topics are very well put together. Be prepared to talk about strategies Patterson and Gawande used to organize their materials. For example, note metaphors they use both to describe something and help shape their essays. Also be prepared to note examples of what you consider to be good writing, and say what makes them good.

Class #5: Attitudes Towards Writing; What Do We Mean by Revision? 

Assignment #5: Revise The Science of Everyday Life


As you read these stories, note what they have in common: what kinds of things do the writers do? Where does certain information, such as where a study is published, go? What do the introductions—or “leads,” as journalists call them—do? What is the take-away message—the biggest point—for each of these stories? Do the stories make it clear why this point matters? How is technical complexity handled? Do you notice images or analogies that the writers use to make the concepts more easily understood? We’ll spend most of class discussing news writing and these readings.  

Class #6: Elements of News Writing; Reading a Scientific Journal, Pt. 1

Assignment #6: Proposal for Profile article

Write a proposal for the profile article. Select 2 possible profile subjects and explain their areas of expertise and why you want to write about them. 


You should make notes about what you read—what do you notice about the way the writers put their articles together? Begin making a list of elements that make up a good profile-type article.

For class discussion: What do these articles have in common? Be prepared to point to specific passages that capture the spirit or personality of the person being profiled, as well as passages that do a good job of explaining the science. 

Class #7: The Profile: Writing about Science by Writing

Assignment #7: Sketch News Story

Write a preliminary sketch of a news story for one of these articles. 


  • “Map the Gap” from the journal Public Health Action. “Map the Gap” is a standard journal article; journal articles follow roughly the same format from journal to journal and field to field.
  • “The Trouble with Negative Emissions” from Science appears under a heading “Perspectives.” This is an article by scientists, with plentiful citations, but it does not describe original research; rather, it presents an analysis of a climate change issue.

Either one of these articles could furnish material for a news story in a general interest publication.

Class #8: From Research to News

Assignment #8: Write News Story

No Assigned Readings

Class #9: Workshop News Stories

Assignment #9: Discuss Profile Article Proposals (In Class)

Come to class prepared to discuss your proposal for the profile article.


  • Robert Stickgold’s Scientific American essay, “Sleep On It!” which summarizes recent findings in neuroscience about why we need to sleep. Stickgold is on the faculty at the Harvard Medical School’s Sleep and Cognition lab.
  • Tom Levenson’s Boston Globe “Ideas” section essay about the growing problems arising from overuse of antibiotics. While Levenson’s essay also summarizes findings, it is clearly intended to be persuasive. Levenson is on the faculty of MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing; he has written several books and created documentaries on science topics.

For class discussion: Let’s discuss these reading in two ways. First, what are your reactions as a reader—what is news to you, what is convincing or intriguing, and why? Second, let’s think about them as good models for the investigative essay. How would you describe the way Stickgold and Levenson put their essays together? How are they shaped? What kind of evidence do they use? How do they use it? How do they keep “the human element” in sight?

Class #10: Stickgold & Levenson: Elements of a Research-Based Essay; The Research Process: Note Taking

Assignment #10: Progress Report for Profile Subjects (In Class)

Come to class prepared to give a progress report on your profile article subjects.


  • Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Engineer’s Lament.” Gladwell is a New Yorker writer who has written several best-selling books in recent years, including The Tipping Point and Outliers. He has a distinctive voice and way of structuring his articles. In this essay, he aims to help us see how engineers approach the issue of auto safety.

For class discussion: We’ll save some class time to discuss your reactions to the essay. But we’ll start by considering it structurally, looking at the “pieces” that Gladwell assembles to make a coherent and powerful essay, and how he brings them together. Besides looking at structure, consider the sources Gladwell consulted in writing this essay: whether or not sources are cited (they often are not cited in essays and articles published in magazines), try to imagine what kind of sources these must have been—that is, imagine you were Gladwell: what sources would you need to consult to write this essay?

Class #11: Gladwell: Describing How Engineers Think; Incorporating Many Kinds of Evidence

Assignment #11: Write a Summary of Schultz's "The Really Big One"

Write a 200–250-word summary of Schulz’s article. A good summary should:

  • Accurately represent the key ideas and concerns of the original text.
  • Highlight/emphasize/prioritize the main ideas and writer’s moves of the piece.
    • Note: this means you probably won’t follow the same sequence as the article.
  • Include key terms.
  • Avoid your own judgment—i.e., in a summary you are aiming to transparently represent another writer’s thinking.
  • Be coherent—it should read logically, sentence to sentence. (That is, it should make sense on its own.)


  • Kathryn Schulz’s “The Really Big One,” which appeared in the New Yorker July 20, 2015. Schulz, a New Yorker staff writer, won a Pulitzer Prize (one of the highest awards in journalism) for this article, which details the risk of a catastrophic earthquake and tsunami in the Pacific Northwest.

For class discussion: I’d like to focus on Schulz’s strategies in putting this long piece together, the level and amount of detail she includes, and on examples of good writing: so think about these things before coming to class. We’ll also reserve a little time to talk about our responses to the ideas in the article.

Class #12: Complex Issues: Keeping Readers with You; Getting at the Bigger Picture; The Research Process: Why We Cite

Assignment #12: Write Proposal for Investigative Essay

Write a short 1 paragraph proposal for your investigative essay.


Class #13: Library Session

Assignment #13: Write Profile Article

No Assigned Readings

Class #14: Workshop Profile

Assignment #14: Revise Proposal for Investigative Essay

Write a revised proposal for the investigative essay, including an annotated bibliography. Additionally, write 1-2 solid paragraphs of response to each of your profile article workshop partners and post on the class website. 

No Assigned Readings

Class #15: The Research Process: Citing, Quoting, and Paraphrasing; Writing and Structure; Reading a Scientific Journal Article, Pt. 2

Assignment #15: Brainstorm Investigative Essay

Look for sources, do some reading, take some notes, and do some thinking for your investigative essay.


  • Hancock, Chapters 4 and 7. 

Chapter 4 provides some ways to think about structure. Chapter 7 has a lot of good ideas for when you’re feeling stuck. We will discuss these in class. If you haven’t read earlier chapters in Hancock, now would be a good time to skim them.

Class #16: Organizing a Longer Article; Incorporating Sources and Voices

Assignment #16: Revise Profile Article


  • “My Great-Great-Aunt Discovered Francium. And It Killed Her,” by Veronique Greenwood. This essay appeared in the New York Times Magazine in 2014. Greenwood is a science writer whose work has appeared in The Atlantic and Discover

For class discussion: Besides being a compelling story, the essay is a good example of how to handle scientific detail, so we’ll spend some time discussing that. What kinds of sources do you think Greenwood used to put this story together?

Class #17: Presenting Controversy: For Our Consideration: Earth or Mars?

Assignment #17: Pre-Write for Investigative Essay

No Assigned Readings

Class #18: Workshop Essays

Assignment #18: Investigative Essay

Write your draft for the investigative essay and then prepare to workshop the essay in class.

No Assigned Readings

Class #19: Workshop Essays

Assignment #19: Critique Essays

Critique and respond to your workshop group members’ drafts of their investigative essays.


The readings for our next class are a selection of book reviews from the NY Times Book Review. The book review-essay is a hybrid genre (as the hyphen indicates)—in which the reviewer uses the opportunity of the review to develop an idea. That is, the book under consideration becomes the focal point for a discussion of an idea related to the book’s themes. Most of the essay describes the book, but the reviewer does so in a way that makes the book part of a wider conversation about some issue.

Note: Some of the reviews are more review than essay, and some are more essay than review. All should give you ideas about possible ways to think about your book talk. The reviews we’ll be reading and discussing are:

  • “Nor Any Drop to Drink? Why the Great Lakes Face a Murky Future,” Robert Moor’s review of Dan Egan’s book The Death and Life of the Great Lakes.
  • “Dreaming in Code” by Adam Frank, a review of Michio Kaku’s The Future of the Mind.
  • The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf, reviewed by Colin Thubron.
  • “Science’s Invisible Women,” Dava Sobel’s review of A Lab of One’s Own by Patricia Fara, and Broad Band by Claire L Evans.

For class discussion: What do you notice about these reviews? How do the reviewers express judgments? How do they describe the books? How do they add something of their own perspective to the reviews? What kinds of themes do they emphasize? We’ll also take some time to discuss the ideas the reviews raise, according to what interests you as readers. 

Class #20: The Book Review: A Useful Genre!

Assignment #20: Revise Profile Article

No Assigned Readings

Class #21: Revision Issues

Assignment #21: Revise Investigative Essay

No Assigned Readings

Class #22: Revision Issues

Assignment #22: Revise Investigative Essay

No Assigned Readings

Class #23: Other Media: Radio & Video

Assignment #23: Book Talk

No Assigned Readings

Class #24: Work on Revision Issues

Assignment #24: Book Talk

No Assigned Readings

Class #25: Book Talks

Assignment #25: Portfolio

Assemble your portfolio, including re-revisions.

No Assigned Readings

Class #26: Final Class

For our final class meeting, we will celebrate the craft of science writing. Please bring to class:

  • 1–2 pages of your own writing that you are especially pleased with.
  • If you’d like to, you may also bring a paragraph or two from any of our readings, or the book you read for your book talk, that you think is excellent, and be prepared to say why it’s good. We will share these.