Writing Tips & Style Guide
August 25, 2021
Here are some general rules that you should follow while writing for Massive. Please tattoo them all on your brain:
- Simplified is not the same as inaccurate. Pick one or two official science jargon words to use per piece. Explain the rest of them in plain English
- Avoid word and sentence structure repetition within sentences and paragraphs. Stories don’t continually rehash — they are primarily linear
- Avoid exclamation points — your enthusiasm needs to show through your word choice, not through overwrought punctuation
- Don’t use the passive voice — make sure each sentence has a subject taking action
- Use subheads within the piece sparingly. Unlike the distinct, uniform sections of scientific studies, the need to divide a story into sections tends to be indicative of a lack of narrative throughline — that is, a lack of story. So the goal is to write in a way that makes them unnecessary.
- All this work is for naught if nobody knows you wrote a piece. So: promote all your work across your social channels. We will do this too, but your professional and personal connections need to see it directly from your Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn accounts too.
- Introduce the researchers like people, not like peer-reviewed authors. That is: they have first names, last names, specialties, and affiliations. There is no person, at least nobody I’ve heard of, who either lacks a first name or is named “et al” or “and colleagues.”
- Triple-check names, affiliations, dates, and sources. One innocent mistake will make readers doubt everything else you say.
- Add links when you want to show where a fact or piece of information came from. This is especially important for new or controversial ideas. More links are better than not enough, we can always take them out during editing.
- In a translation piece, make sure you link to the original article you are focusing on.
- Aim to write between 800 and 1,500 words for your first draft.
Massive Style Guide
This is a regularly updated list of the rules we follow to make Massive's writing style consistent:
Adverbs: Don’t follow them with hyphens. “newly refurbished kitchen,” not “newly-refurbished kitchen."
Alcohol (and other drugs): Avoid the terms "alcoholic" or "addicts," as these can be stigmatizing and flatten individual experience. Refer to people as having a "substance use disorder"; "substance" can be replaced with something more specific like "alcohol" or "cocaine." "Problematic drinking" and "unhealthy drinking" are also acceptable when referring to alcohol use.
Attribution (of researchers): Include lead study authors’ first name, middle initial if provided, and last name, field and affiliation. Don’t include honorifics (Dr., Professor, etc.) i.e. “Steven A. Goldenberg, a gastroenterologist in Bloomfield, CT”, not “Dr. Steven A. Goldenberg, MD”
Brainwave: not "brain wave."
BCE/CE: not BC/AD.
Black: capitalized when referring to "Black people, identity, community and culture," in the words of the Toronto Star. "Black American" not "black American." Lowercase "black" if referring to skin color. For instance, "Black people have fought for a long time to obtain the legal liberty that comes with personhood," as Barrett Holmes Pitner wrote in HuffPost.
Breast milk: not "breastmilk."
Community science: not citizen science/scientist.
Degrees (academic): No periods in degree titles that come after someone's name (Rachel Dreyer, PhD; Emma Clune, RN). Do put periods on honorifics before names (Dr. Steven Goldenberg) but, in accordance with the Attribution (of researchers) entry, they should be used rarely.
Dashes: em-dash with a space on either side.
Dates: Write out the months, then the number — “September 12,” not “Sept. 12th” or that thing they do in Europe, 12 September 🙅
Elements: not capitalized. So, "carbon-12," not "Carbon-12."
Gender: be mindful of exclusionary language when writing about gender, sex, or anatomy. It's not up to the writer to assign a label to a subject, so if in doubt about pronouns or identity, ask. Also, avoid conflating anatomy with gender — men, women, and non-binary people can have any genitalia and shouldn't be identified that way. If, say, you are writing a story about vaginal yeast infections, do not describe it as only benefitting women. "People with vaginas" is an acceptable alternative, though in every case we've seen editing out references to gender is always possible anyway.
For more information, see the Radical Copywriter's Guide for Writing about Transgender People, which covers a lot of similar ground. If you get confused, double-check with your sources and your editor.
Hemispheres: Capitalized, as in Northern Hemisphere.
Indigenous: capitalized. "Indigenous," not "indigenous" when referring to Indigenous people or culture. "Indian" should not be used unless in specific historical cases.
Jell-O (for the trademarked product); jello (as the generic term).
Kryptonite: capitalized, according to DC Comics.
Measurements: General measurements in US/Imperial units. Data taken from a study should be the same units used there. If it’s metric, use that but also convert to US.
Metaphors & similes: They can be useful on occasion, but your go-to explanation should be straightforward (or, in the words of writing teachers everywhere: show, don’t tell). Metaphors often add an unnecessary layer of complexity for the reader.
Mini: If you are adding this as a prefix to a word that doesn't usually have "mini" attached to it, add a hyphen. So, "mini-brain" instead of "mini brain" or "minibrain." If there's demonstrated past usage using another form, that's acceptable as well.
Names: If two people have the same last name, it is OK to distinguish them by continuing to use first names even after first reference. We generally don't use courtesy titles ("Ms./Mr./Mx./Dr." etc.), see Attribution of Researchers.
Numbers: AP style: write out one through nine. Numerals for 10 and above. Numerals for ages (“the 6-year-old had six apples”).
OK, not “okay”.
Oxford commas: We use them. Because we can. That means in a list, like apples, bananas, and pears, there is a comma before the “and”.
Percentages: It’s “1 percent,” not 1% or one percent. Numerals and then write out the word.
Possessives that end in "s": If something is owned by more than one person, put the apostrophe at the end with no extra -s ("That's the Jones' house"). If a word ends in -s- but is singular, add 's as you normally would ("That's Chris's pen").
Rainforest: one word.
Sex: For simplicity see the entry on Gender, though please never conflate the two. "Sex" describes a spectrum of biological possibilities, where "gender" is a spectrum of socially-constructed identities and behaviors. See this article for more information.
Spaces: One space between sentences. Never two.
States: Write out if sole mention; use two-letter state codes if part of a longer location. "He moved from Missouri to Indiana”; “He moved from Columbia, MO, to Indianapolis, IN”
Suicide: Avoid using words with positive or negative connotations when describing self harm. Do not use "successful attempt" or "completed" or "committed suicide" or "failed suicide attempt." Instead, use neutral “death by suicide”, “died by suicide” and “suicide,” or "attempted suicide."
Suffering: when talking about diseases and conditions, don't use "suffering with ___" unless the person uses that language themselves.
- Book titles, Journal titles, movie titles, magazine titles: Italics — Moby Dick; The New Yorker; Journal of the American Medical Association; Jaws
- Articles, chapters, etc (one level down from top-line titles): double quotes — “This is the title of a study about optogenetics,” The Journal of Optogenetics that I Just Made Up
US: no periods, is the abbreviation for “United States.”
Vegetative state: this is a pejorative and ableist term to refer to people in unresponsive states. Use “people in unresponsive wakefulness syndrome” or “people in unresponsive states” or “unresponsive patients” instead.
Word choice: Follow the KISS rule. Would your non-scientist friends understand the words and concepts you’re using? If you aren’t sure they would, pick new ones or explain in simple language.
X-ray: the X is capitalized.