Writing “How To” and “How It Works” Stories


Science writers live in a world somewhere between scientists and public audiences. Much of a science writer’s skill involves explaining complex ideas and navigating complicated language and concepts. This assignment is designed to give you practice in explanatory reporting (“How It Works”) and understanding the scientific process (“How To”). Be creative!! Either of the options could be applied to almost any topic. Be original—this is your chance to explain something in a way that no one else has done before, or provide a unique set of instructions for a surprising activity.

Option 1: “How It Works”

Choose a scientific or natural concept, process, design, phenomena, etc. and explain how it works in terms appropriate for a magazine or newspaper audience. You might want to look at the history of scientific discoveries related to your topic, analogies, graphics, etc. Examples include:

§  Drinking water

§  Suspension bridges

§  Ocean acidification

§  Cave formation

§  Mountain formation

§  Black holes

§  Global warming

§  etc.

Option 2: “How To”

Choose an activity, occupation, lesson, etc. and describe how to accomplish it. Write as if your audience knows nothing about the task. How does one start? What are things to keep in mind? Warnings or cautions? This does not have to be about a scientific subject, just something involving action: how to catch a fish, how to ski/climb/camp/etc., how to build a snowman. This is a literary angle used in both nonfiction and fiction.

Suggested reading:

  • William Zinsser, “Science and Technology” chapter, On Writing Well (30th Anniversary ed.)
  • L. Rust Hill, “How to Eat an Ice Cream Cone,” Fierce Pajamas: The New Yorker Anthology of Humor Writing
  • “Explanatory Writing,” A Field Guide to Science Writing (2nd ed.)

Please share your favorite examples of How-To and How-It-Works stories in the comments!