the write stuff

Juicedupjenluc_12Those SEED-y ScienceBloggers are at it again. Late last week, Chad Orzel at Uncertain Principles and Dave Munger at Cognitive Daily threw down the gauntlet by announcing a Blogger SAT Challenge. They were inspired by a New York Times article that included sample top-scoring essays from the new written component of every high schooler’s favorite standardized test (not).  The writing was not particularly inspired or compelling. The Times was a bit snarky about that fact; even Dave M. lamented the unfortunate students’ abilities (or lack thereof). Chad argues that the students only have 25 minutes or so to produce their literary masterpieces, or roughly the length of the average TV sitcom. And this, says Chad, is harder to pull off than one might think.

Well, duh. Writing is, like, totally hard. Even for those of us who work with words for a living. It’s not just about stringing words and phrases together to form a workable, decently organized essay — at least anywhere else besides the SATs. Chad and Dave decided to settle the debate in "the modern way": via a science blogger’s pissing Internet contest. We’re taking a pass, ourselves, mostly because we write all day, every day, in addition to blogging, and already possess a deep appreciation for the difficulty of the task at hand. But we eagerly await the contest results.

I’m occasionally asked for tips and advice on becoming a science writer, usually by scientific grad students casting about for less traditional career options. A couple of months ago, I began collecting my scattered thoughts on the subject into today’s Monster Post, just because I thought it might prove to be a useful online resource. Or not. My kneejerk bit of advice is usually, "Don’t be like me." That’s not false modesty. The subtitle to the story of my bizarre career trajectory could best be summed up thusly: "How I Did Everything Wrong and Still Managed To Become A Successful Freelance Science Writer."

For starters, it’s usually helpful to have at least an undergraduate degree in a scientific field. Even a minor would be better than nothing; you’ll struggle less to grasp essential concepts if you have a solid background in the sciences. There’s a handful of others like me out there, but by and large, former English/humanities majors don’t drift into writing about physics for a living. Just because I did things the hard way, doesn’t mean that you should. (Although it wouldn’t necessarily be a bad idea to get more English majors writing about science… which means getting them interested in, and excited about, science in the first place.)

[UPDATE: Commenter Annie has revealed herself as another former English major who’s gone into science. Huzzah! Ditto for the Intersection’s Chris Mooney, who has just issued a call for all of us to "come out of the closet," as it were, in light of the recent shameful attacks on his credentials by the Discovery Institute. So let’s hear from all you lurking science/humanities sorts out there. And Jen-Luc Piquant gives a belated shout-out of solidarity to Chris; we, too, have had our credentials publicly questioned by those who had little business doing so.]

Then there was my personal style, or pronounced lack thereof. I stumbled into science writing at the tail end of my East Village Punk/Goth/Biker Girl phase. It’s probably not a good idea to show up for editorial meetings, or physics conferences, with purple hair, leggings (one pair had a cobweb motif), studded boots, and a black leather jacket. Forget this weekend’s heated brouhaha over what I fondly term BosomGate: Jessica Valenti looks like the epitome of respectability in that infamous picture compared to my 25-year-old self. I was a walking demonstration of What Not To Wear to be taken seriously as a professional science writer. Really, it’s a miracle the physicists let me past the front door; perhaps they thought I’d at least be decorative. But I’m pretty sure they let me stay because I was smart, focused, disciplined, hard-working, and very good at my job. And I’m very glad they did. (Ironically, that black leather jacket became a bit of a trademark. I still wear it to physics conferences. And sometimes to Central Park.)  Jenthegateshires

So, if you’re going to dress unconventionally on the job, do so around PhD physicists, who are more tolerant of eccentricity. No doubt there was a sniggering Ann Althouse or two saying nasty things behind my back, and making unfair assumptions about my perceived morality based on my manner of dress, but I was blissfully unaware of such things. I had work to do, after all — work that, for the first time in my life, I truly loved. So when someone asks me about whether they should consider science writing as a career, my response is "Hell yeah!" And while I wouldn’t offer myself as a role model, I have learned a few useful things. Admittedly, some of them are fairly obvious. Such as…

Learn the basics of journalism. (We’ll assume you learned the basics of composition long before now.) Take a course in Journalism 101, just to acquaint yourself with the structure, types of stories, and terminology. Being a good writer is paramount, but it doesn’t hurt to be able to throw around terms like "lede" and "nut graph" if you’re looking to break into the profession. If you feel you need more guidance or skill development, there are also a growing number of one- or two-year science writing programs cropping up at universities across the country. These are excellent places to get some basic training (specifically in science writing, which has its quirks) and make valuable future contacts. However…

Don’t confuse taking a lot of classes with acquiring "expertise." Writing is first and foremost a craft; you get better by doing it, not by studying it ad infinitum. By all means learn the fundamentals, but there’s no substitute for just jumping right in and knocking out a few query letters and/or articles. To that end, you might want to seek out media fellowships — the American Association for the
Advancement of Science
and the American Physical Society are among the
organizations that offer such fellowships — or apply for internships with
leading science publications.

Okay, so you’ve done your homework and gotten a bit of experience under your belt. Now it’s time to hit the mean streets and find that first freelance assignment or writing position. Frankly, unless you’ve got some killer connections, you probably won’t vault from your science writing program or internship directly to the New York Times. A friend of mine at a major newspaper routinely complains about the fresh crop of budding journalists who arrive for internships or entry level positions, convinced they’re going to springboard straight to writing full-length features for The New Yorker, and therefore consider writing obits or local news items beneath them. Editors understandably find such attitudes irritating. Don’t fall victim to a false sense of entitlement; buckle down and pay your dues. In the long run, you’ll be glad you did. I firmly believe there is no such thing as demeaning work, or wasted effort, especially when it comes to writing, because everything eventually feeds into the creative machine — even if you’re writing seemingly mundane stuff. I’ve stumbled across some of my best ideas that way.

The good news is that there are an awful lot of publications out there
that fall into the category of "science trade press," and they’re
usually looking for talented up-and-coming young writers with strong technical
backgrounds. Check out opportunities with nonprofit organizations, research labs, or universities, all of whom publish magazines, newsletters, Web copy, even press releases, and are often in need of new writers. I’ve published two books (the second one’s not quite out yet, but still…) and several articles in major magazines, but I do most of my work for nonprofits. I like them. They’re chock-full of altruistic, intelligent people committed to communicating science at all levels of discourse. Not only are they a valuable resource, but I’ve formed a lot of good friendships through them.  Furthermore, nonprofits are stable and provide regular work. And they pay on time, which is critically important for a freelancer with a mortgage and a tubby little tabby cat with expensive tastes. Or you can make like Richard Krzemien and supplement your income with a bit of cartooning  (see below; for more cartoon survival tips, visit Krzemien’s most excellent Website.)001_income_1

My nonprofit clients also sometimes pay my expenses to attend scientific conferences. Admittedly, there’s an impressive media machine in place for disseminating breaking research results to the science press, but there’s no substitute for interacting with scientists firsthand when it comes to ferreting out possible stories. Rely 100% on things like press releases and EurekAlert, and you’ll end up covering pretty much the same exact stories as everyone else. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that — those stories need to be covered! — but the real thrill comes from stumbling across a killer story idea that for some reason, just hasn’t caught the attention of your fellow science writers. (Trolling arXiv can also be useful, but I prefer direct interaction — you get more of the story behind the science that way. And I love that sort of narrative.)

Once you get to the conference,  the question becomes, do you attend the prepackaged press conferences, or the technical sessions themselves? For me, this decision is easy: most of the technical papers are beyond my ken (sometimes they’re above any scientist who doesn’t specialize in that narrow field of research), so I welcome organized press conferences, although I do go to the occasional technical session. When I do, it helps that there’s a pretty standard format for scientific presentations. I take notes on the introductory outline, jot down a few specifics from the body of the lecture, and then let my eyes glaze over in bewilderment until I hear those magical words, "In conclusion…." At which point I madly scribble notes again. I used to think I was the only one who did this, but turns out it’s pretty much par for the course.

Assuming you have a strong science background, you’ll probably want to attend actual sessions. But press conferences can be quite useful: they distill the most salient points of the research into a more immediately palatable concoction — at least, that’s the idea. Scientists are notoriously bad about bringing things down to a more general level. That’s why scientists and science writers alike might find it helpful to peruse these two articles on FairerScience  (found via Element List) regarding journalists’ advice to researchers who are trying to communicate their research: Keep It Simple and Interesting (KISI) and Keep It Careful and Intelligent (KICI). That’s sound advice for everyone involved in the practice of communicating science.

Even if you’re a whiz at note-taking, it’s usually a good idea to schedule a one-on-one follow-up interview, just to ask a few more probing or clarifying questions about the research result du jour. And when you do…

Be in control of the interview. This is not to say you should be over-bearing, just know the information you’re looking for, and direct the conversation accordingly. Ask broad, open-ended questions at first to set your subject at ease, then gradually work around to more focused queries. Many scientists aren’t comfortable talking to the press, and this can draw out more reluctant sorts. The technique can sometimes backfire, though, such that you need to find a way to turn off the spigot of verbiage your open-ended question provoked. Personally, I like to let them talk, because you never know what sort of gems they’ll utter when you least expect it. But time doesn’t always permit, so don’t be shy about jumping in with a firm redirect to steer the dialogue to where you need to go. 

Similarly, if you’re writing about a topic that is controversial, you’ll eventually need to ask some challenging questions. Don’t do this at the beginning of the interview. Again, it’s all about setting the subject at ease. He or she will be far more likely to answer your more challenging questions if you gradually broach the subject.

Don’t be afraid to ask obvious questions, even if you feel a bit stupid about doing so. This is not an excuse for not doing your homework beforehand, mind you: by all means, acquaint yourself with the basic background of the topic you’ll be covering, the subject’s own contributions, etc., and make careful note of those things that aren’t entirely clear. And be honest with yourself when assessing your level of comprehension; you might get the gist, but do you really understand it? Here’s the acid test: if you can’t explain it coherently to a non-scientist, you don’t understand it deeply enough. It’s far better to ask "Why is the sky blue?" than not to ask for fear of looking stupid, thereby not getting a critical answer. Here’s a handy corollary:

Don’t pretend to knowledge or expertise that you don’t, in fact, possess. You might be able to pull this off with your family members over Christmas dinner, but trust me, anyone with a serious science degree is going to see right through your little act. And they’re going to hold you accountable for your words — and also for your poor punctuation and spelling. (A misplaced decimal point or minus sign can spell disaster for a science-themed article, after all.) Better to just not go there. Otherwise you might end up like Slate‘s Greg Easterbrook, ignorantly insisting that quarks don’t have content and writing silly sentences like this: "String theory says that these seemingly amorphous infinitesimal aspects of matter are made from other dimensions, compressed to a smallness that strains imagination."

Easterbrook has been roundly ridiculed on numerous science blogs this past week. Normally I’d rally to the defense of a writerly comrade-in-arms, but I read the piece that caused the ruckus, and frankly, he deserved it. He should have asked the obvious questions, like, Whose genius idea was it to assign this guy the science beat at Slate? Sure, he has an instantly recognizable writer’s "voice" — something else you’ll want to foster as you embark on your science writing career — but there’s a difference between lending structure and context to a piece via a "point of view," and skewing the facts of the research to fit your pet theory or personal hobby horse (in Easterbrook’s case, Intelligent Design).

So, now you’re entering the minefield of having to actually write the article. First and foremost…

Don’t bury the lede. Okay, that’s kind of a gimme, but you’d be surprised how often even experienced writers do this. Remember that you’re telling a story. How you structure it depends on whether it’s, say, a straight news story or a feature. For the former, the standard inverted pyramid format is recommended. So you want to open with the most salient points: what the result was, and why it is significant. Reveal other details bit by bit, in descending order of relevance, from there. BAM! Instant hard-hitting news story! (Oh, if only…)

I personally prefer writing more feature-ish type things which allow a bit more leeway and creativity with the lede (and also the writer’s "voice"). That doesn’t make it any easier to write. Sometimes it takes the first (or second, or third) draft just to figure out what that lede should be, so be patient if it doesn’t come to you right away. The same advice applies if you’re frustrated because the words just don’t seem to be flowing out of you in perfectly parsed complete sentences to produce instant flawless prose. Remember, writing is hard — yes, as hard as math or physics if you’re going to do the thing right. My friend (and occasional guest blogger) Lee often laments: "Writing is easy. You just stare at the blank computer screen until drops of blood form on your forehead."

Choose analogy and metaphor over technical jargon
whenever possible. Avoiding jargon is another "duh" suggestion (albeit easier said than done), but there’s been some debate as to whether analogy and metaphor ultimately help or hurt the science communication cause. I stand emphatically behind the former. True, analogies and metaphors are, by definition, inexact,
so there’s some basis to the concerns regarding
their use (or overuse) in popular science writing. For instance, some physicists don’t like the standard balloon analogy for conveying the expansion of the universe, because it isn’t precisely equivalent to what’s actually happening in the cosmos. But I maintain that these are
invaluable tools to helping nonscientists get their minds around a novel,
abstract physics concept; fine-tuning that understanding comes later,
once you’ve piqued their interest and sparked a desire to learn more. I
won’t belabor this point further, except to direct to you this excellent article by Siobhan Roberts in the Toronto Star on why scientists, as well as poets, find it useful to think metaphorically and employ analogies. Roald Hoffman also recently explored this issue for American Scientist. That reminds me:

Know your target audience. This is quite possibly the most difficult task of all. You might be surprised at how many scientists and science writers get the level of discourse wrong when attempting to write "popular science." Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe
was an undeniably important book, and it started off quite promising,
with one of the best explications of relativity my layperson’s brain
has yet encountered. But the minute he got into the specifics of string
theory — his area of expertise — the level of discourse shot into the
stratosphere. The prose became littered with jargon and densely packed
technical details. Even highly science-literate general readers found
the latter half of the book rough going.

My intent is not to unfairly single out Greene, whom I admire and consider an excellent communicator of science. I just think he wasn’t quite sure about his target audience with that first book, and ended  up writing partly for the general public, and partly for his fellow physicists. No man can serve two (or more) masters. If you’re going to write primarily for scientists, you will inevitably lose the general public’s interest, and if you bring it down to a clear enough level to engage John Q. Public, your scientific readers will be bored out of their minds at having to slog through such obvious, elementary stuff. It’s a noble endeavor to attempt to speak to all readers, but you can’t be all things to all people. The knowledge gap between scientists and non-scientists has just become too damn wide, and until that changes, pick a target audience and tailor your writing accordingly.

And don’t apologize for your decision. In a May 2005 review of Malcolm Gladwell”s Blink, Skeptic Magazine‘s Michael Shermer outlined three levels of science writing:

There are, roughly speaking, three levels of science writing in our culture: (1) technical (peer-reviewed papers, monographs, and university press books written by and for professional scientists); (2) popular professional
(essays and articles in popular magazines and trade press books written
by scientists for both scientists and moderately informed general
readers — Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Dawkins, and Jared Diamond come to
mind); (3) popular general (essays, articles, and books by journalists and science writers for completely uninformed readers).

We live in the Age of Science, and all three levels are vital for the
dispersal of scientific knowledge to an educated democracy. Sadly, too
many professional scientists think level one is the only legitimate
form of science writing, and that anything else is simply “dumbing

Given the turgid prose stylings of most academic papers and monographs, I sincerely hope Shermer is mistaken about the last bit regarding legitimacy. But I suspect he isn’t. Shermer goes on to discuss the fate of Carl Sagan, denied tenure by Harvard and admission to the National Academy of Sciences because he was so good at conveying science to the unwashed masses — despite producing roughly an article per month in the peer-reviewed literature of his field. Peer pressure is a nasty thing.

Times have changed since Sagan first hit the scene, and an increasing number of scientists now understand that it’s vital to communicate their research not just to their colleagues, but to everyone. (If nothing else, the tantalizing possibility of writing a bestselling popular science book might win them over.) But there’s still a subtle, unspoken bias towards those scientists who choose to practice their gift of communicating to broader audiences. Perhaps that, too, will disappear over time. I hope so, because, as  Shermer observes in his Gladwell review, "[T]he craft of writing good science is just as important as the
skill of producing good science."

22 thoughts on “the write stuff”

  1. Re: dressing eccentrically (intentionally) at science conferences :
    I do recall Linda Sparke (Wisconsin astronomer) having spiky bright orange hair at some American Astronomical Society meetings. I suspect that some old grey bears waggled in disapproval about this, but I think that as the generation that grew up in the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s occupies more of academic fields, “eccentric” dress will be less of a stigma, at least in science. (In business, it probably always will be.)
    It’s funny looking at pictures of astronomers observing back in Hubble’s day; they wore jackets and ties. Nowadays, observing runs are when I dress down the most. If you’re gonna be up all night eating snacks and taking data, you need to be *comfortable*.

  2. I recall a fellow wearing cargo pants and a T-shirt bearing a large cannabis-leaf logo at the Sixth International Conference on Complex Systems. Funnily enough, it was actually relevant to the subject of his talk, which was on the role endogenous cannabinoids (the ones which exist in your brain even if you don’t inhale) play in the nervous system and other places.
    With a leather jacket like yours, you should look for a photo-op alongside Neil Gaiman. It makes me think I need to get a leather jacket of my own before I can become a writer (of science or anything else). Two data points is enough to establish a theory, right?
    The oddest bit of dress I can recall offhand from my physics career is from Japan, when I spent a week at the Super-Kamiokande neutrino detector. It’s buried down in a mine beneath a mountain so that the rock overhead screens out radiation which are not neutrinos. When you’re inside the mine, you naturally wear a hardhat, but because this is Japan, you take off your shoes and wear slippers.

  3. Jennifer, your advice is very good. I already got the degrees and go to conferences.
    Is Babe in the Universe entertaining enough to fit on a blogroll?

  4. This should be required reading for every budding science journalist.
    I suggest one more piece of advice: when possible, let the scientists you interviewed review the article. I don’t mean that they have final word on the words, but they might catch a mistake in terminology or an unintended shade of meaning.

  5. Hi Jen, lottsa fun tips as always.
    Black leather in central park, eh
    Do you skate too?
    PS – This Jon, doesn’t use the Plank constant,
    didn’t drop the h. Just never had one. lol!

  6. Peter’s correct in that it is often helpful to run drafts by the scientists involved. One of the trickest aspects is putting things into lay language while still using scientific terminology correctly; often there is a conflict, or a slight nuance that isn’t quite right. (And sometimes you just have to choose, and note your choice accordingly.) When I wrote for INDUSTRIAL PHYSICIST magazine, I always did this. And I can verify that said scientists always focused on technical accuracy and almost never (with one notable exception) tried to change anything substantive just to make themselves look better. 🙂
    The catch is that some of the major mainstream media publications frown on this practice. There is a middle ground: get a scientist in the same field who is NOT interviewed in the article to check out your drafts and make sure you didn’t misunderstand something critical. Alternatively, I will sometimes send an email to the source in question, with the draft text of a given paragraph, for example. asking if this is accurate or not. Most editors don’t mind if you do this… after all, nobody wants to actively disseminate wrong or misleading information… well, not usually.

  7. Thank you for this insight into your profession. As an undergraduate physics student, I don’t really have any idea how scientific journalism works. I had no idea journalists watched arXiv for stories. (and thank you even more for being someone else who thought “The Elegant Universe” became incomprehensible once it actually started dealing with strings)

  8. Thanks so much for this. As an undergraduate I was, in fact, an English major and a physics major, and now I’m a graduate student in astronomy. I really, really miss writing the way I used to and I think eventually I’ll have to do something about that!
    One thought about the idea that most scientists think academic writing is “the only legitimate form.” I’m not sure I believe that’s completely true, but what I do think is true (as you point out in the case of Carl Sagan) is that tenure committees think that way. These institutions assign more legitimacy to research and publishing, less to classroom teaching, and even less to anything that involves engaging the public. I’ve noticed recently what a detrimental effect this has; our department has several new young faculty, who seem to be the type to be really excited about outreach but slightly more excited about, you know, keeping their jobs. Older, tenured faculty who may have the freedom to go back into outreach tend not to take this step. And who can blame them? After several years of behaving as obedient tenure-track nose-to-the-grindstone workers, who’s going to be able to shave off several jaded years of life and start thinking about EPO again?

  9. I haven’t read “The Elegant Universe” yet; I had considered doing so to study how science popularization is done, if not to learn about strings, but now I figure I should probably read books at the same level in fields where I haven’t had a formal education, so I can get the “full experience”.
    Anyhoo, the folks who hang out here might like to read Greg Egan’s public letter “A Plea to Save ‘New Scientist'”, which is posted to The n-Category Cafe:
    Quoting the first paragraph:
    “New Scientist is a British-based publication where many thousands of lay people get their information on scientific matters, and (IMHO) it does an excellent job about 70% of the time. But the combination of a
    sensationalist bent and a lack of basic knowledge by its writers (most obviously in physics) is rendering it unreliable often enough to constitute a real threat to the public understanding of science.”

  10. Hi Blake, a little unfair on The New Scientist. It’s been going for a fair while, and covers many sciences among them ‘physics’
    Physicists themselves can’t agree with each other on basic theoretical physics concepts. With more dogma & subsects in the world of theoretical physics than in any other major religion, and some extreme, fundamentalist, internicine rivalries & hatreds, it is not hard to find any general knowledge magazine speckled with a heavy doze of sensationalism, trashed by ‘radical’ and often themselves rather ill informed and self-deluded so called serious physicists.
    Just because one has spent a lot of time trying to grasp one theory (communism, socialism, strings) does not make one better informed or more ‘right’ or even ‘left’ than another less informed observer.
    Take medicine, where one day meat is good, the next bad, one day milk & dairy products are good the next day bad. Diets, pharmaceuticals, and even surgery try to hold true for every condition and every patient – yet medical knowledge, conditions, and treatment are in a continuos state of flux.
    Incidentally so is ‘particle’ physics, even applied physics still brings forth new innovations how to turn (sun) light into energy, and so on …

  11. Nice job. There’s a lot of good advice in “A Field Guide for Science Writers,” sponsored by NASW.
    I had a leg up in that both my parents worked in journalism and PR, so there was no off-putting magic to a first byline: I took it for granted from childhood that you could make a living that way. Also shifted from an all-but-complete undergraduate chemistry major to English, and finally comp.lit.
    Analogy and metaphor: beyond the equations themselves, it’s ALL analogy and metaphor. There’s a whole literature on how the idea of force in physics grew from our kinesthetic experience, and every high-school physics teacher has gone through the explanation of why holding up a heavy weight isn’t kinematic “work” even though it makes you tired. You can’t avoid analogies — but you can choose them carefully and deliberately, and warn readers about connotations that may be misleading.

  12. Goldfish memory

    In my peregrinations about the Web, I stumbled across a fun blog, written by an English major who has migrated into science writing: Cocktail Party Physics. Via a post on how to become a science writer, we arrive at an…

  13. You forgot to mention the important science writing skill of being able to come up with pithy and original analogies for extremely large or extremely small numbers. I always appreciate the well-envisioned illustration of this in a science article. One of my favorites was the writer for Discover magazine who defined a femtosecond by telling me that if I could drive from New York to L.A. in one second, a femtosecond would only carry me a tiny fraction of the diameter of a human hair. But my all time favorite is the simple illustration of the size of one billion that I use in my elementary class: “A million seconds is about twelve days. A billion seconds is about 32 years.” I never fail to see an appreciation for a billion being a BIG number dawn on some faces when I use that one.

  14. Hello –
    Just wanted to introduce myself as a biology undergrad who has finally decided to be a science writer. I have blue hair. 🙂
    I hope to go through a graduate school science writing program, so far my experiences with science writing (The Santa Fe Science Writing Workshop, and an award for students desiring to be science journalists through SFN to attend Neuroscience 2006) have been wonderful. (longest sentence ever)
    Thank you for your insightful and informative post.
    Lillian Steenblik

  15. SciBlog Anthology suggestions so far

    Wow! I posted the call for suggestions on Friday night, it is a weekend and a holiday, the traffic is down to a half, yet I got so many suggestions already, both in the comments and via e-mail! I am…

  16. Science Blogging Anthology – The Council Has Spoken!

    I know you’ve all been waiting for this. Well, after two all-nighters, the deed is done. Under the fold is the final list of 50 posts that will be included in the anthology. There may be some small changes if…

  17. I once had Brian Greene as a guest on my show. He totally confused the host (I had to explain to her what he was talking about) but he talks a lot better than he writes.

  18. Hi, Jennifer. (I met you in K.C. Cole’s science writing class at USC this past fall.) Would you happen to have the title of the Roald Hoffman article on metaphor? The link above no longer works.

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