Starting to catch up after, yup, another set of trips — but with really interesting stuff to talk about very shortly. To start: I spent part of this past week at the biannual World Conference of Science Journalists, which was in Helsinki this time. (Yes, way up north. Yes, midnight sun, almost — disorienting and gorgeous). While I was there I joined the excellent journalists Ed Yong Of Not Exactly Rocket Science, Helen Pearson of Nature, and Alok Jha of the Guardian and the BBC to talk about the craft of writing long narrative features about science. Among ourselves we talked about wanting to avoid being “lost in the Features Dark Place” — which is to say, being overwhelmed by your material to the point where you don’t know where to start.
Dropping out of scary diseases and scary food for a moment, and into the (more) personal: This past weekend I spoke at Science Online, a fantastic conference in the Triangle area of North Carolina that brings together the different tribes of science communication — journalists, bloggers, scientists, public information officers, museum curators, videographers and audio artists, on and on — for an adrenaline- and coffee-fueled weekend of brainstorming.
SciO, as it’s called, has been going for seven years; I’ve attended for three, speaking each time on some aspect of writing technique. I love going, even though journalists are a minor tribe within the conference’s loose federation, because attending forces me to think not only about why I write, but about how. The process of writing is something I engage with every day, of course, but I’m not often called on to articulate it outside my own head. Prepping presentations for the heterogenous attendees reminds me to examine attitudes and also techniques that I tend to take for granted.
This year, my Wired colleague and friend David Dobbs, from Neuron Culture over there in the right rail, did a storytelling-technique session that turned out to be really well-received, so I thought I’d reproduce it here for wider sharing. We started from this realization: When we learn to write, we’re told to study the greats. But under our noses — sold in airports and drug stores, argued over in blogs and book clubs — there exists a vast and separate world of published writing to which people are passionately attached. That’s genre fiction — mysteries, thrillers, westerns, romances, fantasy and sci-fi — and it keeps its audiences hungering for more via specific techniques that writers can analyze and learn from.
Our session wasn’t recorded (I should really remember to do that when I speak) but you can find the excerpts we discussed on this wiki page. And here’s a recap, via Storify: “What science writing can learn from crap novels.” We say that, of course, with love. [Read more…]
Ed Yong, an incisive and prolific science blogger-writer-communications officer, opened up his blog to the science-writing community earlier today, with this invitation:
Every now and then, I get an email from someone who’s keen to get into science writing and wants to know how I started. Whenever I reply, and I always try to, I’m always left with the nagging feeling that my experience is but one of a multitude of routes that people have taken. Science writing (whether you want to call it journalism, blogging, communication and so on) is a diverse field, as are the people working in it. It would be far more illuminating for a newbie to see a variety of stories rather than just one.
…I will be asking science writers around the world to do what they do best – tell a story – about the thing they know best – themselves. This will be a perpetual thread that I hope will act as a lasting resource for the writers of tomorrow to take inspiration from.
That was about 18 hours ago. So far there are 59 comment/stories posted, from some of the brightest and sharpest writers working today, with more to come tomorrow, I am sure. (Also, umm, me. I didn’t get in til #51, because I was trying to catch a plane.) Collectively, the comment string is both a peek behind the curtain of how science writers and authors work and think — and think about their work — as well as a trove of advice for anyone else who wants to try this odd and taxing profession.
Mark Henderson (#2), science editor of the Times of London: “If you can’t find great stories from everything that’s pouring out of the world’s laboratories, you’re not much of a journalist.”
Jonah Lehrer (#4), author of How We Decide and Proust Was a Neuroscientist: “Writing is a craft. There are no born writers. One has to practice and practice and practice.”
Maggie Koerth-Baker (#5), BoingBoing.com: “Think of yourself as a business, ask to be paid what you’re worth and stick to your guns, always turn things in on time, learn that editing is not your enemy, and work really, really hard at writing nuanced, factual stories that are still fun to read. Luck helps those who help themselves.”
Raima Larter (#16), writer and former chemistry professor: ” I don’t think you can go wrong when you make your choices based on what most excites you. Passion can go a long way in carrying you forward in any career.”
John Pavlus (#21), writer/filmmaker: “BE curious and ACT curious. Everything else will work itself out from there.”
TR Gregory (#29), an evolutionary biologist who has started a companion thread on his own blog: ” There is a lot of frustration among scientists and educators with the way new studies are portrayed in the media, but when someone is recognized as an honest and skilled communicator, he or she will be among the ones that scientists hope will discuss their research.”
Brendan Maher (#34), features editor, Nature: “Humility and self-assured enthusiasm can coexist.”
Eric Michael Johnson (#41), blogger at The Primate Diaries: ” Take risks. Make mistakes. Fall flat on your face. The difference between wanting to be a writer and actually being one is in how often you pick yourself back up.”
(Stripped of the biographical material, here’s my contribution: “Work nights and weekends. Seek mentors. Stay alert to serendipity. When someone wants to tell you a story, listen. Develop expertise. Distrust everyone’s motives, including your own. Always ask another question. Talk to people face to face. Rejoice in complexity, in systems and in persons, and accept that it takes its time revealing its intricacies. Try to tell the truth.”)