Writing Narratives About Science: Advice From People Who Do it Well

Flickr: Zen, CC

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.

It was a very interactive session; we estimate we had about 200 people crammed into a tiny room, and they all had things to say (to the point that they refused to leave when the session time was up, and camped out for an additional 45 minutes). I tried to livetweet — which was a little challenging, being one of the presenters — and the results are below. Since I couldn’t capture my own points while talking (pre-schedule tweets next time?), I’ll just mention my key lessons:

To me the most important tool for telling narrative is time. Not just time within the narrative, which is what allows you to tell the story as a chronology, but time for research and reporting before you begin writing. Really good narratives are grounded in memorable characters confronting difficult problems, and it takes a lot of research time up-front to identify them.

To the degree that you allow yourself enough research time, do the same in allowing yourself reporting time. It’s only when you spend adequate time with people, in their own homes, labs or farms, that you start to understand what moves them to do what they do. You can only capture the scenes, dialogue and descriptions that drive excellent narratives if you’re present for them — and they offer themselves up on their schedule, not yours.

One other thing: The “pushing the piano” reference down below probably needs some explanation. As an undergraduate I had a fantastic acting teacher, Paul McCarren, who focused his classes on rehearsal technique, which is to say, extracting the most out of a scene while you are exploring it in rehearsal with other actors, so you can deliver what you have found during performance. He was famous for saying, “When you don’t know what to do” — when you aren’t connecting with the other actor, you can’t find the emotional through-line of a piece, you don’t know what you’re doing here — “shove the piano across the room.” He meant it literally: There was a grand piano in our rehearsal space, and if actors were stuck on a scene, he would have us recite the scene while pushing. It almost always unblocked us. And it’s a great lesson on how getting away from your desk and doing something physical can unlock the stuck places in your brain.

Now, the session:




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