Category Archives: On Writing

12 Lessons from Science Writers 2016 in San Antonio

[Inside the Alamo. Photo by Jerald Jackson via Flickr & CC 2.0, My own Alamo photos did not come out this pretty.] 

This past weekend, I spent three and a half days at the National Association of Science Writers meeting in San Antonio, Texas.

If you’ve never been to a Science Writers conference, here’s what you need to know:  It’s an eclectic event. On Friday and Saturday, science writers meet to discuss their craft and the state of their field. On Sunday and Monday, scientists present to the journalists, bloggers, and university writers, to give them all a chance to learn a bit about trending topics in science.

Here are a few of the key takehome messages I picked up at Science Writers 2016. 

1. The PIO vs. Journalist division has been wildly over-dramaticized.

 

Writers who work for universities–aka Public Information Officers or PIOs–are a huge chunk of NASW’s member population. They attend the same conference panels, follow the same Twitter accounts, and stand in the same lines for coffee as the journalists and bloggers amongst NASW’s ranks.

However, in some respects, PIOs’ work is very different from journalists: Specifcially, a PIO’s job is to make their university look freakin’ awesome; a journalist’s job is to provide needed information–and often critiques of institutions–to the public.  Both camps of science writers want to provide their readers with accurate and interesting information, but the reasons behind that objective strongly contrast.

At last year’s NASW meeting, a proposed amendment that would allow PIOs to serve as officers on NASW’s board  brought the tensions between the two professional groups to the fore. Some PIOs felt undervalued; many journalists and some PIOs  argued that allowing PIOs to serve as officers would create Conflicts-of-Interest for NASW. (Clarification: PIOs are already allowed to serve as board members, just not officers.) The debate has been extensively covered by Undark magazine. 

Based on some heated (and impolitic) listserv discussions, many expected the tensions to erupt once again at the meeting. However, the San Antonio conference was suprisingly calm,  with the vast majority of amendment commentators saying that “we should all (continue) to be friends”.

Many senior writers also acknowledged the existence of freelancers who do a combination of journalistic and PIO work, as well as bloggers (like yours truly) that don’t fit either category. The results of the vote on the amendment won’t be announced for several days, but overall, the debate seems to have simmered down.

2. If you want to be a science writer, don’t be afraid to pitch.

The most important tweet of the conference:

Back in high school, I once saw an utterly mediocre Will Smith movie, where he plays a guy who advises other men on how to get women’s attention.  One scene stuck in my head where Will Smith turns to camera and says, “Trust me. No woman wakes up and thinks, ‘Gee, I hope I don’t get swept off my feet today.'”

The casual sexism of off-feet-sweeping, aside, the principle holds true. Most people aren’t actively avoiding making new friends. And most editors are not avoiding awesome new writers. In fact, most of them are actually want to discover new talent.

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How to Ace an Interview with a Science Journalist [Part 2]

[Illustration by Fredik Walloe via Flickr & CC 2.0] 

A few days ago, I posted Part 1 of an informal guide to rocking interviews with journalists about your science. That post covers what to do before an interview; this post focuses on the During and the After.

Step 5: Invite Co-Authors Along.

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[Photo via UBC Learning Commons on Flickr & CC 2.0] 

Science writers know that grad students and post-docs carry out most of the experiments, not lab leaders–aka “Primary Investigators” aka “The Profs Who Do the Paperwork, Presenting, and Mentoring” aka “Boss Scientists”.

If you are a lab leader, looping in key co-authors is not just good manners; it shows that you’re giving credit where credit is due.

Not to mention that the post-docs and grad students who carry out the bulk of the experiments may have some cool stories of their own to share.

Step 6: Be a Good Listener.

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[Photo by Britt Reints via Flickr & CC 2.0] 

Scientist-journalist interviews start off like any other conversation, with a quick “Hi! How are you?” and confirmation that you’ve got the right person on the phone.  A journalistic interview is just a conversation, except for the fact that both parties have very specific goals.

Continue reading “How to Ace an Interview with a Science Journalist [Part 2]” »

How to Ace an Interview with a Science Journalist [Part 1]

[A woman interviewing a Lego Sculpture. Photo by Matt Brown via Flickr & Creative Commons 2.0] 

Let’s say you’re a young lab leader or grad student and you’ve just gotten an email from a journalist asking if you can speak to them about your upcoming paper.  You haven’t heard of this reporter before. You ‘re not sure which outlet they’re writing for, and you’re concerned that a badly botched piece about your research might harm your standing in your field.

At the same time, a well-researched and well-written piece can actually help your research become more visible.  A piece that highlights your research in Nature News & Comment might actually be something you want to (humbly) mention when up for faculty gigs. Plus, links to news articles for general audiences liven up your lab’s home page.

You may ask yourself, “How do I work this?How do I make sure this interview goes as well as possible? How do I make sure that the reporters don’t take my comments out of context?  Which reporters are worth talking to in the first place?!

As a young journalist, I can’t pretend not to have a horse in the race: I’m in favor of scientists taking time to talk to journalists, even (and maybe especially) those of us who are just starting out. There are a lot of resources out there on “media training” for scientists, which focus on telling scientists how to best “sell” yourself and your research, and I’ll link to several resources at the end of the article.

My perspective is that of a young journalist, not a seasoned media training expert. But I have interviewed enough scientists to recognize some behavior patterns. Here are some of the habits that good scientist sources* share and etiquette tips for responding to journalist behavior. 

*[“source” = journalese for person or entity giving a journalist information]

Before the Interview

Step 0: Don’t Panic.

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[Photo by Ruth Hartnup via Flickr & Creative Commons 2.0]

Continue reading “How to Ace an Interview with a Science Journalist [Part 1]” »

4 Things Science Writers Can Learn from Screenwriters

[Image by Ozzy Delaney via Flickr & Creative Commons]

Movies. They’re the stuff of fiction, and scientists love to make fun of those darn Hollywood writers. (The Core, anyone?)  How dare they abuse and twist the science to hit a plot point? 

Journalism is supposed to be an emphatic move away from fiction. But I’d argue that the screenwriting–the “craft” of writing movie scripts–has a lot of lessons to teach science journalists. 

I know because I use tricks and rules of thumb teen-aged and college-aged aspiring screenwriter-me picked up in my science writing every day.

Several science writers have pointed out the parallels between science writing and screenwriting. Ben Lillie–best known as the co-creator of Story Collider–suggests Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat!  series in the chapter of Science Blogging: The Essential Guide on narrative storytelling.  MIT SciWrite prof Tom Levenson is always joking that he talks about magazine feature writing with a “TV writing accent”. (He does; he talks about loglines and “the fractal nature of feature storytelling”, which is far more obvious in screenwriting than print writing.) And most science writing grad school programs include at least one unit on scripting and making documentaries. 

But I think that screenwriting has more to offer science writing than just a means of structuring story arcs. The techniques screenwriters use to develop characters, set up scenes, and deliver exposition can all be imported quite easily. Here are just 4 of the first screenwriting wisdom-nuggets that come to mind:

1. Screenwriting teaches you how to write as part of a team.

Our first assignment in my first actual sitting-around-a-table-with-fellow-humans screenwriting class–during sophomore year of college–was to write a page-long scene that told a story with zero dialogue.

I had written an utterly forgettable scene about a love triangle and a soccer game. In one bit of direction (the paragraphs in between dialogue), I had two soccer players running after the ball, one on the bad guys’ team baring down, and our heroine running after the ball “with the same fierce glint in her eye.”

“Um…I don’t know how I would direct that,” one of my classmates said. A senior, a film major who actually went around making movies, as opposed to armchair-dissecting every Joss Whedon plot point.

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Blog Experimentation in Progress: Recaps vs. Listicles

[“Stockpile” photo by Stephen Edmonds via Flickr/Creative Commons]

This week, I’m taking a dollop of my own advice and building a “stockpile” of future posts for this blog.

But like blogging itself, building a post stockpile requires a lot of guesswork. The Internet is fickle, and even though I have a pretty good idea of who follows me on Twitter (biology grad students!), I have much less idea of who reads this blog.

To quote Ed Yong (from his chapter in Science Blogging: The Essential Guide): “If you’re not sure who your readers are, ask them–every year, I create an open thread on my blog where I invite readers to say something about themselves,  their background, and their interests.”

Consider this the official dianacrowscience.com “de-lurking” thread 2016.

No need to ID yourself as an individual. Any random non-specific fact like “I’m from Cleveland” or “Raccoons do not get enough media attention, imho” will do.

Questions I’m Most Curious About: 

  • What do you do? (Could be hobbies, work, what you studied in college, or a combo.)
  • What topics do you like to read about?  (Gene Expression? Climate Change? Fungi? Neuroscience?)
  • How do you feel about listicles? (Or if you’re a long-time reader, how would you feel about a Return of the Recaps?)
  • And finally: What movies do you go around quoting in real life?  (When I was about 12-13, I went through a phase where I communicated almost exclusively in quotes from Pirates of the Caribbean, Galaxy Quest, Secondhand Lions, and even The Country Bears…so I really can’t judge) 

Sound off in the comments!

We Need Investigative Science Journalism But Learning to Investigate Science is Hard–Part 2

Yesterday, I wrote about why many pieces about the need for investigative science journalism don’t acknowledge the factors behind its scarcity.  Conversations about investigations in science journalism often seem to assume that reporters don’t see critiquing science as important, but journalists’ individual interests don’t set the tone for journalistic coverage  all by themselves. In journalism, economics and politics shape our work. It’s basically impossible to disentangle why an article was written the way it was from simply reading the article.

Discussing the economics and politics that shape editorial decisions is a crucial part of addressing the relative absence of investigative science journalism, because for many reporters, quick hits– daily news stories, magazine blurbs, and blog posts– are our bread-and-butter (…when we get any bread at all…). Most casual readers encounter science via casual quick takes more often than they encounter it through investigative and/or longform articles.

There are definitely books and workshops out there to teach journalists how to chase down leads and verify what sources say, but at the end of the day, every investigative reporter I’ve met says that a lot of investigation is just spending a lot of time going through interviews and documents, looking for patterns. It’s very, very hard to justify putting in Spotlight-esque hours without a steady salary.

Unfortunately, the economic realities do not prevent verification issues from rearing their heads in short news stories…

Continue reading “We Need Investigative Science Journalism But Learning to Investigate Science is Hard–Part 2” »

We Need Investigative Science Journalism But Learning to Investigate Science is Hard-Part 1

[^^”How do you know?”: The question that science journalists must not forget to ask.]

One night about a month ago, I was at a friend’s birthday party, knocking back tequila and rum with assorted MIT-affiliated twentysomethings. Somehow I ended up talking about tardigrades with a post-doc from an  uber-spiffy genetics institute.

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[This is what a tardigrade looks like. Photo via Peter Von Bagh]

Tardigrades are a clan of microscopic but thoroughly adorable invertebrates, that recently found themselves at the center of a huge genomics controversy.  The tardigrade genome “kerfluffle” also happened to be one of the stories I wrote about for MIT Science Writing class.

So when the post-doc told tipsy me something to the effect of: “The guy whose tardigrade genome paper got criticized actually came to our institute and gave a talk. We found out later that some of his slides had been plagiarized from a third tardigrade genome group in Japan!” I was pretty appalled.

Continue reading “We Need Investigative Science Journalism But Learning to Investigate Science is Hard-Part 1” »

Help me find standout “short-form” science writing

Today is a big day for me, and not just because my 1st byline for The Atlantic went live today.

Although seriously, go check it out.

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It’s also special because I just went on record announcing my intention to compile a quarterly “Best Shortform Science Writing” roundup, so that us science writing whippersnappers can see examples of how front-of-book and daily news stories oughta be written. You can find my full spiel about why we need such an anthology here on Medium, but the takehome message is that I need you, my dear Internet readers,  to send me ideas for which stories I should include.

The “Best Shortform Science Writing” will be quarterly– as in every 3 months– and the 1st one will cover January-March 2016. The only problem is I just came up with this idea a few days ago, so I especially need suggestions for memorable short articles from January and February!

Since “shortform science writing” is a hugely diverse category,  here’s my tentative “chunkification” scheme for organizing the articles:

  • Short-Short & Front-of-Book (under 350 words)
  • Medium Short (850 words & under)
  • Single-study Deep Dives (700–1200 words but focused on one study)

Continue reading “Help me find standout “short-form” science writing” »

Why I Dropped Out of My Science Writing Grad Program

“Should I go to science journalism grad school?”

I’ve been asking myself that question since my junior year of undergrad, and I asked myself  every day I spent MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing.

In fact, I’m still asking myself that question.

Hi. My name is Diana Crow, and I’m a science writing grad school dropout.  I have the option to re-apply to finish my degree in another year, and even though I really want to do that, I’m also don’t want to risk a repeat of what happened this fall, so yeah…MIT is great!

That’s what I’ve been telling people this month. It’s true, but it leaves a lot unsaid.

Deciding on whether to go to grad school– and if so, which grad school?– is hard. I think it’s doubly hard when you’re trying to decide whether to take on a program in a field where a master’s isn’t technically a job requirement.

So back in December, when I was still on the fence about dropping out, I started writing this blog post to (hopefully) help other people who are deciding where and whether to go to grad school.

(It’s gonna be a little bit long and disjointed, so feel free to skip over parts or read them out of order, if that suits you.)

So….should I have gone to science writing grad school?

Continue reading “Why I Dropped Out of My Science Writing Grad Program” »

On temporary hiatus (because I’m settling in at my new Scientista gig)

June 2014 has been a whirlwind month for me. I went to my first hackathon, my first major science writing conference, and landed a role as co-editor-in-chief of the Scientista Foundation website.

I’ve been taking some time off from blogging to focus on freelancing and the upcoming redesign of the Scientista website, but don’t worry. Will back with more recaps, book reviews, and miscellany by the end of the month (if not sooner.)

Incidentally, we’re still looking for contributors and section editors, so if you’re interested in science writing, check us out!