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.

In the writing world. sending well-written pitches via email is what gets you discovered. 

In one session, Wired’s Adam Rogers pointed out that by sending pitches, writers are actually helping editors do their job. 

So don’t be shy about sending out your ideas. (Polish your ideas first, make sure you know the publication you’re approaching, and tell the editors why you would be the ideal person to tell their story.)

If you’re new to pitching stories, I highly recommend checking out editor Jessica Reed’s #PitchClinic series on Medium. It’s not specific to science writing, but the vast majority of the advice applies in science stories.

Another way to flatten your story pitching learning curve is to email editors and ask them for pitching guidelines. Most publications have pitching guidelines, but only some list them on their website.  (I recommend 2-3 sentences as the length for these emails. You don’t need to spend five paragraphs introducing yourself.)

3.Diversity is increasingly on science writers’ minds.

Of the previous two Science Writers conferences I’ve attended, one had a panel on diversity, and one had a panel on women in science writing. This Science Writers conference had a panel on diversity, a panel on gender parity (and the lack thereof), a panel on bilingual science communication, AND a panel on disability. That’s in addition to other panels that touched on related subjects, such as covering addiction,  investigating sexual harassment cases, and asking questions that sources might not want to answer.

Science writing (much like science itself) has a long track record of being overwhelmingly white and skewing toward men when it comes to “longform glory”.

However, given the current political climate, science writers and editors are increasingly expressing a willingness to make changes, beyond showing up to the Diversity Mixer party.  NASW recently established a Diversity Committee, which specializes in reaching out to other organizations to recruit new folks and spreading the word about jobs. MIT’s Science Writing program is now offering a fee waiver for applicants who have participated in diversity-related programs.

However, the conference made clear that diversifying science writing will require both top-down, leadership-driven efforts and grassroots efforts by emerging science writers.  Pitching stories from diverse perspectives is our responsibility, as is drawing on a wide variety of sources--including patients, farmers, environmentalists, healthcare workers, lab techs, and affected community members whose expertise is often overlooked in favor of academic researchers’ and clincians’ expertise.

For editors to discover us, we have to be out there pitching.  And on the sourcing end, emerging and established writers alike have to maintain constant vigilance about the sources we’re using. (I actually keep a running tally of the sources I use, so that if I veer into writing about too many white guys in a given month, I can correct my course.  It feels awkward to tally people, but it helps maintain awareness and balance. At the meeting, NASW President Laura Helmuth actually suggested incorporating such tallies into editors’ performance reviews, which made me feel like much less of a weirdo.)

4. A science writer’s job is to set up a question in a reader’s mind and then answer it with a story.

Figuring out how structure stories, especially the longer ones, has always been one of my personal hurdles as a writer, so I sat in on the “First Aid for Editors” panel discussion.

Basically, the main takeaway was: Never forget that you’re telling a story. 

I’ve written about the parallells between science writing and screenwriting before,  so it was hugely gratifying to hear a panel of editors at prestigious publications talk about structuring stories in terms that echoed the structures we learned in screenwriting class.

Every screenplay has to have a central problem or question. In the first act, you set it up through a series of questions, and every scene after should propel the main character either toward or away from finding a solution to their problem or question. The same principles apply in science writing.

Narrative devices like foreshadowing, “show-don’t-tell”,  conflict, and arcs apply in non-fiction as well as in fiction. Treat your sources as characters. When you depict them, weave in vignettes that show their personality and foibles rather than telling the audience flatly. 

Another good rule-of-thumb to remember when structuring stories is the “It’s about a researcher who…” rule. As in, never forget that your main character has to be a human person who does something.

5. When writing a complex story, map out the chronology.

During a panel of case studies on investigative stories, one key tip that came up was: Spreadsheets are your friend. Especially when you’re dealing with a lot of documents.

On longer stories, organize your source interviews and documents by date collected, topic, etc.

Writing out timelines can also be super-helpful when you’re covering a convoluted series of events or when you need to make a complete list of allegations you’re making in a story.

6. When you’re asking tough questions, set your people-pleasing instinct aside.

People, especially women, are socially conditioned to try and make other people happy. That’s not a journalist’s job.

Sometimes sources have to be confronted with tough questions about research funding, oversights, the goals of their work, and misconduct. Sometimes sources cry during interviews. However, that’s not an excuse for a journalist to back off.

That said, sources are more likely to open up to you if you give them an idea of what to expect from the story.  Following up with tough questions via email can also aid a story.

7. Patients and affected community members are experts, too.

One of the highlights of the conference was when LeeAnne Walters of Flint, Michigan took the stage alongside investigative journalist Curt Guyette and graduate student Siddhartha Roy of Virginia Tech. 

She told a harrowing story of how authorities initially dismissed and discredited all of the Flint resident’s complaints as “crazy” or “mistaken”. Instead of giving up, Walters buckled down and started doing research on the pipes, organizing water testing, and reaching out to university research teams like the one at Virginia Tech.  One of the panelists commented that Walters was “more scientific than most scientists” and she certainly had the knowledge on pipes and lead hazards to back it up.

Science writers tend to default to asking university researchers and government sources what’s going on, and that habit allowed the Flint Crisis to go unnoticed (outside of the city) for a long time.  One way to address that problem is by incorporating more non-scientist sources into science coverage.

When an audience member asked Walters what writers seeking community member sources should do when covering a health hazard, Walters replied, “Find a mom!”

Specifically, a grizzly mom who will go to great lengths to protect her kids.

That’s good advice for covering an environmental health crisis, where children are being poisioned unnecessarily.  However, as a member of the disability community, I feel obligated to point out: “Warrior” or “grizzly” moms often talk over their kids, especially when it comes to neurovariants like autism and ADHD. 

One of the key takeaways from another standout panel was simply: When you write about a disability or health condition, talk to at least one person who has it. And preferably two or three, because not experiences vary widely within the disability community.

The irony of Walter’s advice was that in encouraging science writers to listen to one group of informally-trained experts–the moms–she may have given some of those writers license to present moms talking over disabled kids and young adults who are perfectly capable of speaking for themselves. (A lot more people were present for the Flint talk than for the disabilities talk.)

However, science writers are smart, and I trust most of them to walk that line with balance and grace.

Another group of experts who are often left out of science writing are traditional healers. During the diversity panel, Mallory Black of the Native Health News Alliance emphasized the importance of  respecting tradtional beliefs and knowledge. She advocated talking to Native doctors who incorporate both tradional tribal medicine and Western medical science into their practice, especially when covering illnesses that disproportionately affect Native American communities.

8. Don’t be afraid to promote your work. Pitch like a man (shamelessly).

It’s an unfortunate truth: Even though more than two thirds of the writers who filter through journalism grad school programs are women,  we still lag behind men when it comes to landing prestigious feature projects. (Full disclosure: I was one of the counters on the science byline project. I counted Popular Science and The Atlantic.)

The sad thing is that most editors don’t even realize their assignment loads skew toward men. The good news is that when they do actually see data from the counts, they’re embrarassed by it and want to change.

However, writers do have power to change the equation by pitching more features and asking for more money and more length on the pitches that do land. (Men tend to ask for more money automatically; women tend to not. Over time, it adds up into a pay gap.) Most editors have been freelance writers themselves and will understand/respect you standing up for yourself.

9. When you get a story, use social media to promote it.


One inside secret of the science writing world is that a lot of our traffic is driven by Reddit.  Twitter can help a story make the initial rounds, Facebook can help bring an engaged audience, but successful Reddit posts lead to enormous spikes in traffic.

However, before you start posting your stories all over Reddit, be sure to get to know the communities and the rules of the subreddits you’ll be targeting. Many subreddits are sensitive about spam and will ban users who engage in shameless self-promotion.

Much of what applies when you’re pitching stories to editors also applies when you’re presenting stories to communities.

10.  Report the heck out of everything.

If you’re a carpenter, you’re not only selling your ability to saw a piece a wood into a shape; you’re also selling your ability to put pieces together and make a chair.

If you’re a writer, you’re not only selling your ability to string words into a sentence; you’re also selling your ability to carry out research and organize it into a story. 

The way to build research chops is to practice and to spend the time checking out every facet of every story you cover.  This point came up at several panels.

Even though the time investment is large, thorough reporting can help buttress you against people seeking to discredit your work and help make you a favorite freelancer for editors. 

In the long run, it’s worth it.

11. If you want to investigate an issue, make sure you can hire a lawyer.

As a broke freelancer who aspires to writing more than just “Study of the Week” news stories, I often run into this problem: How do I investigate a story without support from editors and publications?

The answer is: Launching an investigation without institutional support is often a bad idea. 

However, in cases like the Flint Crisis, where authorities and institutions initially disbelieved those who were raising questions, it can be hard to stand idly by.  That’s when you need to make sure you have a trusted lawyer.  

12. Take the time to find diverse sources. If you don’t know where to find them, ask for help.

At the disability panel, activist Lydia X.Z. Brown explicitly told the writers in the room that if they don’t know where to find a disabled person who can speak about their experiences, to contact them (Brown is non-binary) and ask. Brown literally has a giant list of rescources on their website, and journalist Rose Eveleth encouraged editors to hire more disabled writers to write about disability.

Blogger and biologist Danielle Lee made a similar comment at the diversity panel: Ask people who are already embedded in minority communities for help spreading the word about opportunities and projects. 

If you’re already embedded in minority communities, you can step up and help journalists improve their connections on Twitter and elsewhere.

I also highly recommend suggesting speakers to conference organizers.  Every year, the organizers of the science portion of the Science Writers conference ask their constituents who they would like to see speak. I always make a point of trying to suggest scientists from a diverse range of backgrounds, and some of them do actually turn up at the conference. (I was super-excited to see Monica Ramirez-Andreotta’s name on the program, since she was one of the scientists I suggested a couple of years back.) The person to send scientist speaker suggestions to for the Science Writers conferences is Ros Reid.

tl; dr:

If you get a chance, go to a Science Writers conference. You’ll pick up lots of writing advice, learn plenty of science, and make loads of professional connections.

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