Best Shortform Science Writing April-June 2016

(A Highly Subjective Round-up of Standout Science News)

The online science news ecosystem teems with blog posts and videos about animals doing interesting things. And why not? Animals are fascinating, adorable, and beloved by the science nerds who frequent science news websites. Many of those stories are well-written. So when you’re sitting down to choose “standout” shortform science writing, how do you choose between them?

News judgement”–the journalese terms for “ability to spot impactful stories”– was the subject of a lively Google Hangout debate amongst the Best Shortform Science Writing editors: Did we want to highlight the articles with the cutest and cleverest turns of phrase? Did we want to focus on the stories with the most potential to change readers’ minds? Or feature the ones that explain new developments with the most accuracy and nuance?

The hangout included returning editors Sarah Lewin (staff writer at Space.com) and Jennifer Caitlin Welsh (editor-in-chief of Wonderhowto.com), new recruit Amanda Alvarez (writer at RIKEN Brain Science Institute in Japan), and me (freelancer for hire). Collectively–along with fellow editors Shahla Farzan (UC Davis PhD student and reporter at KBBI Public Radio in Alaska) and Christine Scaduto (PhD student at Brown)–we’d gone over almost 200 short science stories from around the internet and were trying to narrow down a dense pack of “news-length” honorable mentions down to a select few.

“So this CRISPR mushroom story,” Jen began. “Does it really make you feel that the story’s important?”

“Hmm…Well, I’ve got a soft spot for fungi,” I said. And besides, gene editing policy is important.

However, covering an interesting topic isn’t the same as showing–rather than telling, or worse, assuming–the story’s impact, Jen countered. At the same time, judging based on practical impact crowds out a lot of well-written stories about studies that are just, y’know, interesting.

In the end, we decided to prioritize impactful stories–especially for the News, Investigations, and Opinion sections. But since Best Shortform Science Writing is a crowd-sourced project, our audience will ultimately drive the evolution of these round-ups. Send us the sorts of stories you want to see recognized via this submission form!  

Also, if you’re interested in joining the project as an editor, email me at diana@dianacrowscience.com.

Enjoy our picks from April, May, and June:

Short Shorts (under 500 words)

[Still bite-sized but with a bit more narrative spin]

Top Picks:
Honorable Mentions:

 

News-length (501-850 words)

[Quick hits on science trends & breaking news]

Top Picks:
Honorable Mentions:
Single-Study Deep Dives (700-1200 words)

[Explainers & behind-the-scenes riffs on nifty studies]

Top Picks:
  • Second gravitational wave signal detected” by Emily Conover for Science News
  • “Lost for Words” by Ed Yong for The Atlantic
  • Humans: The Hyperkeystone Species” by Ed Yong for The Atlantic
    • Diana’s Favorite: When “Lost for Words” debuted in April, we all thought, “That’s it. Ed Yong has tear-jerker of April-thru-June locked down.” Three months later, this story came out, and my jaw hit the floor. Sometimes words like “ochre”, “ur-stone”, and “prise” (a word yours truly didn’t even know) can feel like overkill. In the case of this story, the topic–humans’ near-Cthulhu-level environment manipulation abilities–merits the grandeur. The article itself effortlessly glides from narrative science history into analysis of a recent paper, before finally revealing itself to be an obituary. And it’s a tear-jerker, too.
Honorable Mentions:
Data & Investigative Quick-Hits (under 1200 words)

[Data journalism skews toward longer stories…except when it doesn’t.]

Top Picks:
Honorable Mentions:

 

Columns, Op-Eds, & Blog posts (under 1200 words)

[Opinion pieces too compelling to ignore]

Top Picks:
  • The War on Drugs Isn’t Even Working in Prison” by Kenneth E. Hartman for The Marshall Project & Vice
  • Mining in Space Could Lead to Conflicts on Earth” by Ramin Skibba for Nautilus
    • Amanda’s favorite:  As if conflict for resources on Earth wasn’t problem enough, there is already a massive landgrab underway to commercially exploit space, specifically asteroids. Ramin Skibba says we should approach the brave new era of astropolitics with caution. His story ties together the government agencies, commercial interests and research goals involved in space mining, plus a bit of space law history, and he doesn’t shy away from bringing his own astrophysics background into the mix.
  •  “The Real Bias Built In at Facebook” by Zeynep Tufecki for The New York Times
Honorable Mentions:
Honorable Misfits

[Suggestions sent to us that were too long, too old, and/or in a different language but hard to leave out, anyway.]

 

Note on Category Changes:

I briefly floated the idea of adding a “Mini-Feature” category for articles–like Peter Aldhous’s 2021-word “Science So White” piece for Buzzfeed or Emily Singer’s 1699-word “The Electricity Eaters” for Quanta–which fall solidly above our 1200-word cut-off but are still short enough that they’re unlikely to get their due in longform-loving anthologies like Best American Science and Nature Writing.

Some pieces in that bracket were almost physically painful to exclude (and you can find more examples in our “Honorable Misfits” category), but the other editors pointed out that we already have an awful lot of categories. So “Mini-features” got nixed, and two sizes of “Short Shorts” got merged into one category.

If you’ve got suggestions on how the BSSW roundups can be improved, leave a comment. (Or email me at diana@dianacrowscience.com)

Help Find the Next Batch of Best Shortform Science Writing!

If you liked this list (or if you think that we snubbed a deserving outlet or writer), please send suggestions for the next quarterly “Best” Shortform Science Writing. That post will cover July-September 2016 and will debut in mid-October.
And if you know of any April through June stories we’ve missed, post ‘em in the comments below!

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