When it came to science writing, I made a gross miscalculation. Two months ago, the idea of of science blogging came with the naive notion that it would be easy. I assumed that I would be effortlessly writing about endless topics. It wouldn’t take long before I found myself humbled by the quality of writing by other science writers or paralyzed by writer’s block. My confidence inevitably gave way to doubt.
So I was understandably excited earlier this month when I discovered* that Carl Zimmer was coming to Brown to share his experiences as a science writer in a lecture titled, Viruses and Whales: Adventures in Science Writing. I was doubly excited when I caught wind that there would be an open discussion for students and postdocs to meet with Carl Zimmer before his talk. For those of you who don’t know, Carl Zimmer is a popular science writer and blogger who has been described “as fine a science essayist as we have” by The New York Times Book Review. He is the author of 12 science books, an essayist for Discover and The New York Times, and a frequent guest on the radio programs Radio Lab and This American Life. For any aspiring science writer trying to find both voice and audience, this was an excellent opportunity to pick the brain and learn from one of the best.
To be honest, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from this open discussion. My friend and I arrived at the conference room a little bit on the early side and felt too awkward to be the first ones to enter while Carl Zimmer was working on what appeared to be his talk for later that evening. Slowly but surely students started to trickle in and we took our seats. After a round of introductions, what followed was a candid and enlightening, informal discussion on popular science writing.
When asked whether journalists should read or understand the research papers they write about (a topic explored by Alice Bell and James Randerson), he explained that he always goes to the primary literature and refers to experts in the field to fill in the gaps of his understanding. Characterizing the journalistic argument against having to read research papers, Carl quipped, “I find the argument lame.” Having sound understanding of the research you are writing about is important, particularly because, as Carl noted, news about a scientific discovery traveling from a research lab, to university press release, to print media and finally to the public can be like a game of telephone. At each stop the discovery gets a little bit more sensationalized. He also went onto say that certain constraints however, such as deadlines, would dictate the length and depth that a journalist could delve into a particular research paper.
And just when I thought I had an encouraging leg up on journalists given my scientific training, Carl swoops in to crush that notion by pointing out that the years scientists spend on Ph.D and postdoctoral training, writers devote to honing their craft. Scientists are handicapped because the style of writing used in grants and research papers are highly inaccessible, jargon heavy, and written, much to the disgust of Carl, in passive voice–made clear by the fact that when he uttered the word “passive” it was accompanied by a pantomime of vomiting. Scientists, because of their nature, also can get bogged down in details, which derails their writing. So for scientists transitioning to popular science writing, not only do we have to retrain ourselves to unlearn “bad” habits, we also have to become good self-editors.
The most relevant insight Carl shared that afternoon, however, dealt with story selection. The largest obstacle and primary source of writing paralysis for me is deciding on a topic to write about. I’ve spent many hours either staring at a blank document trying to figure out a different and fresh angle on a much-covered scientific discovery or surfing through countless websites and Google searches for a potentially interesting but overlooked story. This is the most challenging aspect of science writing for me because on one hand I don’t want to write about something everyone else is writing about and on the other hand overlooked stories are probably overlooked for a reason–they’re just not that interesting to a wider audience. So how does one decide? The answer in part, explains Carl, depends on where you work. If you’re working in-house for a magazine or newspaper than you have to be versatile enough to cover a wide range of topics since many of them will be assigned. You have much more flexibility as a freelancer and can write about the more obscure stories but then the burden is on you to prove that you are an expert. If you’re a blogger, then that onus is even greater–you’ve got to use your blog well and be sure to make a point. Regardless of whether your in-house, freelancing or blogging you have to find a balance between engaging and informing your audience. While not all scientific discoveries or topics will have mass appeal, great science writers can make the public care by identifying the point they are trying to get across and weave all the relevant information into an overarching narrative or compelling story.
I wish I could say that I left Carl Zimmer’s office hours feeling inspired. But the reality was that I felt overwhelmed. Maybe it was the fact that I had a thesis committee meeting right after the open discussion, but more likely it was because I realized that the amount of work that goes into being a good science writer was daunting. For some, writing is effortless. For me it requires work. Later that night, after Carl’s talk, I reflected on the advice and insight he shared. One thing he said stuck out. “Emulate good writers,” he advised. Luckily for me, Carl has published 12 books and countless essays for me to use as source material. That night I cracked open my girlfriend’s copy of Parasite Rex and got to work…
* For those of you who are still reluctant to join Twitter and complained that this event was not well advertised: I found out about this event from my Twitter feed.
You can read live tweets of Carl’s talk here.
Check out Katie PhD’s post and artful sketchnote of Carl’s visit and talk: