Agenda for Tues., 11/8; plan for the week

Ice breaker: Last week, Paige Bellamy discussed the book “The Science of Interstellar,” about the scientific underpinnings of the movie Interstellar.  I was reminded of this when NPR’s All Things Considered aired a report yesterday about the scientific underpinnings of the movie Dr. Strange. First, the film’s trailer:

Here’s the NPR story:

Book reports: None today. On Thursday, Joe Johnson will discuss War of the Whales.

Recap of writing clinic: As you distill a graduate student’s research into an accessible synopsis, put the document in this folder.

Where we go from here.

Status of The Scope: New! Improved! Check out our logo. We have now published all 14 stories from our first round. Time to rinse and repeat.

First, a critique of the process and the product: Suggestions? What could we do better?

Criteria for Story #2:

  • Squarely about research at VCU — not a profile; not about an issue without a basis in research
  • A bit longer (600-800 words; you could go longer if need be)
  • At least two sources (and preferably three or four)
  • Show the impact on society — the big picture
  • At least two photos that you have taken yourself. Here’s a tipsheet on taking photos. You’ll find more at
  • Deadline: Drafts due on Thursday, Nov. 17. (Target publication date: Dec. 1)

Here’s our story budget. Let’s fill in the gaps.

From the Field Guide:

Part III: Varying your writing style

6 chapters about different kinds of writing. Commonalities: Emphasis on good, clear, clean, original prose. “Explaining the strange in terms of the familiar.” Keep the reader paying attention and longing for more. “They’re counting on us to make our stuff worth reading.” To develop your style, read everything — sci-j articles but also novels, short stories, even plays. Develop an ear for language and pace for storytelling.

Deadline writing — Gareth Cook, science reporter at Boston Glob. Won 2005 Pulitzer in Explanatory Reporting for coverage of stem cells. Discusses science reporting on 9/11. Think like a reader. Develop a list of questions that readers want answered. Explain the story to a friend. List your sources; triage them (put out calls early to the most crucial sources; later to less crucial or West Coast sources). Keep updating your list. When you have zero sections to prepare, ask:

  • What is new about this? What’s not new?
  • What is the significance, and why?
  • Who will disagree with this?
  • What is the evidence this is based on?
  • Who funded the research?
  • What will be done next?
  • Who else should I talk to?
  • What is your connection to this, and why did you get interested?
  • How can I reach you later?

Science is inherently difficult to understand and write about. You need to understand it first before writing.

B-matter (background): You can start writing in advance or as you go along. (Then focus on A-matter — the lede, nut graf, quotes, new stuff.)

Context: Why the news matters, and why it matters now.

Accuracy: “Terrifying but true: You can’t make a mistake, and there are thousands of ways to make one in any article.” Edit on a printout.

Ending: “Try to end the story in a way that will give the readers a sense of completion.” (Quote, look ahead, circle back to the lede.)

Investigative reporting — Antonio Regalado, science reporter at Wall Street Journal; described as more of a detective than a reporter. Most science reporters are concerned with explaining science to a general audience. They can be too trusting of scientists’ good intentions. Investigative reporting means telling stories that don’t want to be told. (Regalado blew the whistle on a biotech company that was cloning fetuses for their organs.)

Follow the paper trail (patents). Or show that some research “findings” aren’t warranted (salt). Investigative reporting on science: “It’s not about uncovering the conspiracy or following the money. It’s about do the data really mean what the scientists think they mean?” WaPo story about a death in a UPenn research lab (which the university said was a tragic accident but the reporters showed involved negligence). Always ask scientists if they have a financial interest in research outcomes.

How to use FOIA (see guide from Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press; and from George Washington University).

FDA — documents and data

Gee whiz — Robert Kunzig. “A lot of my peers consider the gee whiz approach outdated, naive, a little lap-doggish.” But there is a place for gee whiz stories — about the truth and beauty of scientific discoveries. “Little nuggets of joy and delight.”

Don’t be afraid of scientists. While they know more about science than you do, you write better than they do.

Keep your brain open (always looking for story ideas).

Ideas are as interesting as people. (Black holes)

Beautiful writing. Metaphors; phrasing. Read your writing aloud.


Be skeptical, too.

Readings for the next class:

Field Guide, chapters 20-22: Explanatory writing, narrative writing and the science esssay


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