Agenda for Thursday, Nov. 10

Book report: Joe Johnson will discuss War of the Whales.

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 (Chapter 17) — Gareth Cook, science reporter at Boston Globe. 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 (Chapter 18) — 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 (Chapter 19) — 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.

Explanatory writing (Chapter 20) — George Johnson, NYTimes science writer, author of several books; started as a cops reporter for Albuquerque Journal. “Nothing so complex that a reasonably intelligent person cannot comprehend it.” As a teenager in a garage band, figured out how a guitar amplifier worked by taking it apart, looking at the tubes or circuitry, tracing the way electricity flowed. “Any device can be understood on many different levels of abstraction.” He then applies this to how a brain cell (neuron) works. “Create a mental picture of the basic mechanism without scaring off too many people.”

Scientists have long believed that constructing memories is like playing with neurological Tinkertoys. Exposed to a barrage of sensations from the outside world, we snap together brain cells to form new circuitry-patterns of electrical connections that stand for images, smells, touches, and sounds.

First, provide a verbal picture: Superstring theory is “a kind of mathematical music played by an orchestra of tiny vibrating strings. Each note in this cosmic symphony represents one of the many different kinds of particles that make up matter and energy.”

Then, peel back another layer: “To give the strings enough wiggle room to carry out their virtuoso performance, theorists have had to supplement the familiar three dimensions of space with six more — curled up so tiny that they could be explored only with an absurdly powerful particle accelerator the size of an entire galaxy.”

Don’t explain too much too soon.

Look for analogies. Explain the strange in terms of the familiar.

Use math, but make it relatable: a supercomputer that would occupy 750 trillion acres — roughly a trillion square miles. That would bill the surfaces of 5,000 Earths.

Narrative writing (Chapter 21) — Jamie Shreeve, graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop; has written books and contributes to magazines (Nat Geo, Atlantic, Wired). The power of narrative — of a story — to grip a listener’s attention. Brain is hard-wired to remember information better if it is transmitted in narrative form. Exploit this propensity whenever the opportunity arises.

Narrative: a sequence of events with a beginning, middle and end. It’s endemic to science itself (how the universe was created; an insect’s life cycle).

Good narrative writing requires more than a beginning, middle and end: It requires characters and scenic context. Developing character and building tension require space (hence, longform articles and books). But even short articles can benefit from narrative writing, especially in the lede.

You need a compelling beginning to “create a disequilibrium in the mind, an itch that can only be resolved by burrowing deeper into the story.” Examples:

JENNIFER KAHN | Wired Magazine | 03.01.03 | STRIPPED FOR PARTS

Organ transplants are a brutal business. Just ask the donors. Our reporter spends a dark night with the living dead.

The television in the dead man’s room stays on all night. Right now the program is Shipmates, a reality-dating drama that’s barely audible over the hiss of the ventilator. It’s 4 am, and I’ve been here for six hours, sitting in the corner while three nurses fuss intermittently over a set of intravenous drips. They’re worried about the dead man’s health.

Atul Gawande | New Yorker | May 5, 2003 | DESPERATE MEASURES

On November 28, 1942, an errant match set alight the paper fronds of a fake electric-lit palm tree in a corner of the Cocoanut Grove night club near Boston’s theater district and started one of the worst fires in American history. The flames caught onto the fabric decorating the ceiling, and then swept everywhere, engulfing the place within minutes. The club was jammed with almost a thousand revelers that night. Its few exit doors were either locked or blocked, and hundreds of people were trapped inside. Rescue workers had to break through walls to get to them. Those with any signs of life were sent primarily to two hospitals—Massachusetts General Hospital and Boston City Hospital. At Boston City Hospital, doctors and nurses gave the patients the standard treatment for their burns. At MGH, however, an iconoclastic surgeon named Oliver Cope decided to try an experiment on the victims. Francis Daniels Moore, then a fourth-year surgical resident, was one of only two doctors working on the emergency ward when the victims came in. The experience, and the experiment, changed him. And because they did, modern medicine would never be the same.

Show, don’t tell: “Gawande’s cool, unadorned style conveys the horror and intensity of the fire that night much better than if he were to start throwing around words like ‘horror’ and ‘intensity.'”

The Neandertal Enigma (by Shreeves)

I met my first Neandertal in a cafe in Paris, just across the street from the Jussieu Metro Stop.

Collect details: 95 percent of the details and observations you have jotted down probably won’t be used. Never mind: The act of collecting the information will give authority to that other 5 percent that brings your characters to life and keeps the reader turning pages.

Secure a fly-on-the-wall position without sacrificing your journalistic independence; Establish a rapport with as many of the people as possible. (What Shreeve did in researching The Genome War, about the race for the human genetic code between the government Human Genome Project and Celera Genomics, a private company)

If you can’t, interviews participants for the details you need to reconstruct the narrative events and character interactions. Stop asking questions and let them tell you the story. Substantiate these recollections with those of other participants in the action and with written records, such as meeting agenda and transcripts.

Writing: one advantage of narrative is that the mere chronology of events provides at least the basis of your story structure.

the most difficult problem may be selecting which scenes to include and which to leave out. What are the threshold moments in the action—meetings where decisions were made, encounters in hallways or on street corners that had repercussions farther up the narrative path? What interactions best reveal the personality and motivation of your characters? Where is the story’s natural climax? Can you work back in time from that point to help select the material that best leads up to it?

Remember to pace the reader: Dole out clues cunningly; drip-feed developments.

keep your writing vivid with strong verbs, good metaphors, and keen detail. Your readers may end up so entranced with your story they don’t even notice they’re learning at the same time.

The Science Essay (Chapter 22) — Robert Kanige. The science essay can be formal, even stately. Or amusing.  A small gem or a long memoir. All writing relies on both the outthere of datum and fact, and the in-here of the subjective, the eccentric, and the personal. The essay gives freer rein to the latter. We know the enemies of good science reportage—flat leads, turbid prose, out-and-out inaccuracy. As a science essayist you face all these, but others, as well. Like not letting enough of yourself into the piece. Or imposing too much of yourself and so indulging in empty solipsism. Or coming to premature closure—not essaying, not grappling, but settling on the first easy answers that flit across your brain. Or never quite getting your hands around what you’re trying to say. Or deluding yourself into thinking you have more to say than you do.

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