“The Craft of Science Writing” may prove an exception. It gathers more than 30 pieces from “The Open Notebook,” a website that began as the passion project of two science-focused freelance journalists and this year celebrates a 10-year run, and features more than 400 posts that range from how to write a story pitch to how to interview a wonky source to how to translate things like string theory and quantum physics for the rest of us — without inviting the enmity of that wonky source.
The anthology was released a few weeks ago, and celebrated a recent launch party in Seattle, tapping into the audience gathered for the annual AAAS (Association for the Advancement of Science) meeting. But if you’re ready to tune out, because maybe you cover things that have nothing to do with science, consider this: Both the website and the anthology, while embedded in a science-based world, offer valuable wisdom for any writer who covers a challenging specialty subject. Or, frankly, for any writer who has the aspiration to do high-level, in-depth work.
Proof was in the party. More than 130 people crowded in the basement speakers’ space of the Elliott Bay Book Company to ask questions of a panel of journalists based in Washington state:
- Michelle Nijhuis. a freelancer and author who writes about “humans and other species” with a heavy leaning to environmental stories.
- Wudan Yan, a magazine writer and photographer who is “drawn to stories involving contrarian characters, unlikely connections, creative solutions, absurdity, injustice, slow-moving humanitarian and environmental crises — or any combination of the above.”
- Jane C. Hu, who has reported on “everything from Neanderthal poop to space law.”
Highlights of their wisdom are offered below. First, a bit of background:
The origins of “The Open Notebook,” aka TON, may sound familiar. It was started 10 years ago when two PhDs-turned-writers (Siri Carpenter and Jeanne Erdmann) were commiserating on the phone over the loneliness of the freelance journalist. “It was envy,” Carpenter said at the book party. “If you’re a writer, your No. 1 skill is procrastination. So we thought we could put off our own work by calling other writers and asking how they did their work.”
Another note: I asked Carpenter, who is the editor of the anthology, why they use the term “science writing,” without an overt mention of environmental, health and medical writing, even though the journalists and stories they feature cover the range of those subjects. Her answer: “Too many words.” She also told me that what seemed a closed term to me is well understood within their world. I countered that I found the website and book valuable well beyond that world, and thus wanted to gather some nuggets from the panel.
The Q&A is edited for clarity, and includes questions from the panel moderator and the audience.
How did you develop the skills needed to be a successful science writer?
Nijhuis: I’d like to say that everything I needed to know about science writing I learned from my friends. … The professional is changing so quickly that there’s no well-established series of steps we can take. There are so many different kinds of science writers. So I learned through an ad hoc education from friends and colleagues.
Yan: You have to be intrepid. A lot of my reporting started out covering science, but I realized that there a lot of science overlapped with health and environment and human rights.
What do you wish you had known when you were starting out?
Njihuis: Your friends and colleagues are your best teachers and allies. There is healthy sense of competition, but also a healthy sense of collaboration and a desire to help one another.
Yan: How terrible being edited was. I realize now that it’s instructive, but I didn’t understand there would be four rounds of revisions and then top edits and then fact checks.
Hu: I wish I had realized and internalized that everyone has a story to tell. Also, I wanted to be good at everything, but then realized that you find out over time where your talent lies. So I wish I had had more patience with myself.
How do you persuade a source to talk to you?
Hu: It has to be a two-way street. This person has to trust me as much as I have to trust them. I got in as honest as I can about what I need and expect. Sometimes the answer is still no. But it’s better to know that soon and move on than waste your time.
Nijhuis: When I was a young reporter, I used to go in sneaky and think maybe they wouldn’t notice I was a reporter asking all these questions. The longer I do this, the more transparent I get about what I’m doing and why.
What do you wish more people understood about science journalism that they don’t?
Nijhuis: I wish it was clearer that we are not cheerleaders for science. We are our own professionals. We are assessors and critical questioners as well as translators, not just sidekicks.
What do you wish you knew when you were first starting out?
Yan: That the best stories put science in the economic, political and social context it deserves; science is often just the add-on.
How do you ensure against bias in your stories?
Yan: Don’t go into a story with with what scientists call a hypothesis. Let your reporting inform the questions. And always ask who might really opposed this.
Hu: There’s no single story that can represent all sides.
Nijhuis: Scientists are quite unique among sources. If someone doesn’t like their study, they usually don’t get defensive. Instead, they are quite enthusiastic about it and even have lunch with their critics. … Also, you need to distinguish objectivity from fairness. I can never be “objective;” journalism is not a controlled study. But I can be fair and keep asking questions until I annoy people.
Do you have to have a science degree to be a science writer? What skills are most important?
Njihuis: No, but you have to be willing to learn enough to know what you’re asking about and writing about. A healthy curiosity will do the trick.
Hu: Identify a question and come up with a rigorous method for examining that question.
Yan: Asking good questions is the main skill you need. I ask better questions when I am writing about a subject I know nothing about. Ignorance can work in your favor.