I arrived in the dry, oxygen poor environment of Santa Fe sleep deprived and uncertain what to expect.
During the preceding week I devoted the spare hours between working as a postdoc and caring for my nine month old daughter to writing the beginnings of a book chapter about EyeWire. It was sleep training week – a painful but effective process of letting your child “cry it out” that I decided was a necessity in preparation for six days at grandma’s. As I wrote my excitement grew. I felt a sense of urgency, that citizen science is something vitally important to write about. It was in this brain sludge of nature’s downers and uppers that I wrote my 1,500 words to be critiqued.
That first night in Santa Fe, New Mexico, we sat in a circle as the instructors and 52 students took turns introducing ourselves. It took a long time. The room was warm and I felt loopy. I loved every minute of it. I found myself surrounded by an incredible group of people, all driven by the same sense of urgency that science needs to be shared with the public in an interesting and accessible way. For the first time in my life, I felt like I had found my tribe.
This was the 18th annual Santa Fe Science Writing Workshop, directed by George Johnson and Sandra Blakeslee. What I learned there could fill an entire book, and already has. Here are the five most surprising and useful ideas I took away from the workshop.
-Let your enthusiasm show-
For me, the ideal essay is not an assignment, to be dispatched efficiently and intelligently, but an exploration, a questioning, an introspection. I want to see a piece of the essayist. I want to see a mind at work, imagining, spinning, struggling to understand.
This was a revolutionary idea for me. Most of my experience with science writing comes from writing about my research for publication in peer reviewed science journals or grant applications. As a scientist, you learn to write so that you are absent from the story. Many sentences do not even have a clear subject. “These results suggest…” is a common phrase. But how can results suggest anything? The scientist interpreting the result is the one making the suggestion. “We found that…” is another common phrase, even though the “we” is usually one person. The identity and motivations of individual scientists are pushed out of view in deference to this imprecise but inclusive language. It can make for a rather dull read.
When writing for a wide audience, you are encouraged to make it personal. Let your struggle to understand be apparent to the reader. Let your enthusiasm show. People can relate best to the experiences of other people. Using yourself or someone else as a character in your story makes it come alive.
The opening six paragraphs of George Johnson’s captivating article “Chasing Lightning”, edited by Jamie Shreeve, are all about a person on a quest to take a picture of the moment when negative and positive charges meet and lightning is born. The wild enthusiasm of this real life character, Tim Samaras, is the thread that weaves through the story and motivates us to read the rest. In the process we learn what is known about how lightning is generated and the technical details of a modified camera that can capture more than one million frames per second, and we have a good time learning it.
-Thorough reporting is the key to powerful writing-
I have read some great books about writing, and have taken several writing courses before attending this one. The take away message was always the same. If you want to be a writer, stop reading and thinking about being a writer and write already! Write every day. Write and rewrite. Have other people look at your writing and rewrite again.
Here is the problem – what if you don’t know what to write about? I had a lot of ideas, but found I couldn’t maintain my enthusiasm for them long enough to actually write a complete story. I felt like I was blathering away about myself without enough content to inform the reader of anything useful.
Robert Lee Hotz provided the answer in one sentence: “Writers block is not a writing problem, it is a reporting problem”.
When you sit down to write, it is just you and a blank piece of paper. To fill the paper up with words, you need to have information in your mind first. The way to get that information is through reporting – read, interview, observe, take meticulous notes. To write well, you need to have detailed information at your fingertips. If you don’t remember the details, you should at least remember where to find them in your notes. You can make science far more interesting by explaining it precisely and thoroughly. Good reporting is necessary to get the essential details.
Hotz spent about eight months thoroughly reporting the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster. By the time he sat down to write “Butterfly on a Bullet” he had an outline of detailed information that was 27,000 words long. He used only a small fraction of that information, but the details he chose generated some powerful writing.
In the shade of the San Antonio mesquite, Hubbard took aim at a generation of denial with a high-speed cannon designed to hurl dead birds.
On a hot, hazy day in July, the 33-foot barrel of the nitrogen gas gun at the Southwest Research Institute was loaded with an oblong block of foam about the size of a fanny pack.
The bright blue gun had been built to test aircraft canopies by simulating bird strikes at supersonic speeds. Now, it was cocked and aimed at an $800,000 reinforced carbon-carbon panel from a space shuttle wing, wired with 200 sensors and 15 high-speed cameras.
A countdown echoed over loudspeakers.
Over NASA objections, Hubbard had arranged to demonstrate the actual damage — if any — that a light foam fragment moving at more than 500 mph could do to a real piece of the $1.8-billion space shuttle.
It was a $3.4-million experiment designed to demolish an attitude.
“I felt there was denial,” Hubbard said.
The gas gun belched its block of foam at 524 mph.
The hurtling 1.67-pound piece of insulation ripped a hole the size of a space helmet in the underside of wing panel No. 8.
-Don’t describe a topic, tell a story-
Christie Aschwanden gave a lot of practical advice about becoming a successful freelance writer, but what most caught my ear was her admonishment that we must learn to turn a topic into a story.
I have long recognized journalism writing as formulaic, and that is one of the things that turned me off from pursuing it as a career. The lede (often an anecdote) to draw you in, the nut graf to summarize what the story is about, more paragraphs to add details and context, and the kicker to close it out.
What I failed to understand is that the formula exists because it is a good way to tell a story. When done well the formula expertly draws you in and takes you on a quest for understanding that holds your attention until the end.
I also never picked up on the fact that the same formula applies to writing book chapters. I was in George Johnson’s group of eleven, and many of us are aspiring book writers. As we went through each person’s work I noticed that the same advice was offered again and again. Start the chapter by telling a relatable story, then zoom back out to provide context and details.
A good science article is written as a story. It has characters and character development. There are obstacles presented and efforts to overcome them. There is suspense. The knowledge is let out in a slow reveal that keeps readers curious. In the best articles, the reader becomes an active participant as they anticipate what will come next. The story awakens their questioning mind, and they develop their own ideas as they read.
In Christie Aschwanden’s article, “The Top Athletes Looking for an Edge and the Scientists Trying to Stop Them”, the characters are Olympic athletes, depicted as fallen heroes, the obstacle is suspicion of using performance enhancing drugs, and the effort to overcome this suspicion and recover integrity is the creation of independent testing agencies and routine out-of-competition testing. Aschwanden expertly plants the seeds of skepticism, so the reader naturally questions every quote and statement. She provides a lot of detailed factual information but also leaves the reader with big open questions. Through her craft, Aschwanden makes this topic of drug testing into an engaging story.
-Learn from the editing process-
Before “Butterfly on a Bullet” went to press, it went through 32 rounds of editing. After Robert Lee Hotz described this process, a concern was raised about having your voice as a writer edited out. Surprisingly, at least to me, Hotz replied, “Is your voice worth maintaining?” He emphasized that the important thing is the reader and their comprehension of your story.
David Corcoran, Editor of the Science Times at the New York Times, led us through a beautiful example of editing. We watched as the authors lyrical writing style came together into a story as changes in the structure were suggested and frequent requests for more detailed information were noted. In the revised draft, the reader is led through the story in a way that inspires curiosity. Because of the added details, they learn a lot in the process.
By looking at examples of the editing process I started to notice a rhythm to writing. There are dynamics to writing that keep the reader alert and interested, much like a song alternating between the verse and chorus. Captivating science writing often alternates frequently between the hard science details and the soft but relatable anecdotes, quotes and metaphors. The science requires concentration. The fun facts give the reader a mental break before they need to focus again. Writers often end up explaining the same thing twice, from a logical perspective and from a visual or emotional perspective. This is even more common as science writing is presented in a digital format alongside images and video. “The text drives the creation of the art,” Corcoran said, adding that graphics are used to provide related but additive content.
Careful editing can shape your writing into something that reaches more people. You can learn a lot about writing by looking at a draft before and after it is edited. You can also learn a lot by editing other people’s writing yourself.
Raeburn’s signs of bad writing:
- Lofty quotes and overblown claims
- Author is the only one who realizes the truth (solo quest)
- Imprecise numbers and grouping “many marine biologists say…”
- Bad reporting (details lacking or false)
- Story contradicts itself
- Obvious conflict of interest
- Too much info about the author
Raeburn’s signs of good writing:
- Quality investigative journalism
- Clear and logical (easy to follow)
The key to writing responsibly is doing good reporting. Assertions are never good enough. You have to prove everything you say with facts. There is a lot of ambiguity in the world. Give your reader a solid foundation to peer into the unknown from. Good writing leaves the reader feeling like they learned something new.
Writing responsibly is important for many reasons, but it comes down to gaining trust. Remember that you are not only representing yourself, you are explaining science and therefore representing the efforts of many people. Robert Lee Hotz summarized it best when he said, “Every science story that we write is an experiment in trust. It is our responsibility to be accurate.”