Cassie Rodenberg: Electron-ic Bonds

To write, add 50 mL science. Repeat.
January 5, 2009, 10:07 am
Filed under: Musings, Science, Writing

A science writer’s job is to decode scientists, to transform their binary language into a more user-friendly html format. The technical nature of the job is light years away from that of an ordinary journalist, as I have come to find. 

journalism = ((research + idea rearrangement) * writing) – editor changes

science journalism = ((research * (translation^2)) + storytelling) * (general confusion/reader interest)

However, at least in a university setting, writers  as a group tend to underestimate the differences. When I sit down to read a story I assigned to be the feature of the week, I am often left with a knot of unintelligible yarn. Not only am I unable to follow the thread of the story, I find myself bored and cannot remember what I assigned in the first place. Three hours later, I’ve reconstructed and self-researched the entire story and stamped another writer’s byline to the story. Hoorah, issue finished. 

For a while I thought myself a bad editor. Was I confusing the writer? Was I too strict, the assignments too strenuous? I donned my metaphorical lab goggles to find out, realizing that writers simply had no idea how to go about concocting a story. 

How to write a science story:

1. Add 50 mL research to background knowledge. No matter how well you know the subject, uncover more before you go to an interview. 

2. Remember it’s ok; you’re not adding water to acid. Don’t be intimidated by the nature of research or the scientist. If they use too much science jargon, ask for a translation. If they don’t give you one; don’t fret. Research more later. 

3. Have extra gloves on hand and notice microscopic detail. Go in with more questions than you need and ask away. Pick up context clues and environmental quirks. Ask why there are a week’s worth of candy bars on the desk or 15 pictures of various cats.

4. Let the mixture simmer lightly without reaching a boil. Go home and give yourself some time away from the story; let yourself stew it over. Think. Come back later to write and put it together.

5. Get your lab goggles on. Look at everything you have and structure it. Find what fits, what doesn’t and what you’re not clear about.

6. Add 100 mL additional research. Do twice the research you did in the beginning; iron out all the details and facets of the story. Smooth putty into the cracks.

Perhaps I’m a researcher at heart, trying various methods until obtaining an optimum mixture. Writing is merely an extension of science; once you have the method down, you’re in the clear…until you fiddle, test the theory and reevaluate. 


4 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Nice post. I think it pairs well with my post about writing science for a general audience, because you focus in on the research a science writer needs to do.

Comment by davemunger

Thanks for your reply; I’m glad you liked the post, and thanks for linking your own blog! You cover everything I left out – very thorough and a good guide. I think I’ll bookmark it.

Comment by cassierodenberg

You overlooked the exponential editorial factorization you face when writing features for a non-specialist, but nevertheless predominantly scientist, audience in journal-magazine hybrids like Science and Nature.

Comment by David Bradley

Mmm, my mistake. You’re right. Hopefully my error can be forgiven since I haven’t made it that far in the industry!

I think the equation should be tweaked for such publications, possibly again for those farther away from general public interest, such as Spectroscopy.

Comment by cassierodenberg

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