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So you want to be a science writer? Pearls of wisdom from Carl Zimmer

Last Monday my lab-mate said, “are you going to the Carl Zimmer thing?”.

“Huh?” Said I. “What Carl Zimmer thing?”

“He’s doing a talk on Thursday evening. Oh and office hours in the afternoon.”

After scraping my jaw off the floor and berating myself for not reading the weekly email that would have informed me of this event, I did what any other wannabe science writer and soon-to-be destitute (i.e. qualified) grad student would do. I signed up for the event, set multiple calendar alerts on my phone, and sent out several overly excited tweets.

So when Thursday rolled around me and my fellow blogger @AmasianV strolled over to the Science Center to meet Carl Zimmer. After everyone awkwardly introduced themselves, the first question for CZ was of course “how did you get into science writing?”. In case you don’t know the answer to that one, he graduated from Yale University with an English degree and subsequently got a job copy editing at Discover. A self-professed terrible copy editor, he then moved into fact checking, and the rest, as they say, is history.

But then we started talking about what it means to be a GOOD science writer, which, given the upcoming Wellcome Trust/Guardian/Observer competition and the associated blog post by Ed Yong, seemed like some useful information to share with y’all.

The most important thing, it seems, is to remember to tell a story. There’s no point just dumping a load of information onto a page and expecting your reader to wade through it. So figure out what the point of your piece is. Perhaps you are making an argument. But whether it’s an 800 word blog post or a book you need direction. Then, once you’ve figured out your angle, you have to find a way to sneak the science-y bits in there. If you need to introduce a piece of scientific jargon, do so with care. Make sure to explain each and every term you use.

The next step is to start cutting. Carl made the point that while it’s sometimes painful to cut a paragraph that you might be especially proud of, remove it from the essay and ask if it’s worse for it. If you don’t need it, it shouldn’t be there. “Extra” information could result in the reader moving on to another article in the magazine, or putting your book down, meaning you never get to make your point. And, if you find yourself cutting to the point that there’s no essay left, perhaps you need to rethink what you were trying to achieve!

Carl also had some great tips about story selection. This is particularly important in this day and age, when information is so freely available on the web. When you’re looking for a topic to write about make sure it is relevant, that the work you’re covering has a clear point to it, and that YOU can turn that work into a story for someone to read. In a nutshell: If you don’t care about it, why should anyone else?

And then the conversation turned to blogging

I asked a question about the value of blogging to a potential employer, as this blog is intended to also form a kind of online portfolio for me. Carl made the excellent point the all the advantages of blogging (the software is generally easy to use, you can self-publish, and you are free to write in whatever style you choose) can also be construed as disadvantages by a magazine editor. After all, anyone can blog. That being said, if you use your blog well and accompany it with an engaging online presence, there are definite pros to writing about science on the web. (If you haven’t already, do check out Carl’s blog, The Loom.)

But then the room seemed to polarize, with a division appearing between the “writers” and “scientists” in the room. The debate was nothing new, with the writers accusing the scientists of being distant and uptight, and the scientists decrying the abundance of mis-representation in the press. However what really shocked me was a comment from the other end of the table:

“Why aren’t scientists just better writers? Why can’t all scientific communication come from within the academy, and not just in the form of blogs?”

I felt all the blood in my body rush to my face in pure rage. My initial thought was what on earth is wrong with blogging? The last couple of years have seen a huge increase in the value of online communication. A fantastic example of this, as Carl pointed out, was the #arseniclife debacle and the subsequent efforts by Rosie Redfield to repeat the controversial experiments. But then, as my blood pressure started to return to normal, I realized that I was more annoyed with this undergrad’s complete lack of understanding of what both scientists and journalists do. What he was asking was the equivalent of someone saying “why can’t teachers also run a restaurent?”, or “why aren’t policemen also doctors?”. Being a scientist and being a writer are separate and demanding careers in their own right. While some people may have the ability to do both at the same time, they are the minority. To do either profession well, you need to be focused, dedicated, and talented.

Deep breath.

Viruses and Whales: Adventures in Science Writing

The talk in the evening was fabulous, obviously, and rather than continue typing, I will leave you with my sketchnotes. Enjoy, and happy science writing!

Katie

Comments

Viet
Reply

Carl also brought up the good point that being a good scientist or a good writer takes training. The time it takes to train for one detracts from the other.

Linda Wilshusen
Reply

love your sketchnotes! with many deep breaths – liveoaklinda

randomjosh.com
Reply

Amazing blog! Do you have any recommendations for aspiring writers?
I’m planning to start my own blog soon but I’m a little lost on everything.
Would you recommend starting with a free platform like WordPress or go
for a paid option? There are so many options out
there that I’m completely overwhelmed .. Any tips? Kudos!

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