Advice for beginning science writers (part 2)

This document is the continuation of the record of a discussion that took place on the nasw-talk mailing list from May 10th through May 14th, 1997. It deals with several issues at the core of our profession.

Message From: gstrobel@warren.med.harvard.edu Date: Wed, 14 May 1997 11:54:33 -0400 Subject: Re[2]: New Subscriber

Warren wrote:

>Risking (again) the likelihood of embracing curmugeonhood: I don't >approve of Kenward's hormonal response, but I do wonder if there's >anybody left out there--except for Bain who tried and couldn't make it >fit--who started out as a reporter and learned the trade from that >aspect.

And Joel replied:

"Yeah, me - and my generation. We became science writers largely by covering the space program. But before that I was a national correspondent for Reuters, a reporter and war correspondent and bureau chief for UPI. I was

always a reporter, who wound up specializing, as opposed to a specialist who has to learn reporting. But that largely is a gone era. Now you get people, many of them scientifically trained, going directly into science writing. Indeed, most of my best students at Stanford were science-educated people, many of them once on a Ph.D., track who wanted to become science writers. And they were and are terrific. You all just heard from one, the amazing Gabrielle. It's just part of the increasing specialization of everything."

True (except the statement about yours truely, of course). But there are elements of both sides, being a reporter and understanding the science, that a science writer should have, today more than ever.

I also started out as an almost-PhD in neuroscience, spent a wonderful year under Joel's wings learning how to write and an equally good time as an intern at Science News. Then I freelanced for 1.5 years, for newspapers and magazines in Europe, Japan, and the US, and that is when I tried to be a hard-nosed, independent reporter.

While freelancing was not for me=A6being in my home office all day long did funny things to my mental health and I do not eat clips=A6I do think that being a reporter gave me more critical distance to the scientist, greater allegiance to the reader, and more acute instince for finding the "true story," no matter what feuding scientists, manipulative company reps, or embattled agency spokespeople say. Or ignorant editors, for that matter. Also, indepently researching and selling controversial stories, and then taking heat from vested interests that you invariably insult if you do your story justice, teaches you about the true difficulties of some of the reported conflicts.

I wish that I would have hung on longer to hone those reporter's skills because, if anything, they become more important today, as media giants control ever greater conglomerates that make it harder for reporters, scientific or otherwise, to keep an independent mind and do critical pieces. The "corporization" of newspapers is really scary.

In my current job the requirements are different. After all, I AM a flack right now. But later, I want to write for newspapers again. I am acutely aware that to do that well, I will have to brush up seriously on my independence and skepticism (and not cover Harvard). And I agree, working an unrelated beat at a daily newspaper would be great training for us younger writers.

Gabrielle Strobel Science Writer Harvard Medical School.

Message From: reid@amsci.org (Rosalind Reid) Date: Wed, 14 May 1997 12:41:11 -0500 Subject: Re: nasw-talk V2 #106

>>Risking (again) the likelihood of embracing curmugeonhood: I don't >>approve of Kenward's hormonal response, but I do wonder if there's >>anybody left out there--except for Bain who tried and couldn't make it >>fit--who started out as a reporter and learned the trade from that >>aspect. There's a healthy skepticism and an ability to dig beneath the >>surface of a story that comes with a news background--and I suppose even >>the kind of news background I'm talking about may be hard to come by >>these days--that may be even more important than having studied the >>science.

Yes, Warren, we're out there! For me a newspaper-reporting background has been extremely important. Years on the beat can give you four essential things: a b.s.-detecting capability, a skin tough enough to deal with the prima donnas of science and handle severe edits, the ability to write really fast and the ability to organize text so that one short paragraph says it all. There's something else that's vitally important that academia doesn't provide: close and constant contact with, and perhaps appreciation for, the vast and diverse public we're writing for.

Our magazine's staff and freelancers are a wonderfully diverse lot; some are highly trained scientists, others entirely self-taught. To me, maintaining a mix is essential.


Rosalind Reid reid@amsci.org American Scientist P.O. Box 13975 Research Triangle Park, NC 27709 Fax: 919-549-0090 Voice: 919-547-5218 http://www.amsci.org/amsci/

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Message From: Liz Crown Date: Wed, 14 May 1997 12:06:49 -0800 Subject: Outa here

Please unsubscribe me from nasw-talk@nasw.org. All this junk mail is driving me nuts. Don't these people have jobs (or lives)?

Liz Crown Health Sciences Editor Northwestern Univesity

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From: Robert Lee Hotz

Date: Wed, 14 May 1997 10:18:30 -0700

Subject: Re: Non-scientist Science writer

Let me add to the discussion, if I may, about personal science writing roots.

I came to science writing through being a reporter - starting on a country daily in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley in 1975, covering local city council meetings, police blotter matters - such as the chief of police's shoplifting wife - taking pictures of people's prize vegetables and writing enough science stories on the side to win the AAAS science writing award a year later. Actually, I didn't even think of them as science stories until they were recognized by AAAS. They just seemed compelling stories about matters that concerned my readers, from the toxicology of inorganic mercury poisoning a local stream to the relationship between agriculture, industrial development and the water they were drinking.

And when I went to a larger paper - The Pittsburgh Press - I went as a general assignment reporter and then an investigative reporter, chasing homicides, organized crime, steel strikes, and big fires. I continued to write technology and science stories on the side and finally became that paper's science writer in 1982, then moved to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution as a science writer and then science editor, then to the LA Times as a science writer.

Although I have been a full-time science writer for 15 years or so, however, I think of myself as a reporter first. And I am made uneasy when I hear people talking as if a science writer's sole job is to communicate science, as a kind of partnership with the research community.

I think for anyone practicing the craft of journalism the best possible experience is time as a general assignment reporter - whether the reporter aspires to becoming a science writer, a business writer, medical writer or a political specialist. It is a very effective way to supplement someone's technical expertise with a crash course in human nature.

I admire those of my colleagues who have advanced science degrees. I am sure it informs their reporting in many ways. And our readers certainly benefit. My own Masters is in history, I confess. While I often think that those who come to science writing through their formal science training have many advantages, I also think they often tend to identify emotionally with the scientific community. And they too readily accept the way that scientists define themselves - as a disinterested group of idealists motivated only by the search for new knowledge, who hover above the baser human instincts of greed and ambition. As a group, I think we spend far too much time reporting minor incremental technical advances because that is the official news of science, and too little time reporting the interplay of money, ego, self-interest, politics and institutional ambition that motivate scientists as much as anyone else. I know colleagues, for example, who are reluctant to routinely ask a researcher whether they stand to benefit financially from research they are touting because it seems unseemly. Or ignore alternative points of view on controversial science issues.

I recall that on the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, when Mike Toner was still science editor there, we for many years had a AAAS media intern as part of our annual summer crop of beginning journalists. These people usually had just finished their Phd and planned to continue as researchers. They were supposed to teach us about their speciality and we were going to teach them to communicate. We always found that it always seemed easier to teach a general assignment reporter to cover a science story than it was to get a scientist to act like a reporter.

Part of the problem is that scientists usually only want to ask informed questions. Reporters are supposed to ask all the dumb, mean ones too.

There is nothing like a midnight confrontation with a contempuous homicide detective to sharpen your reporting skills.

Robert Lee Hotz Science Writer The Los Angeles Times 213-237-7090 voice 213-237-4712 fax

Message From: Bob Finn Date: Wed, 14 May 1997 10:19:22 -0700 Subject: Re: Outa here

At 12:06 PM 5/14/97 -0800, you wrote: >Please unsubscribe me from nasw-talk@nasw.org. All this junk mail is >driving me nuts. Don't these people have jobs (or lives)? >

You may consider it junk; I consider it one of the most interesting discussions we've had on nasw-talk in some time, as it gets to the core of several issues at the heart of our profession. These include:

How to get a start as a science writer. What training does a science writer need? How and whether to make the transition from scientist to science writer. How to advise somebody making that transition. The distinction between science journalism and science writing. etcetera.

But to each his or her own, and I will gladly unsubscribe you. For future reference, I'll repost the general instructions on subscribing/unsubscribing.


Bob Finn

cybrarian@nasw.org

Message From: John Gever Date: Wed, 14 May 1997 13:57:46 -0700 Subject: Re: Journalist vs. Writer

At 09:02 AM 5/14/97 -0700, Joel N. Shurkin wrote:

>You can be a fine journalist and not be able to write your way out of a >paper bag.

Oh please. The elitism is getting thick enough to plaster a ceiling. My dictionary defines a writer as "a person who writes as an occupation." Doesn't say anything about having to pass a Shurkin Test.

Look, this is a question of usage. I'm not saying there aren't bad writers and good writers. But they're all writers, for crying out loud -- the word is generic. It has a meaning that we all understand and I don't recognize your authority to redefine it to suit you. I'm sorry, but you'll have to find some other name for the select little club you wish to form.

  • -john gever

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Message From: ADold@aol.com Date: Wed, 14 May 1997 14:27:04 -0400 (EDT) Subject: Re: arrgghhh

In a message dated 97-05-14 13:31:23 EDT, you write: >

I really didn't get the impression that the original questioner was, as Michael said, treating the idea of entering this profession as lightly as "taking up knitting."

I think she was seriously considering a career change, and asked the NASW, the supposed professional organization of science writers, for advice. I would hope that everyone on this list would treat such requests more professionally and politely in the future. (Or if it bothers you so much, just don't say anything.) If I had gotten such a response from someone like that ten years ago when I thought about switching careers, I certainly never would have joined the NASW! And I might have been discouraged from changing careers, too. (And aren't you all glad I'm here? :) )

(And yes, I too scream arrgghhh when people say they've "always wanted to do a little writing on the side" ! But serious career changes are an entirely different issue.)

Catherine Dold

Message From: John Ludwigson Date: Wed, 14 May 97 14:48:34 -0400 Subject: Re: As we're all taking offense and cheap shots

Steve Hart concluded: >The astute reader will distinguish seriousness >from frivolity.

Precisely! And with firm reliance on a well-practiced sense of humour (spelling intended).

Now, what say we re-title ourselves: National Association of Science Writers and Journalists...or should it be ...Science Journalists and Writers?...or....

John L.

Message From: Jeff Hecht Date: Wed, 14 May 1997 14:57:47 -0400 Subject: Re: nasw-talk V2 #107

One skill that both reporters and scientists are supposed to have is the ability to collect evidence and asses its importance and value in a quest for whatever turns out to be the "truth." Maybe that's more a mission than a skill, but my point is that it should be a common theme in both science and journalism. (Whether or not it is can be the subject of another debate.) - -- Jeff Hecht

Jeff Hecht Boston Correspondent New Scientist magazine 525 Auburn St., Auburndale, MA 02166 USA tel 617-965-3834 fax 617-332-4760 e-mail jhecht@world.std.com URL: http://www.sff.net/people/Jeff.Hecht/index.html see New Scientist on the Web: URL http://www.newscientist.com/

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Message From: Warren Kornberg Date: Wed, 14 May 1997 15:36:42 -0700 Subject: Re: The amazing gabrielle

gstrobel@warren.med.harvard.edu wrote: > > > I also started out as an almost-PhD in neuroscience, spent a wonderful year > under Joel's wings learning how to write and an equally good time as an intern > at Science News. Then I freelanced for 1.5 years, for newspapers and magazines > in Europe, Japan, and the US, and that is when I tried to be a hard-nosed, > independent reporter. > ?I do think that being a > reporter gave me more critical distance to the scientist, greater allegiance to > the reader, and more acute instince for finding the "true story," no matter what > feuding scientists, manipulative company reps, or embattled agency spokespeople > say. Or ignorant editors, for that matter. > Also, indepently researching and selling controversial stories, and then taking > heat from vested interests that you invariably insult if you do your story > justice, teaches you about the true difficulties of some of the > reported conflicts. > > I wish that I would have hung on longer to hone those reporter's skills because, > if anything, they become more important today, as media giants control ever > greater conglomerates that make it harder for reporters, scientific or > otherwise, to keep an independent mind and do critical pieces. The > "corporization" of newspapers is really scary. > Gabrielle either started out understanding or picked it up fast from Shurkin and whoever was in the chair at Science News that year. Those two stops are a rare opportunity for any serious science writer to learn how to get at the nub of a science story and cut through the crap Gabrielle so readily identifies. Sure you've got to know the science. But you've also got to know more about the rest of the skills you require than just where your keyboard is. Particularly in this day of 'corporatization' of everything from news to medical care, if the writers about it don't know--or care--that there are bodies buried all over the place, who in hell is looking out for the public good? Attend any biomedical meeting and listen carefully to the presentations--for the point at which they veer from sharing information to protecting marketable information. And write that, too. Greed is part of your beat. Regasrdfless of how corny it sounds, you have as responsibility--if not a mission--to do more than just get the words right.

Warren Kornberg

Message From: "Joel N. Shurkin" Date: Wed, 14 May 1997 13:40:49 -0700 Subject: Re: Journalist vs. Writer

>At 09:02 AM 5/14/97 -0700, Joel N. Shurkin wrote: > >>You can be a fine journalist and not be able to write your way out of a >>paper bag. > >Oh please. The elitism is getting thick enough to plaster a ceiling. My >dictionary defines a writer as "a person who writes as an occupation." >Doesn't say anything about having to pass a Shurkin Test. > >Look, this is a question of usage. I'm not saying there aren't bad writers >and good writers. But they're all writers, for crying out loud -- the word >is generic. It has a meaning that we all understand and I don't recognize >your authority to redefine it to suit you. I'm sorry, but you'll have to >find some other name for the select little club you wish to form. >

Okay. How about good writers and bad writers. Do you like that better? There are, at every place I've worked, first rate reporters who couldn't write and had to have an editor help them out. I know of a number of famous teams that consisted of one legman (ooops, leg person, no that won't work either) and someone to do the writing. They are two different skills. You asked the difference between a writer and a journalist and I told you. I'm using journalist and reporter synonymously, which is another argument for later. The dictionary may define a writer as someone who writes for a living, but the context of our discussion goes well beyond that.

Calling me an elitist is the nicest thing I've been called in weeks.

j

Message From: susan grammer Date: Wed, 14 May 1997 16:40:16 +0000 Subject: re: new subscriber - My Last Word on this

Warren Kornberg wrote:.... > This isn't meant in any way to pull back the welcome mat....... It's intended, rather, to add another dimension to the discussion

Thankyou Warren, Mike, and others for giving me exactly what I was looking for - now I know what to include (and NOT include) about my background when I do attach a bio to a submission! There are so many comments from the last several volumes I'd like to address, but I'll chose just a few:

> There's a healthy skepticism and an ability to dig beneath the > surface of a story that comes with a news background...... >I used to advise young science reporters..... that a couple of years >on a police > beat, even for a used-to-be microbiologist, would do a world of >good.

First, a GOOD scientist has to have the healthiest dose of skepticism out there - the right answer to a question does not stare one in the face. Most often the first answer that appears is the WRONG answer and one must be able to recognize this in one's own work and the work of others in the field. Often, several years into a project one has to admit that the technology doesn't exist to answer the original hypothesis. These are not conclusions one comes to without alot of "digging beneath the surface".

Also, a police beat would probably be a help, but it isn't in the cards for me right now........

> I know that doesn't make any sense to a new mother of twins,

My turn: ARRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHH :);)

> journalism is more than interpreting complex material and making it > palatable.

BUT, there is a need for this in our society. If it's not "journalism" then we can call it something else. If no one makes the complicated issues understandable to the public, how will they be able to judge for themselves whether what they read elsewhere is "responsible" journalism or something else?

> Risking (again) the likelihood of embracing curmugeonhood........I >do wonder if there's anybody left out there.......who started out as >a reporter and learned the trade from that aspect.

Why does it really matter? If someone is a REALLY good investigative reporter, they might well have been a REALLY good research investigator. The reverse applies also. Granted, during their training and experience, different skills were perfected, etc., but where is the "rule" that says some people are scientific investigators and others are "news" investigators.

Gabrielle wrote:

> But there are elements of both sides, being a reporter and >understanding the science, that a science writer should have, today >more than ever.

My point exactly.......a trained scientist has a wealth of knowledge and experience that a trained "science writer/journalist" will have to learn on the job. Those coming into the business from either end will have obstacles to hurdle. It actually seems to me that with a little respect to each other, both sides might have alot to offer one another in terms of contacts, collaborators, feet-in-the-door with potential interviewees, etc.

Last but not least, are there any other trained scientists out there who take an inkling of offense at the feeling that someone with NO scientific background at all thinks they deserve sole responsibility for informing the general public about what science is all about????????

> , a skin tough enough to deal with the > prima donnas of science and handle severe edits, the ability to write > really fast and the ability to organize text so that one short paragraph > says it all.

Tried proposing to do 5 years worth of research in 10 short pages in a proposal to NIH? And did you know that even if you write a good grant, the funding level is often 9% (yeah, 92% don't get funded - talk about severe edits..........)

>There's something else that's vitally important that academia > doesn't provide: close and constant contact with, and perhaps appreciation > for, the vast and diverse public we're writing for.

EXACTLY the reason that I think this is the place for me. I live in that vast and diverse public (you know, mom of twins.......) and I realize that academia can't do the job on it's own. But, because of my contact with those "prima donas of science" I have one advantage that many science writers/journalists don't. Can ALL good journalists call up an internationally known scientist, immediately capturing their trust via a "network" of similarly placed scientists and determine whether the newest "discovery" they are about to report about is kosher or not? Can they get their foot in the door in a "big lab" before the next guys beats them out with one phone call?

>it gets to the core of several issues at the heart of our profession. These include: > How to get a start as a science writer. > What training does a science writer need? > How and whether to make the transition from scientist to science writer. > How to advise somebody making that transition. > The distinction between science journalism and science writing. > etcetera.

Thank you so much for the successful completion of my first formal writing course... AND it was free...That's what I'd hoped for when I posted.

> I actually took the same offense for exactly the same reason. But I >assumed > it was coming from someone who had the serious disability of youth, >......... Folks, particularly the unworthy > young, should be encouraged not discouraged.

Actually, I'll be turning 40 in a month........but since seven technicians who have worked for me during my 15 year career went on either to graduate school or med school, I wholeheartedly agree:)

Thanks again, and I think I'll find a way to disable my RESPOND button for awhile........Hope you all had fun;). I did.

Susan Grammer

Message From: awach@friend.ly.net Date: Wed, 14 May 1997 17:50:49 -0400 Subject: Re: The amazing gabrielle

. . . Regardless of how corny it sounds, you have a responsibility--if not a mission--to do more than just get the words right. > >Warren Kornberg

Warren: I know in my heart you're right. But in 40-plus years as a reporter, editor, writer, columnist and corporate communicator, I've never been permitted to do the kind of reporting/writing that is prerequisite for Mosaic or The Washington Post. I just spent two days at a major medical meeting, and will do several articles on the press conferences and papers presented for different medical news publications. Some of them demand that copy be cleared in advance by the sources quoted before submission, while others fact-check sources and edit copy if the sources later decide they don't like what they said, even though they said it. Many writers for trade pubs in industry, science and medicine are prohibited by publication policy from offending influential readers, advertisers or company shareholders. Ditto weekly newspapers and small dailies. My concern is that we inspire young people to perform to the highest standards of academic journalism, without preparing them to deal with the harsh reality that some of them may never be in a position to do the job as they were taught to do it. Shouldn't there be a modicum of street smarts in the curriculum, to encourage them to do the best journalism they can no matter what the limitations? Or do we forsake the profession and do something else in order to continue to eat and sleep indoors? Alan Wachter

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Message From: John Gever Date: Wed, 14 May 1997 18:03:19 -0700 Subject: Re: Journalist vs. Writer

Joel wrote: >Okay. How about good writers and bad writers. Do you like that better? >There are, at every place I've worked, first rate reporters who couldn't >write and had to have an editor help them out. I know of a number of famous >teams that consisted of one legman (ooops, leg person, no that won't work >either) and someone to do the writing. They are two different skills. You >asked the difference between a writer and a journalist and I told you. I'm >using journalist and reporter synonymously, which is another argument for >later. The dictionary may define a writer as someone who writes for a >living, but the context of our discussion goes well beyond that.

Yes, I know what you meant. It's just that, in the ad hominem spirit of this thread, it was more fun to pick on your sloppy use of language, especially when you were claiming preternatural ability to sniff out bad writers.

As for the argument, "Well, you may write for a living, but you're not a Real Writer because you don't... [insert arguable or just plain silly criteria here]" -- as far as I'm concerned, anyone who can convince someone else to pay him or her to write is a Real Writer. Anybody who can make a comfortable living at it is a Good Writer.

  • -john gever

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Message From: Warren Kornberg Date: Wed, 14 May 1997 20:58:11 -0700 Subject: Re: The amazing gabrielle

awach@friend.ly.net wrote: > > . . . Regardless of how corny it sounds, you have a responsibility--if not a > mission--to do more than just get the words right. > > > >Warren Kornberg > > Warren: I know in my heart you're right. But in 40-plus years as a > reporter, editor, writer, columnist and corporate communicator, I've never > been permitted to do the kind of reporting/writing that is prerequisite for > Mosaic or The Washington Post. I just spent two days at a major medical > meeting, and will do several articles on the press conferences and papers > presented for different medical news publications. Some of them demand that > copy be cleared in advance by the sources quoted before submission, while > others fact-check sources and edit copy if the sources later decide they > don't like what they said, even though they said it. Many writers for trade > pubs in industry, science and medicine are prohibited by publication policy > from offending influential readers, advertisers or company shareholders. > Ditto weekly newspapers and small dailies. My concern is that we inspire > young people to perform to the highest standards of academic journalism, > without preparing them to deal with the harsh reality that some of them may > never be in a position to do the job as they were taught to do it. > Shouldn't there be a modicum of street smarts in the curriculum, to > encourage them to do the best journalism they can no matter what the > limitations? Or do we forsake the profession and do something else in order > to continue to eat and sleep indoors? Alan Wachter > > ============================================================= Alan: Somehow hearing from you saddens me. This is the second time you've done it. Never in thirty years as an editor--at Science News and then at Mosaic--did I treat a writer as you describe. Nor was I treated that way anywhere I went after Boston (the Washington Post, McGraw Hill World News, Science News, Mosaic). I tend to forget, I suppose, that my experience might not be typical--even for people who care about what they do. And so I get preachy, urging people to shovel against the tide. I had a wonderful ride as a reporter and an editor, learning respect for what I did from the respectful people I was lucky enough to do it for, and I tried to pass that on as well as I could. Obviously I did not have the impact on the profession that it would have been better to have had. What else can I say but: Yeah! You're right, too.


Warren Kornberg

From: Steve Ireland/Australia/IDG

Date: 15 May 97 9:07:37 Subject: Re: Journalist vs. Writer

There's another way of looking at the distinction some people are drawing between 'writer' and 'journalist'. It's my experience that there are people who are great at digging out, chasing down, and writing up News stories, and there are folks who turn out excellent Feature stories.

There are specific skills which need to be acquired for each type of story. But it's also a question of inclination. In my experience as an editor there are individuals who can produce news or features at request. But most people seem to have a natural bent one way or the other. God seems to have created some folks news reporters, and others features writers.

It's painful to see a features type person trying to hold down a regular news slot. They're slow workers and their stories always seem to waffle on. On the other hand, given them a strong issue and heaps of time, and they can produce a humdinger of a series of articles that really puts your publication on the map.

Steve Ireland.

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