The Open Notebook Sparks a Book

By Lynne Lamberg

“How long did it take to figure out that lede?” “Where did she find that source?” “How did he decide what to include and what to leave out in that complex report?”

In 2010, Siri Carpenter and Jeanne Erdmann, both NASW Freelance Committee members, chatted frequently about articles they admired.

“We thought other writers might want the same information we sought,” Carpenter said. “We decided to interview writers whose work we liked and share what they told us via a website.

“We struggled mightily to figure out what to call our site,” Carpenter recalls. Their first choice, “Open Notebook,” was not available. NASW member Catherine Dold suggested prefacing that name with “The,” creating theopennotebook.com and an easy-to-remember acronym, TON.

Carpenter and Erdmann reached out to six writers and published one story a day for six days. The response was so positive they decided to keep going. TON now offers several hundred interviews, feature articles, profiles, and other resources for writers.

Carpenter serves as TON’s editor-in-chief, while Erdmann remains on TON’s board as editor-at-large, writing periodically for the site and handling some behind-the-scenes administrative tasks.

“Our first stories were brief,” Carpenter said. “We became more ambitious over time."

A collection of TON stories was published in The Craft of Science Writing: Selections from The Open Notebook, February 1, 2020.

Carpenter edited the book, organizing its contents under five headings: Who is a science journalist and how do you become one? What makes a science story and how do you find one? How do you report a science story? How do you tell your story? How do you build expertise in science writing? Each section includes six or seven articles, most from the website, plus eight commissioned for the book. Carpenter shared more about how this book went from idea to reality in Advance Copy.

“Sitting at my desk at my first science-writing job, I couldn’t help thinking it was only a matter of time before my deception was uncovered,” Sandeep Ravindran writes in the book, “Feeling Like a Fraud: The Impostor Phenomenon in Science Writing.” Self-doubt is common, Ravindran found. Even highly accomplished, award-winning writers sometimes feel it, he says, particularly when taking on a new job or a major assignment. Knowing that eases the anxiety, he said. “You realize you can get through it just as you have before.”

TON's offerings

Carpenter and Erdmann initially self-funded TON. In 2011, they received one of NASW’s first Peggy Girshman Idea Grants, for $20,000, with additional grants in 2012 and 2013 for smaller amounts. NASW funding allowed TON to hire writers to do interviews and write features on various aspects of craft, Carpenter said.

The site now pays $1,000 for reported features, assigned at 1,500-2,000 words, and $750 for interviews, assigned at 1,500-2,000 words, according to its submission guidelines. In 2019, TON started to translate some reports into Spanish.

TON also offers a pitch database, one of many features Erdmann proposed, Carpenter said, and one of the site’s most popular attractions. “The writing process begins with the pitch,” Roxanne Khamsi explains in “What Makes a Good Pitch?,” her annotated report on four effective story proposals, one of several never-before-published pieces in the book.

The “Ask TON advice column,” also Erdmann’s idea, has become another popular draw. Writers send questions: What’s a good way to organize notes? How do you juggle assignments? Why blog? TON’s experts provide answers on the site.

Another Erdmann inspiration, Natural Habitat, provides brief videos of science writers in their working spaces.

TON also has launched outreach efforts to boost writing and editing skills. It will offer a hands-on workshop for science editors April 24-27, 2020, in Madison, Wisconsin, for example.

TON offers two fellowships annually, funded since 2013 by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. TON received a record number of applications for those two slots this year, Carpenter said. The Burroughs Wellcome Fund also underwrote the cost of publishing The Craft of Science Writing. Revenue from book sales will go back into the website.

TON partnered with the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing (CASW) to develop story diagrams, or Storygrams, annotating science stories. These are published at both TON and at casw.org. Support for Storygrams comes in part from a grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

Additional TON funding sources include Science Sandbox, an initiative of the Simons Foundation, and the Therese Foundation, a small family foundation in Madison, Wisconsin.

“One lesson I’ve learned from my experience with TON,” Carpenter said, “is that there’s a hunger in our community for learning and studying the craft of science writing, and a fount of generosity among science writers to share their experiences and insights.

“I owe much to NASW,” she adds. “It’s been my professional home for 20 years. It enabled this project to get off the ground in a way Jeanne and I couldn’t have imagined back when we said, “Hey, we should interview a few science writers.”

TON stats 2010-2019

  • 115 interviews
  • 137 reported feature articles
  • 87 profiles (a combination of the “A Day in the Life,” “Natural Habitat,” and “Office Hours” series)
  • 18 Storygram annotations
  • 40 “Ask TON” advice columns
  • 200 pitches in pitch database
  • 123 contributors
  • 60 articles by 11 TON early-career fellows

Hero image by Steve Howard from Pixabay

Feb. 3, 2020

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