Wrestling Giant Topics

We've all been there: struggling to find a narrative, lede or metaphor to make a complicated science story understandable to the general public. Writers Michael D. Lemonick and Michael Shermer tried to explain their methods at a NASW 2007 Session, but in some cases left the audience wishing for more details.

There was no question that the panelists had mastered the challenge. Moderator Sally James pointed to the importance of metaphor, and Lemonick (known for his writing in Time) said he often comes up with his own metaphors, but freely lifts them from scientists, too. He also pointed out the importance of having "a single sticky idea" that readers (and editors and marketing people) can latch on to instantly.

A good example was Philip Zimbardo's use of "It's not the bad apples, it's the bad barrels that corrupt good people" to describe his social research and situations like Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Lemonick also repeated Einstein's famous quote: "Anything you really understand you should be able to explain to your grandmother." He noted that on some subconscious level we're all attuned to this challenge: when launching into a story at a party a good observer will notice when people's eyes start to glaze over, and (hopefully) adjust the narrative.

Shermer (executive director of the Skeptics Society) noted that writers discover some things as they write; that was a good reminder that it's sometimes best to just keep pushing ahead even when you're stuck.

Both writers also had helpful general reminders: don't worry about pleasing everyone, because you can't; try to create a relaxed environment for interviews so people loosen up and really talk; and don't be afraid to focus on one person as a storytelling device, even if you know many other people played a role in the story.

An audience member told the story of nearly a year of research that had to be thrown away: he realized that he'd "picked the wrong guy" to tell the story. But on a number of audience questions Lemonick was vague. When faced with a problem his solution is to do laundry and rely on his subconscious.

Asked about creating outlines for his books, he at first said that he doesn't work from outlines; then admitted that he must do chapter sketches at the book proposal stage.

Still, the lack of specific answers may be the answer for those struggling with a giant topic. Both writers noted that they don't have the luxury of writer's block: bills have to be paid and deadlines met, period. So perhaps there are no secrets: the key is to keep reporting and keep writing.

And Lemonick closed with one excellent piece of advice for book work: focus on writing each chapter as a 5,000-word essay instead of worrying about "writing a book."

Kevin Begos is a contributing writer and podcast host for CR Magazine and contributes to Scientific American's "60-Second Science Podcast." He's won awards from Investigative Reporters and Editors, Associated Press Managing Editors and Washington Monthly for his print reporting and is a contributor to A Field Guide for Science Writers. He is based in Apalachicola, Fla.

Oct. 26, 2007

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