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Writers and writing

Carl Zimmer expounds on John McPhee

Nieman Storyboard can be counted on to give us something worth posting every week or two. So can John McPhee. Now, the two meet as part of a series, “Why’s this so good?” NASW member Carl Zimmer deconstructs McPhee's 1987 article on the Mississippi River, “Atchafalaya.” Says Zimmer: “I get the sense that McPhee spends every waking hour gathering observations, stories and plain facts that he stores away for articles he may not write for decades to come.”

An alternative story form by a film master

© iStockphoto.com/clu

Errol Morris produced two of the most compelling — and innovative — documentaries of recent years, in The Thin Blue Line and The Fog of War. Now he is exploring new ways to tell stories online. Nieman Storyboard says Morris "rejects many of the standard rules of narrative writing" in his New York Times blog series, "Did My Brother Invent E-Mail With Tom Van Vleck?"

How John McPhee does what he does

It's one part curiosity, one part mechanics, and one part stubborn determination, the legendary New Yorker writer tells interviewer Peter Hessler in the Paris Review. "Stories are always really, really hard," McPhee says. "I think it’s totally rational for a writer, no matter how much experience he has, to go right down in confidence to almost zero when you sit down to start something. Why not? Your last piece is never going to write your next one for you."

The novelist's craft in non-fiction

Nonfiction writers can use the techniques of fiction to propel their stories and engage readers, says Adam Hochschild, a former editor of Mother Jones and author of several histories. Hochschild spoke at Vanderbilt University in February. Parts one and two of four parts are now available at the Nieman Storyboard, as is the entire one-hour video.

Going long on the web

Can long-form journalism be adapted to the web? The Atavist is one such effort, just reviewed in the New York Times: "All the richness of the Web — links to more information, videos, casts of characters — is right there in an app displaying an article, but with a swipe of the finger, the presentation reverts to clean text." More here, here and here.

Remembrances of a Sri Lankan science journalist

Western nations do not have a monopoly on esteemed science writers. Witness the multiple tributes to the life of Tambiaiah Sabaratnam, "a pathfinder and leading light in Sri Lankan science journalism for over a generation," who died March 5 at 79. Here is an obituary, plus an essay by fellow science writer Nalaka Gunawardene.

Recipe for success in science books

What made Rebecca Skloot's "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" the top science book of 2010? It wasn't just the science, said John Dupuis in Confessions of a Science Librarian: "People that were predisposed to like science books loved it and that shows through. More tellingly, however, are the cases where the reviewer didn't seem predisposed towards science books at all but still loved the story of Henrietta Lacks."

Writing about dementia victims in pro football

On the heels of last week's suicide of former Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson comes this interview from Nieman Storyboard with a writer, Jeanne Marie Laskas, who has profiled two other players, Fred McNeill and Mike Webster, who were similarly afflicted by concussion-related brain damage.

A plea for diversity in journalism too

Fresh from her AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Award for a High Country News story about an endangered fish, science writer Hilary Rosner says the journalism ecosystem, like natural ones, flourishes on diversity. Read more: Tooth and Claw blog. Also, how she got the story: The Open Notebook.