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Tips for fact-checking in science writing

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Alexios Mantzarlis calls on statistician and science writer Regina Nuzzo for a list of tips for fact-checking science stories. The suggestions include focusing on transparency and replicability, and understanding basic statistical tools: "Most fact-checkers have a basic knowledge of the p-value, the standard statistical tool scientists use to assess whether their results were due to an identifiable cause or could occur by random chance. They should not trust it blindly."

On the art of investigative science writing

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European power plants are burning wood pellets from U.S. forests instead of coal from Europe. John Upton explains how a team of reporters combined investigative reporting with science writing to put that story into context: "Few readers would find it inherently interesting that wood releases more carbon dioxide when it burns than coal. What’s more interesting is that coal power plants release more climate-changing pollution after they’re converted to burn wood."

Terry Gross and the interviewer's art

Terry Gross

As she reaches her 40th year on "Fresh Air," Terry Gross is profiled by Susan Burton, who describes how Gross gets her subjects to open up: "Over the years, Gross has done some 13,000 interviews, and the sheer range of people she has spoken to, coupled with her intelligence and empathy, has given her the status of national interviewer. Think of it as a symbolic role, like the poet laureate — someone whose job it is to ask the questions, with a degree of art and honor."

Cracking the tough interview subject

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Longtime New York Times sportswriter Gerald Eskenazi discusses some of his hardest interviews and how he got winning quotes from some of the sports world's surliest stars: "As a sportswriter, about half the time I was interviewing someone who’d just lost. So sportswriters must have — or at least show — some empathy. And yet you’ve got to ask questions that could be embarrassing or even highlight the subject’s weakness. The point is that you need a response, a quote."

The importance of a book's title

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Erik Larson discusses the art of choosing a book title, and how he sometimes considers and rejects hundreds before picking one: "Titles are important. They should convey not only a sense of the book’s subject, but also a feeling — will this be a funny read, or a contemplative one; is it a book I’d like to read at poolside, or in the dentist’s chair waiting for the Novocaine to kick in; will it transport me to an imaginary realm, or knock me flat with trauma and despair."

How to avoid misattributing quotes

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"I never said most of the things I said," Yogi Berra said. Or did he? Denise Graveline offers some tips for tracking down — and debunking — famous people's quotations: "I'm not as worried about the paraphrased quote, or even the one attributed to your daddy. But the misattribution issue is not as small a problem as it may seem. Even the U.S. Postal Service misattributed a quote on its Maya Angelou tribute stamp, a mistake so expensive they aren't going to correct it."

Some suggestions for handling quotes

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Don't be afraid to tidy up a quote, but be careful about adding words, using dialect, or combining quotes from different interviews, Roy Peter Clark writes in a guide to getting quotes right. One example of Clark's guidance: "When you quote, imagine that someone has taped the interview, even if you have not. It can be a problem if you quote someone in print and then see the source on television the next day using different words than the ones you thought you captured."

Spotting problems with a story's theme

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Denise Graveline writes about some of the most common theme-related problems she sees in speakers' scripts: "Every dramatic arc relies on the high point of a crisis to put the drama in the arc of a story. But if we love crisis and failure, it's because we're hoping for redemption: what you learned, what changed, where it led you, why it's better today. I see lots of speakers aiming to emulate TED talks who do a great job on the failure, and forget the redemption."

Can focus be the enemy of creativity?

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The real solution to writer's block might lie in the same confusion and chaos that gives rise to it, Christie Aschwanden writes in a discussion of a new book by University of Central Florida computer scientist Kenneth Stanley: "If you’re trying to create something new, an objective can stand in your way. Seeking novelty instead of objectives is risky — not every interesting thread will pay off — but just like with stocks, the potential payoffs are higher."

Pascal on the elements of persuasion

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Psychologists say an indirect approach works best when trying to change people's opinions, whether the subject is a social issue like gay marriage or a scientific one like climate change. Maria Popova quotes the French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal as saying roughly the same thing almost four centuries ago: "People are generally better persuaded by the reasons which they have themselves discovered than by those which have come into the mind of others."