Tricks of the trade

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Joy Victory warns that writers as well as scientists must guard against hype in stem cell research: "The onus is on journalists to be careful when using words like 'breakthrough, paradigm shift, revolution, cure, and game-changer' — even when this language comes from scientists, peer-reviewed abstracts, studies and institutional news releases. Dig deeper, and ask why they’re using that kind of language, because the answer may not be what most people would think."

Podcasts can be an effective tool for writers to promote their work, but producing a successful one requires some advance thought and more than a little bit of technical expertise, Devon Fredericksen writes in a post with links to resources: "Many beginning podcasters use a pretty basic recording and editing setup that might already exist on their computer. But don’t underestimate good sound quality — better sound quality directly impacts the size of your listenership."

Denise Graveline shares her tips for building productive relationships with reporters, including this about pitches: "Giving reporters tips, instead of pitches, does more to advance a potential relationship. That means sharing info that doesn't necessarily benefit you or your organization directly, being willing to point them in the right direction, keeping them in mind on something they might not otherwise see. Be useful first, before you have the need for coverage."

Stuart Horwitz brings some structure to answering a question that more than a few writers ask themselves: How many drafts does it take to turn out a finished story, book, or other piece of writing? His answer is three: "We’ll call the first draft the messy draft, which is all about getting it down. We’ll call the second draft the method draft, which is all about making sense. And we’ll call the third draft the polished draft, which is all about making it good."

Some of today's most successful digital news sites are built on narrative foundations that Shakespeare would recognize, James Sullivan writes in a report on a Power of Narrative conference session by Upworthy’s editorial director, Amy O’Leary: "Just as Scheherazade preserves her own life by telling the murderous king a little more of her story each night – the ancient version of the cliffhanger – writers should always leave their readers wanting more."

Journalism is nonfiction and film is mainly fiction, but science writers can still learn from screenwriting, Diana Crow writes: "Most science writing grad school programs include at least one unit on scripting and making documentaries. But I think that screenwriting has more to offer science writing than just a means of structuring story arcs. The techniques screenwriters use to develop characters, set up scenes, and deliver exposition can all be imported quite easily."

Eileen Pollack writes about her struggle to produce a book about a biologist whose mother's death from Huntington’s chorea prompted her search for the gene that she too may have carried: "Writers have plenty of tricks for conveying technical information without ruining the pacing of a narrative. Think of the filmic strategies the director of The Big Short uses to explain the financial details of the mortgage fiasco without losing the attention of non-tycoons like me."

From SciDev.Net, Bernard Appiah and Juan Casasbuenas offer tips for writing about scientific findings, including how to read a press release and the paper behind it, and how to enrich a story with further reporting and outside perspectives: "This practical guide provides you with advice on how to go beyond the abstract and press release. Following this advice will help you to find unique angles, bring a story to life, and report on science in a responsible way."

When the Idaho Statesman won the release of 8,000 documents from a health care antitrust case, Audrey Dutton was tasked to make sense of them. She explains how she did it with software: "I knew these documents held secrets. I knew they'd help our readers better understand the inner workings of health care. But I didn’t know how to organize them and make sense of hundreds of PDFs, especially without the context lawyers provide in a courtroom explaining their importance."

Nicholas Lemann discusses the tension between getting the facts straight and telling a good story, and offers five pointers — such as "forming a hypothesis" — for keeping your reporting on the right track: "A central problem in the practice of journalism is that most of the time, we are trying to engage in narrative and analysis at the same time. They don’t naturally go together. Journalists more often unwittingly let the narrative distort the analysis than vice versa."