Tackling the physical sciences





Imagine that you are a salesperson tasked with selling a special product. Most people know very little about the product, and many have had a bad experience with similar items. People can’t see what you are selling, and it is unlikely to impact their lives immediately.

Such is the plight of the reporter who covers the physical sciences. Science writers on this beat know its hazards, from having to describe the intricacies of quantum gravity to dealing with readers who hated chemistry in high school. Yet some journalists are still compelled accept the challenge, often driven by a love for a particular scientific field.

“It’s a very important role,” says Kathryn Jepsen, editor-in-chief of Symmetry, a magazine that covers particle physics and is published by the Fermilab and SLAC national laboratories. Physicists, chemists and mathematicians devote their lives to research, just like their biological science counterparts. And research that is funded by taxpayers deserves coverage, no matter the discipline. “It’s really only going to be worth it if the science can be translated back to the public, to the rest of the world,” she says.

“So many people have had bad experiences with math in school,” adds Julie Rehmeyer, a contributing editor at Discover magazine who has a mathematics background. “My mission in writing about math is in some small way to heal that wound for people.” Producing math stories that are engaging and understandable is empowering to readers, she says.

It’s hard to write stories about physical science research that readers with no background in the subject can grasp. “There’s no trick that’s going to make it easy for everybody,” says Brian Hayes, a senior writer at American Scientist who has written extensively on computer science and math. But with perseverance and some creativity, he says, it’s possible to write a piece on the physical sciences that people will enjoy and understand.

Finding stories

Capturing the attention of an audience begins with story choice. Rehmeyer says she tends to choose topics that readers can immediately connect to. In a 2011 story for Science News, she wrote about how topology, one of the most abstract fields of mathematics, was used “to discover a new subgroup of breast cancer patients with a 100 percent survival rate.” Rehmeyer had previously written about this field of research and found the story when the lead scientist contacted her directly.

Less experienced writers can often find an angle for a math story in other high-impact science articles because math is foundational to so many disciplines, Rehmeyer says. Talks at large conferences, like the Joint Mathematics Meetings or the American Chemical Society national meeting, can also be a good source for stories. Specialized journals sometimes reveal interesting research, but such articles are rare and take a lot of time to find.

Stories that connect science to current popular culture often find success. “Tie it to the World Cup, a movie coming out or a holiday,” says Jennifer Ouellette, author of the blog Cocktail Party Physics at Scientific American and four popular science books including The Calculus Diaries: How Math Can Help You Lose Weight, Win in Vegas, and Survive a Zombie Apocalyse. Rehmeyer chose the 2008 presidential election as a news peg to publish a Science News story about research — published a year earlier — from a team of economists and statisticians who found that “it’s not irrational to vote in the hope of affecting the outcome.”

Report what you understand

The next major challenge comes while reporting. During interviews with scientists, journalists may be tempted to over-represent their understanding, especially when first starting out. “You don’t necessarily have to play dumb, but you have to be honest about what you know — and that includes being honest with yourself,” says Ouellette. She says not having a background in physics worked in her favor because she could respond to the material just as her audience does.

As a AAAS Mass Media Fellow about a decade ago, Bethany Halford, a senior editor at Chemical & Engineering News, recalls receiving advice about not telling sources that she had a PhD in chemistry. “It’s kind of like saying hello in a foreign language when hello is the only word you know in that foreign language,” she says. Concealing advanced degrees from sources helps them focus on describing their work in terms a non-specialist reader, instead of their colleagues, can understand.

During interviews, writers can tap not only scientists’ knowledge but also their experience teaching others. They may have unique explanations for concepts they have taught many times over. Jepsen recalls a scientist who gave her an excellent analogy for particle decay channels that she later used in an explainer for Symmetry: “When a particle decays, it transforms into collections of less massive particles whose combined energy adds up to the energy of the original particle. It’s kind of like getting change for a dollar. Even though a dollar bill is not physically made of coins, its value can be broken down into change. And just as many different combinations of coins add up to $1, many combinations of particles can add up to the energy of a massive particle.”

Comparisons like these help readers visualize things they can’t normally see by relating them to familiar objects. “Offering some sort of bright analogy is a great way of coming up for air,” says Rehmeyer. Even imperfect analogies can provide understanding. Ouellette says her husband Sean Carroll, a Caltech physicist and science communicator, dislikes descriptions of the expanding universe as an expanding balloon, because it implies that the universe is expanding into something, which it is not. But discussing why the analogy doesn’t hold up can be an effective strategy for explaining a topic.

Context is everything

Other tactics include breaking up difficult material with quotes, metaphors or history so as not to overload the reader, Rehmeyer says. She envisions a curious high school student as her reader to help gauge the level she needs to address in the story. Occasionally, she even opts to avoid explanations altogether in favor of simple descriptions of why the research is important. She took that strategy for a write-up about Ngô Bao Châu, a mathematician and winner of the prestigious Fields medal for his research on a concept called the fundamental lemma — work that even one of the administrators of the prize didn’t understand.

Describing complex material is often a language problem. New terms should be introduced with the simplest amount of detail that lets a reader move forward, says Melissae Fellet, a freelance science writer and regular contributor to Chemical & Engineering News. For instance, in an article for Symmetry, Jepsen introduced muons as “the more massive cousins of electrons,” then later described how the decay of these particles could be used to generate neutrino beams. “Give them the important term and put a flag in it, this is what we’re going to be talking about and I’ll explain later, come with me,” says Jepsen.

Active voice and actions can also keep the story moving forward. Fellet says she imagines being in the midst of a chemical reaction, observing the molecules’ movements. For a piece on Ars Technica about rechargeable sodium batteries, she depicted ions as they “wiggle inside the material” or “float over to the other electrode.”

Story flow

Whenever the option exists, Hayes recommends going for the narrative. “Cater to the human love of storytelling,” he says. The classic narrative arc describes the history of the work, but other approaches can work as well. In an article for American Scientist, Hayes wrote about homomorphic encryption, a type of encryption that allows calculations using data that cannot be read. He tells the story through the lens of Alice and Bob, a commonly used imaginary couple, as they discuss how to share encrypted secrets between them.

Rehmeyer recalls turning in her copy to an editor before realizing she had a unique opportunity to tell the story as a narrative. In the reworked piece for Science News, a mathematician uses game theory to analyze a game from a fictional work by Edgar Allen Poe. Rehmeyer tells the story in Poe’s classic style: “During the whole of a dull, cramped and wearisome flight from Israel to New York, as the night pressed heavily against the airplane windows, Ariel Rubinstein had been toiling through a singularly dreary article on game theory; and at length the economist found himself, as the sharpness of his focus waned, seeking respite from the tedium in Edgar Allan Poe’s short story ‘The Purloined Letter.

When words fail, graphics can also do some of the hard work of explaining difficult concepts. An “explain it in 60 seconds piece” in Symmetry, on quantum entanglement, uses a graphic treatment to show two cartoon particles, named Ryan and Bryan, against different backgrounds. Ryan receives a kiss on the cheek but both particles blush, illustrating the concept that particles can maintain correlations between their properties even after being separated.

What a writer can accomplish with a physical sciences story depends a lot on the space available. Hayes says it’s almost impossible to write a story on a challenging topic in such a way that “everyone is desperately waiting for the next episode.” Some topics will easily lend themselves to being sold to an audience, he says, but that won’t always be the case. “I think it’s important not to turn away from a story if it’s something the world really ought to know about just because it’s hard to tell,” he says. “Maybe you also need to have some humility about this and not believe that you can work miracles. But you only find that out after you give it a try.”


Tien NguyenTien Nguyen is a TON Fellow sponsored by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. She is an organic chemist and communications specialist for the Princeton University chemistry department. She aims to make chemistry more accessible to the public through her writing, outreach and educational videos. This video, describing her PhD research in under three minutes, won her a trip to San Francisco next month as part of the American Chemical Society’s Chemistry Champions competition. Follow Tien on Twitter: @mustlovescience.

Main photo by Shutterstock.


Single Best: Charles Choi


Today we continue our series Single Best, where we ask top writer and editors to give us their single best piece of advice — given or taken, their single best idea, reporting trip or memorable experience. Here, science journalist Charles Choi shares the writing concept that is “God.”

Choi is a longtime freelance science journalist who has reported for Scientific American, the New York Times, Science, Nature and many others. Follow him on Twitter @cqchoi.


A Day in the Life of Brian Switek



What I’m working on:

I swing back and forth between panicking over not having enough work and taking on too much. At the moment, I’m trying to find the joy in being swamped.

Writing my blog Laelaps for National Geographic is my primary gig. Everything else is freelance work, which consists of looking for new assignments while trying to tackle the ones I’ve already taken on. This week, that has meant filing stories on giant swimming sloths and a 28-million-year-old whale skull while finding time to run downtown for radio interviews on de-extinction and a giant Jurassic carnivore. I need to take some old stories about conservation paleobiology, the world’s small cats, and dinosaur size off the back burner, as well, not to mention pitching new stories. Read more »


The first critic is you: Editing your own work



Self-editing is a selfless endeavor. You cut, replace, rearrange and endlessly re-read — all for the reader’s benefit. “Journalism is all about having a sense of empathy with your audience,” says Dan Fagin, director of the Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program at New York University and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation. To achieve that connection with the audience, Fagin says, revise with readers in mind, always asking yourself “what they need, what they want, will they understand?”

As traditional journalism outlets’ budgets shrink and editors are being overextended, writers are asked to take increasingly larger roles in shaping their own stories. Whether you have the best editor in the world or no editor at all, self-editing is necessary to deliver the best story possible. Read more »


Ask TON: Getting sources to open up


Welcome back for another installment of Ask TON. This week, we ask experienced journalists how to get people to open up and talk like human beings. (Click here to see previous installments).

Scientists and other interviewees are often eager to talk about their work, but sometimes, ask a basic question and you’re left with answers like “that was explained in our paper.” And some sources are reluctant in general. They may not want to talk about controversial subjects; they may have been burned by other journalists, and are wary of the media; or they’re just difficult to approach. This can be difficult if your source is a key character in a feature story.

So, what can you do to break the ice?


Tips to help your sources warm up to you and your questions. Read more »


Single Best: Robin Lloyd


Today we continue our series Single Best, where we ask top writer and editors to give us their single best piece of advice — given or taken, their single best idea, reporting trip or memorable experience. Here, science journalist Robin Lloyd shares a career turning point. Lloyd is online news editor at Scientific American. Follow her on Twitter @robinlloyd99.


Covering the environment beat



Taking on the environment beat is like marrying into a big, colorful family. Environmental reporters need to keep abreast of news in many different niches, including climate change, ecology, ecosystem management, public policy, international relations, business, health, transportation, public lands, water and energy. How can an environmental journalist keep tabs on all these facets of science and still have time to file daily stories or work on features or months-long investigations?

Through a series of group emails, TON picked the brains of four writers who cover the environment for magazines, newspaper, and online newsrooms. They told us which sources they call to check out their hunches, which databases they screen and which websites they prowl. They admitted to a tendency to over-report. And they made a case for why it can be worthwhile to force oneself to read to the end of government reports. Collectively, they offer a primer on how to cultivate an environmental beat.

The reporters participating in the discussion were:

Lisa Song, reporter at InsideClimate News, a nonprofit news organization that covers energy and climate change. Her beat is oil and gas drilling and environmental health.

Michael Hawthorne, environment reporter on the investigative team at the Chicago Tribune.

Jane Braxton Little, freelance writer for national magazines including Utne, Scientific American and Audubon.

Kate Sheppard, senior reporter and energy and environment editor at The Huffington Post.

Read more »


A Day in the Life of Charles Seife


Charles Seife

What I’m working on:

My latest project is a book about how digital information messes with your head (and what you can do to combat this.) It’s called Virtual Unreality and is due out this summer. I’m also doing some investigative work on research misconduct in clinical trials, and starting work on a nonfiction project which, if I get funding, I hope to turn into a documentary.

Where I work:

New York City — home office is a dedicated alcove, and an office at work.

Daily routine:

Arise sometime between 6 a.m. and 7 a.m.; my son typically gets up at 7, so I can read the morning news and catch up on some e-mails and even perhaps write a little bit before he stirs. Get the kids ready for daycare, and hand ‘em off to my wife who takes them in. My workday starts at 9:30. If I’m teaching that day, I typically go in to the office, and if not, I stay at home. (During the school year, maybe one day a week is devoted to writing and researching; the rest is largely prepping lectures, grading, and administrative stuff for the department. )

Most productive part of my day:


A collaborative workspace.

Easy: whenever the kids are away or asleep.

Before I had children, my most productive hours were about 2 p.m. until about 8 p.m. – I would spend the morning catching up on news, doing research, and answering e-mails, and really start cranking out the prose after the lunch torpor dissipated. Now, the day’s more or less over for me at 5:30, so I can’t do the sustained productive writing sessions that I once did — except on special occasions when my wife is kind enough to take full responsibility for the kids or we hire a babysitter.

Most essential ritual or habit:

My most essential habit, at least when it comes to long works, is that pretty much every time I open up a document make any substantial changes to a work in progress, I save it as a new draft rather than replacing the old file. It’s an extra layer of backups that has saved my bacon more than once. (And it’s a habit I picked up after losing about half a chapter of my first book to a corrupted file.)

Mobile device:

Avoided. I don’t have a smart phone, and I use my cell phone only rarely. I’m distracted enough when I’m at my computer; the last thing I want is for those distractions to follow me.


I rotate among a laptop and two desktops, one in the office and one at home. They’re all Windows 7 boxes, and I keep essential files synced with a memstick and Syncback. I have access to Apples in the office if I need them, and I have converted an old laptop to a Linux box (Ubuntu) for special-purpose work.

Essential software/apps/productivity tools:

MS Office for most of my writing, number crunching, and database work. Adobe Pro for PDF manipulation (and PDFCreator instead, on my home desktop.) Syncback for keeping files in sync. Google Docs for sharing. Truecrypt for encrypting sensitive documents.

Favorite time waster/procrastination habit:

Kerbal Space Program.

My reading habits:

My pleasure reading is almost always before I fall asleep in the evening. I still prefer a good old-fashioned book made out of wood pulp, but nowadays, about 50 percent of my reading is on Kindle. (Periodicals for me are almost entirely electronic.) Maybe four out of five books I read are nonfiction; the last is fiction. Most recent reads are James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird and Jaron Lanier’s Who Owns the Future?

Sleep schedule:

About 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. if all goes well, and once in a while, I can grab a 45 min. nap.


Charles Seife is a professor of journalism at New York University and the author of five books, most recently Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception. Follow him on Twitter @cgseife.


Michelle Nijhuis’s National Geographic Adventure Began with a Single Word


Michelle Nijhuis

In her first assignment from National Geographic, award-winning freelance science journalist Michelle Nijhuis started with a one-word assignment: coal. Based on that single word, Nijhuis traveled  from West Virginia, a top coal state, to China, the world’s largest coal user. No spoilers here, so we’ll just say that a long lag between assignment and publication could have derailed her story but instead Nijhuis distilled that vast, contentious and highly technical topic into a a story so compelling that rock stations interviewed her when the story ran. Be on the lookout for her byline in upcoming issues of National Geographic, because she has more stories in the works. [Can Coal Ever Be Clean? appeared in National Geographic in April 2014.]

Here, Nijhuis tells TON guest contributor Robin Meadows the story behind the story:

How did you get this assignment and what was the timeline?

I first heard about the assignment five years ago. I had been pitching feature ideas to National Geographic for a little while, and my editor, Rob Kunzig, said that he and the other text editors wanted to assign me a story on coal. But at National Geographic, an assignment is just the first step toward getting final approval for a project. The photo editors assigned photographer Robb Kendrick to the story, and eventually the photo and text editors met in a pitch meeting, where they discussed and approved the overall plan for the project. The time between initial assignment and pitch meeting varies a lot, but in this case the wait lasted a couple of years.

After the story got final approval in 2011, I had a budget for travel and could begin reporting the story, which I did in the first half of 2012.

Had you proposed other stories about energy to National Geographic before?

I’d written essays and Q&As for two special issues of the magazine, one about climate change and one about energy. I’d been offered those assignments because I’d written extensively about climate change for other publications. So the editors knew I had an interest and background in both climate and energy. Not all of my feature pitches had to do with those issues, but most touched on them in some way.

What was your assignment and how did you focus your story?

It was very general at first — coal. Robb Kendrick was going to document the global process of producing power from coal, from mining to power distribution, showing the environmental and health effects at every stage. That was a great visual narrative, but it was just too broad to work well as a text story. My editor and I decided on a narrower focus: Can coal be “cleaner”? Specifically, can carbon capture and storage technology really reduce the carbon footprint of coal power? That’s a really important question, and it’s one that’s almost impossible to address in photographs. Read more »


Dispatches from fact checking




I am a magazine fact checker. This is how I describe my job: “I verify and put a check mark above every single word in an article. If it is incorrect, I put a box around it and suggest a fix.”

It sounds boring, but it rarely is. At its finest, fact-checking is a little safari through someone else’s reporting process. I trace a reporter’s steps in writing the kinds of big glossy feature stories that I hope to write someday.

To verify the information in a story, I read papers, email assistants, talk to scientists, and sift through CDC reports. I’ve chatted with a mangrove tree specialist as he called me from rest stops on a road trip through Louisiana. I’ve woken up at 6:30 a.m. to Skype a solar energy scientist in Israel, from the bathroom of a sublet in Brooklyn so as to not wake up my roommates. I’ve toyed with putting NASA media headquarters as a contact in my phone.

I’ve also cursed writers for listing Wikipedia pages and sloppy WordPress sites in their footnotes. I’ve been chided by researchers for attempting to confirm misinterpretations of their experiments, or relaying the content of a banal quote they’re sure they’d never say. The most frustrating: I’ve collected my own anecdotes that never amount to more than Gchat fodder. (Writers may have to kill their darlings, but fact checkers keep them to themselves in the first place.) It is never not a learning experience, and I think I am poised to be a better writer for it. It is how I learned to be a writer in the first place, really.

One of the first stories I ever fact checked was about paleontology in a big city. The text was a little over 1,000 words. The editor handed me a thick envelope full of papers, notes, and newspaper clippings for reference. All this paper and ink had gone into making two pages of a magazine. I learned that fact checkers also act as last-ditch reporters: There were still more questions that the editor needed me to answer — details like “What did the paleontologists dig out of the ground first?” (Answer: snails, and along with it the mind-pop reward of tracking down a good detail.)

The experience of reading a good article is easy. The opposite is true of fact checking it. Getting every little detail in place is like sliding Jenga pieces back into a half-dismantled Jenga tower. It is a careful process that in the end is largely uncreative.

From the mechanical process, here’s what I’ve learned about the art of writing: Read more »


Ask TON: Clearing writer’s block



Welcome back for another installment of Ask TON. (Click here to see previous installments.)

Today’s question: How do you deal with creative block?

It’s safe to say most writers have experienced some variation of the following: You sit at your desk and a blank page stares at you. You type your byline, then you hit the “enter” key 17 times. Then you type -30- or THE END. You move the cursor back to the top and you stare at the blank screen. Then you get up and go make a sandwich. But writers gotta write, so at some point, we buckle down and get started. A few particularly prolific science writers offer tips and tricks for how to do that.

How do you get started? Read more »


Nailing the nut graf



Writing a nut graf can feel like showing your work on a math test or stopping at traffic lights when no one’s around. Ask journalists about how they constructed a nut graf, and some might actively avoid the question: At least three of the journalists I interviewed for this article talked first about characters and moments in the lead paragraphs. When the conversation turned back to the nut, they said, essentially: “Oh, right. That.” Writers seem to discredit nuts because they seem so painfully obvious, so heavy-handed, or so seriously lacking in soul.

It doesn’t have to be this way. With a little careful study, a nut graf can be just as artful as the rest of your narrative. The nut is not just a kernel of knowledge, says David Robson, a features editor at New Scientist. It’s a keystone. “You want to give a gist of the big idea behind the story, or at least the relevance of what you’re reporting and how it will change the readers’ life or understanding of the world,” Robson says. Although you don’t want spoilers to keep people from reading, you have to convince a reader to finish the story instead of clicking on the next Buzzfeed article.

Choosing material to hold the story together can be one of the most difficult parts of the writing process, and it’s different for every piece. “It’s so easy to lose sight of what makes the story relevant and interesting,” Robson says. “The nut graf is probably the bit that suffers most.” To help him focus, he jots down “key attractions” while he’s reporting so he can include them in the nut graf, which he drafts early in the writing process. When he struggles to figure out what those key attractions are, he imagines grasping for his friends’ attention down at the pub. “What one detail would I drop into the conversation to stop their eyes glazing over and get them to ask me more questions?” he asks.

Robson, like many writers, uses the nut as a story’s foundation, referring back to it frequently when drafting. Others seem to have nut allergies. Sometimes writers simply forget to include one or aren’t sure what to include or why a nut might help readers. Others fear a nut graf might give away their punch line. Jocelyn Zuckerman, a contributing editor at OnEarth (and author of “Plowed Under,” excerpted below) once butted heads with editors there over a food column she used to write. “I was frustrated,” she says. “I thought it needed something to make it more conversational. This is a different animal than a news story, so I didn’t think I needed a nut graf.”

Love them or hate them, nut grafs are something your editor is likely to require, and there’s a reason for that. Pooh Shapiro, health and science editor at The Washington Post, says she sees, in equal measure, excellent nut grafs and those that need finessing. “When someone needs help I tell them that our stories have to explain to readers: Why are we telling you about this particular thing now? Why should they care about it and make the time to read this story?” Shapiro says.

It’s no accident that nut grafs are also called billboards. After days, weeks or months reporting, writers often get so close to their stories that all the details seem clear. Readers have a different perspective. It’s easy to get lost in the twists and turns of a complicated story — or even a not-that-complicated story. Nut grafs, or billboards, give readers a chance to preview a story’s main themes and arguments from a distance before diving into the details. Think of nut grafs like the best billboards you’ve seen — a glimpse of the goodies waiting around the bend. That glimpse can intrigue readers to follow you to the end of your story. The nut can also function like a movie trailer: After introducing the story’s characters and main theses, you can hook readers by foreshadowing tensions, reversals or other suspenseful moments in your story.

While nuts should appear early, they don’t have to come right away after the story’s lede. Environmental journalist John Platt, who writes the Scientific American blog Extinction Countdown, keeps a scene-setting structure in mind. For stories about endangered species, he says, “I want to get people to care a little bit, understand the implications of what we’re talking about, or sometimes emotionally feel that context before I actually spell the nut out for them.” He watches his articles’ “stickiness” — how many minutes people spend reading — to gauge how effective he was at keeping readers’ attention.

Writing an effective nut graf requires knowing when to keep your lens narrow and when to jump out to a larger context, says Sam Fromartz, editor-in-chief of the Food and Environment Reporting Network (FERN), a nonprofit news organization that partners with publications to publish longform stories. “You’re constantly adjusting that lens,” he says, and referring details back to the issue in a nut graf. When editing Zuckerman’s story, which she produced in cooperation with FERN, Fromartz helped work the nut to move from a scene in a local diner to the wide expanse of the Northern Plains.

Even so, he says, sometimes a nut is unnecessary, especially if it becomes a crutch and doesn’t work with the story. “When it’s a really strong narrative and the story’s just driving you, that can be strong enough to hook the reader that it doesn’t necessarily need to be spelled out,” he says. Other times a single, well-placed quote that captures the story’s key meaning or significance can serve, on its own, as the nut.

But for most features and long news stories, a nut graf is necessary — and in some cases, it can help make a good story great. The following examples run the gamut from punchy quote to universal statement, from the almost-spoiler to compelling readers to satiate their curiosity. These nut grafs all work, and the writers and editors behind them explain how they were conceived.

From “The Story in the Stones” [teaser], by David Robson for New Scientist, a story about stone tools shaping the human mind as told through the work of a flintknapper named Bruce Bradley:

… My interests lie elsewhere. The stone tools on the table in front of me are not just useful, they tell the story of our journey from simple ape to thinking human. Previous attempts to trace the history of the mind have relied on speculation as much as hard evidence but, over the past three years, Bradley’s Learning to be Human project has taken a more precise approach to looking inside the heads of the people who made these tools. Combining findings about stone-tool construction with neuroscience, psychology and archaeology, we can now estimate the origins of the distinctly human mental abilities, such as when we first began to order our thoughts and actions, when our visual imagination blossomed, when we started to think about the past and the future, and when we first played make-believe. There are even hints about the emergence of our capacity for patience, shame and suspicion – and the nature of our ancestors’ dreams. …

Near the end of reporting for this story, David Robson shadowed the flintknapper Bradley. The source was a godsend, his work carrying the narrative throughout the whole article. “Sweeping evolutionary stories can be a pain to write, since they easily grow into baggy monsters without any kind of shape,” Robson says. “After all, evolution is a messy process with no clear direction or turning points, and you don’t want to be too clumsy in molding that into a narrative.”

After settling on Bradley’s stone tools to shape the story, writing the nut came fairly easily. Robson intentionally chose first-person for both the lede and nut: “I dislike feature articles with ‘disembodied’ intros that don’t gel with the nut graf. So I tried to write the transi­­tion as if my attention was wandering around the room until it finally settles on the tools, which seemed a more elegant way of segueing into the thrust of the feature.”

This paragraph is long as nut grafs go — 157 words — but the cadence heightens the experience of reading it. “You could imagine writing it more concisely; something like, ‘We can now understand the forces driving the evolution of our intelligence,’ ” Robson says. “But it just felt a lot grander when I spelled it out in a list of experiences that we can all directly relate to.”

In addition to hooking readers into the story and giving a bird’s-eye view of the story, Robson aimed to emphasize the news angle. “The fact that they can read the thoughts of our ancestors in that level of detail felt far fresher and more exciting,” he said.

From “Plowed Under” by Jocelyn Zuckerman in the left-leaning political magazine The American Prospect. The story about land conversion in the Midwest begins with pheasant hunters grumbling about disappearing prey.

… While few seem to be aware of it, a massive shift is under way in the northern plains, with ramifications for the quality of our water and food, and, more fundamentally, the long-term viability of our farms. A study published in February 2013 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that between 2006 and 2011, farmers in the Dakotas, Minnesota, Nebraska, and Iowa — the Western Corn Belt — had plowed up 1.3 million acres of native grassland in order to plant corn and soybeans. “People had been talking about the land conversion,” says Chris Wright, an assistant research professor at South Dakota State University and a co-author of the report, “but there weren’t any recent numbers.”…

In contrast to Robson, Zuckerman followed a “less is more” philosophy with this nut graf. In fact, in the first draft of this story, there was not a nut to be found. The preceding paragraph, which reads like its punchier cousin, opens with, “The region’s game birds are in serious trouble.” Zuckerman admits that at first she thought that was the nut. But the pheasants were only one part of a wider narrative.

Her editor, Fromartz, says on the first read, he kept coming back to the lede and asking, “Are the readers of American Prospect going to care about birds?” He returned the draft to Zuckerman advising her to widen her lens from the birds, and to do it early. “The first draft had a lot of puzzle pieces, but there wasn’t a lot of connective tissue,” he says. “The nut graf is your chance to hook the reader — why these little birds in a place you’ve never been in your life should matter.”

While this nut foreshadows a theme of small farm vitality, much of the article focuses on policies, crop insurance, and pollinators on the plains. There’s no hint of those topics in the nut — and by design, says Fromartz. “Once you get into policy, you can just feel your readers leaving,” he says. “What was smart about this is she made the point that this is the greatest loss of these grasslands since the 1920s [in the next graf], and readers ask, ‘What’s up with that?’”

Zuckerman agrees. “I’m more interested in saying, ‘Here’s the problem,’ and then later look at how is this happening?” she says.

From “Can what you eat affect your mental health?” by Gisela Telis for The Washington Post, which opens with a woman’s depression vanishing after she changed her diet.

… Corbitt had stumbled into an area that scientists have recently begun to investigate: whether food can have as powerful an impact on the mind as it does on the body.

Research exploring the link between diet and mental health “is a very new field; the first papers only came out a few years ago,” said Michael Berk, a professor of psychiatry at the Deakin University School of Medicine in Australia. “But the results are unusually consistent, and they show a link between diet quality and mental health.”…

Using the one-two punch of an anecdotal lede plus scientist-quote nut, let Telis set readers up for a compelling double storyline: following scientists committed to finding answers for their patients and women taking the initiative to change their lives.

Telis found an organic rhythm for telling the story after discovering her lede character early on. “I wanted to back out and get into the science of what her anecdote means — if anything,” she says. The nut, she says, came easily once her interviews were in place.

The story could have been about an ignored field of science, or one that people are resistant to accept, Telis says. Yet after hearing the same explanation from multiple sources that “nobody’s studying this, but we’re starting to,” Telis felt confident enough to make it the nut and let the rest of the story follow. She looked back in her notes to find the most striking and accessible quote. “I thought, how do I turn this personal story into the general?” she says. “And I try to do that as quickly as possible to move readers along.”

From “The last meadows?” by Roberta Kwok in Aeon, a story about trees’ “hostile takeover” of mountain meadows. The story starts out atop a peaceful peak in Washington.

… Trees are already on the move. Global warming has allowed forests to infiltrate meadows that were previously too cold or snowy, and grazing animals and fires no longer hold seedlings in check. A 2012 study led by forest ecologist Harold Zald at Oregon State University in Corvallis showed that trees have expanded from 8 per cent to 35 per cent of the meadow area in part of Oregon’s Central Cascade Mountains over the past six decades. At two ridges in Canada’s Rocky Mountains, the average meadow size shrank by 78 per cent from the 1950s to 1990s. Pines and larches are creeping into meadows in the European Alps too, and a 2009 meta-analysis led by the biologist Melanie Harsch, then at Lincoln University in New Zealand suggested that treelines have advanced to higher altitudes or latitudes at about half of surveyed sites worldwide. …

This is not your traditional nut graf, just as Kwok intended. While Telis widened her lens, Kwok flashed hers around to different locations.

For this piece, Kwok knew that most readers see trees as victims of climate change, disease and other threats. To show trees threatening other ecosystems, she says, “I thought it might take a bit of convincing to get readers on board with that idea, so I wanted to back up that statement with data early on. I wanted to show readers that this was a real phenomenon and had been studied pretty extensively at sites around the world.”

Like many of us, Kwok tends to write nut grafs that usually provide “mini-outlines,” for her stories. But after a while, she says, that approach feels formulaic. “If there’s another way that you can introduce the story and keep the reader interested, go for it.”

At the end of the day, writing nut grafs might still feel like eating your veggies.  But that doesn’t mean you can’t dress them up to be delicious.


Tina CasagrandTina Casagrand is a TON Fellow sponsored by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. She is freelance journalist and recent graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, where she studied magazine writing and publishing, anthropology, biology, and art. Her favorite nut is an almond. You can follow her on Twitter @gasconader.

Photos from Flickr user Angelo Amboldi.

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