A Day in the Life of Ann Finkbeiner

Ann Finkbeiner is a freelance science writer who occasionally writes about science advising but usually writes about astronomy and its subset, cosmology. In her words: “I’m married to a retired physicist who ends every explanation with, ‘Your problem is, you don’t know any physics,’ which is true but not a help. I used to run the graduate program in science writing in the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins, the graduates of which were and are superb. I’m co-proprietor of The Last Word on Nothing, a collective science blog, also superb.” Follow Ann on Twitter @annfinkbeiner.

Ann Finkbeiner

Ann Finkbeiner

What I’m working on:

I’m freelance, no regular paying gigs. I used to run a small graduate program in science writing and worried, when the program was taken out back and shot, that I wouldn’t remember how to scramble. ​No worries.

I’ve just finished a story on how galaxies manage their gas supply, which is way more interesting than it sounds, though you’d think I’d know by now how to make it sound as interesting as it is. The story is for Science, for an editor with whom I’ve worked a few times, and a top editor with whom I’ve worked many times. And though I feel at home with these editors, I’m scared to pieces. I’m not sure how enthusiastic they were about the story in the first place, and I’m pretty sure they’ll notice the artfully papered-over gaps in it, let alone the gaps I didn’t even find. I’m worried that these editors with whom I’m so comfortable will be disappointed in me and tell me to write it over again from scratch, or they’ll maybe tell me it’s not even worth saving and here’s $10, go buy a drink. I’ve been a professional writer for maybe 30 years, and terror and despair and self-doubts never go away. I’m used to them. The solution to the problem is easy anyway: I trust that the editors are unlikely to kill the story; and if they do tell me it’s terrible, I’ll fix it.

Also, I’ve just been outmaneuvered by a reviews editor at Nature into reviewing in a small number of words two large, substantive books on related and difficult subjects, which is a real honor, except for the pay that no self-respecting freelancer should ever work for but hey, honor.

And next I have to think up another story to sell to someone. I should probably be trying to think up another book too. Right now I have nothing in mind for a story but I’m full of hope and optimism. I have even less in mind for a book and won’t discuss it. Read more »

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Four editors give tips on writing headlines. You won’t believe what happens next.

headlinesGood headlines achieve balance. They pique the reader’s interest without demanding it, they allude to the story without giving it away, and they give specific details without being technical. On top of that, good headlines should also be “funny, surprising, clear or crisp,” says Laura Helmuth, the science and health editor at Slate.  Read more »

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Ask TON: Conducting and condensing Q&A interviews

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Welcome back for another installment of Ask TON. This week: Writing, and editing, Q&As. (Click here to read previous installments.)

Sometimes, the best way to share a good interview is just to let a source speak in his or her own words. But writing a good Q&A isn’t as easy as ask-and-answer. There’s plenty of organizing before the fact, followed by (likely heavy) editing, condensing or otherwise shortening into a reasonable, readable length with good flow.

If you’re assigned a Q&A with a well-known doctor or scientist, how do you approach it? What’s the one question you should definitely ask anyone, regardless of background? And how do you decide what to leave out of a Q&A? Read more »

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Naming the dog: The art of narrative structure

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A few years ago, I adopted a puppy. I’d picked the runt of the litter and in the weeks that I waited for him to wean, I made a list of a dozen or so potential names. In the end, I used none of them. I needed to spend time with the dog before I knew whether he was a Baxter or a Jack or something else. Turned out, he was Oskar, a name that wasn’t on my list. I simply knew after a day or two that this was the perfect name for my dog.

For me, structuring a narrative feels like naming the dog. The structure falls out of the story itself. I can’t outline it in advance; I need to get deep into the story and the reporting first. I don’t know what I’m looking for, but I know it when I see it. Sometimes I recognize as it’s happening that a scene will become the lede that sets the stage for the story (like when a source’s father slapped me on the head); other times it’s something seemingly random, like a David Bowie tune on the radio that helps me articulate a story’s theme. Once I know what the story is about and have decided on a lede, I look for the ending. With those pieces in place, I start writing. Afterwards, I can look at the story and see that I’ve used a particular structure, but I find it impossible to set a structure and then write to it.

This process of mine works fine, but it can seem haphazard, and I’ve always had a vague notion that there must be a better way to approach structure. If anyone has a method, I figured it would be Sandy Blakeslee, the author of eight books and countless articles for the Science Times. Blakeslee was one of my first mentors, and she’s always struck me as a particularly organized and efficient writer.

When I called her recently to ask about her process, she confirmed that she always sketches out a structure before she writes. “It’s like a crutch for me, I need something to hang on to or else I’m wandering,” she says. “Some people say, ‘Oh, just start writing and don’t worry about how you put it together right away.’ I think that’s the worst advice you can give anybody, because if you don’t know where you’re going, you’re lost.” Before she writes, Blakeslee outlines the story’s beginning, middle and end and then relentlessly sticks to her outline.

Unlike Blakeslee, I never outline, but I do spend hours thinking about my story’s lede and narrative arc before I ever sit down to write. For every hour I spend writing, I spend many more fidgeting (or running or skiing) while turning the story over in my mind. Often I’ll deliberately focus on finding a lede and it’s no accident that my best ones have come to me while running or biking or walking the dog. Blakeslee admits she does this too, and our approaches may not be as different as they seem.

“You’re actually thinking about structure much earlier than you think you are,” says Tom French, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who teaches at Indiana University. “The moment you decide on the universe of your story, you’re making a decision about structure.” As an example, he points to his book, Zoo Story: Life in the Garden of Captives. He wanted the book to explore the notions of freedom and captivity, and when he learned that Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa was preparing to load 11 previously free-roaming elephants into crates to fly them across the ocean to their zoo, he decided that this elephant transfer would play a central role in his story. French’s decision to focus his book on this incident and the Tampa zoo in particular was a major structural decision that he made before he ever started writing. Read more »

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Creating characters on the page

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“There’s no better place to find characters than science,” Erik Vance says. He should know; he makes characters come alive on the page all the time. Vance, a freelance writer based in Mexico City, has covered a wilderness medic who is creating a nasal spray to buy time for snakebite victims, a whale biologist who specializes in cetacean autopsies, and a woman who spent her teenage years in a back brace and ponders the possibility of treating Parkinson’s patients using the placebo effect.

That makes Vance and other writers an invaluable resource for tips on creating a nonfiction character. How can a reporter best capture the details of a living, breathing person in the black-and-white of ink? Especially when that person is a scientist, whose stereotype is that of a boringly analytical character? Read more »

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Smooth scriptwriting

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Like reporters on any beat, science journalists have the option of telling stories through a variety of media. Audio and video provide alternate ways of crafting compelling narratives. But writing for multimedia outlets involves a different set of skills than writing for print.

A group of science journalists and producers recently guided TON through the process of writing a successful science script. Through a series of emails, they shared their script-writing process — from choosing a medium, to piecing the story together, to clarifying interviews in post-production. And they highlighted common pitfalls that writers new to multimedia should watch out for. Read more »

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Ask TON: Using outlines and storyboards

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Welcome back for another installment of Ask TON. This week: Should you use an outline or a storyboard when planning to write a longer story? (Click here to read previous installments.)  Read more »

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A Day in the Life of John Timmer

John Timmer is the science editor of Ars Technica and teaches journalism, communications, and scientific writing at Stony Brook University and Weill Cornell Medical College. You can see more about what he does or follow him on Twitter @j_timmer.

John Timmer

John Timmer

Where I work:

I work in a home office in Brooklyn. Ars Technica runs online: we have a virtual office in an IRC channel and a staff-only IM server. I’m also available via Skype and Gtalk, since a lot of the writers are freelancers and don’t have access to the staff resources. Even though Ars is owned by Condé Nast, which is based in New York City, I’ve probably been in the corporate offices an average of less than once a year.

My home office has a desk, and I use that a lot of the time. I’ve got a tall filing cabinet that I can put my laptop on so I can read while standing. And, weather permitting, I spend some time on my balcony, which is lovely in the spring and fall (but too hot or cold in the other seasons). I’ve got enough focus that I can work on the subway or in parks and coffee shops, so I try to do a bit of that too, just to make sure I don’t end up feeling trapped in my office. Read more »

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Single Best: Cristine Russell

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 Cristine Russell talks about the, er, breakthrough moment when she learned to avoid a certain science writing cliché. Russell is an adjunct professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and former president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Follow her on Twitter @russellcris.

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Tackling the physical sciences

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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. Read more »

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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.

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A Day in the Life of Brian Switek

Brian Switek writes the National Geographic blog Laelaps. His work has appeared in Slate, Nature, the Wall Street Journal, Smithsonian, Scientific American, and others. He also is the author of two books, Written in Stone and My Beloved Brontosaurus. Follow Brian on Twitter @laelaps.

brian-zion

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 »

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