Single Best: Dan Ferber


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, longtime science journalist and author Dan Ferber talks about the detective skills needed to spin a good science yarn. After many years of freelancing for publications such as Science, Reader’s Digest, HHMI Bulletin and others. Ferber is now a science writer for Harvard University’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering. He is also the co-author of Changing Planet, Changing Health: How the Climate Crisis Threatens our Health and What We Can Do About It. Follow him on Twitter @danferber.


Writing revealing stories based on unreliable sources



This conversation began with another one. And that one began with a reprinted chapter of Will Storr’s book on people who were unpersuadable — that is, whose beliefs didn’t match agreed-upon reality but were nonetheless fixed. In this chapter, excerpted in Matter as “The Itch Nobody Can Scratch,” the fixed beliefs people had were that they had a disease called Morgellons, in which painful, itchy fibers crawl out of their skin. And that earlier conversation was about how to interview those people. This conversation is about the next, more difficult step: now that you’ve got these interviews with disputable sources, how the hell do you write the story?

Ann: This is a tough question and any answers almost depend on the story. In our first conversation, you said that you don’t generally go on the attack during an interview and any attacking you want to do, “… is done in the copy, by what’s finally revealed.” That assumes you’ve decided to attack. So first of all, how do you make that decision?

Once I wrote a story about child abuse and I wanted to attack both the research psychologists whose research I thought was well-meaning but dumb, and of course the child abusers. But the researchers were doing the best they could with pitiful grants and I didn’t interview any abusers, so I didn’t attack. Or maybe you don’t mean you attack directly, maybe you just mean you lay out the case and let the reader make the judgment.

Will Storr

Will Storr

Will: In those cases, I meant “attack” in the sense that the facts as I see them are laid out on the page. Probably every story is an attack, if only in the sense that you’re assessing the arguments of opposing sides and guiding the reader to the conclusion you’ve come to. Inevitably, one side is going to come off less well.

The most extreme example of this that I’ve done was for a chapter of The Unpersuadables. I met Lord Christopher Monckton who is a former government advisor and high profile climate change denier (and something of a celebrity in Tea Party circles). I wanted to test my idea that the source of much irrationality lies in the stories we tell about the world, and our place within it. So, instead of having a complex (and, let’s face it, dull) back and forth about climate data, I simply said, “Tell me your story.” Then (apart from one point when he appeared to be saying something misleading about his past and I couldn’t help myself…) I was just a nodding machine, smiling and agreeing. What came out was the most incredible tale. Read more »


#$%^* this: What else are my skills good for?



We science writers are so lucky to have a site like The Open Notebook working overtime to make us the best science writers we can be. Yes, it’s extremely important to carefully nurture our craft, so that we can use those skills … in some other line of work. Any other line of work. I mean, I’m just joking. Of course I’m joking. Still, let’s just say a person was not totally 100 percent joking about switching fields. What other work is a science writer suited for? Read more »


Ask TON: Taking notes discreetly


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

Today’s question: When you are reporting for a narrative story, interviewing sources — say a researcher or a family — how do you take notes or record what’s going on without being obtrusive?

Dan Ferber, science writer, Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering and longtime freelance science journalist and author:

I don’t know how to be inconspicuous about it, so I’m transparent instead. I’m open about what I’m doing. But I do try to stay out of the action. I keep my mouth shut and let the other people there talk, ideally to each other, and ideally about whatever it is I’m writing about. Typically I’ll have a notebook handy to jot down what I’m seeing, hearing, smelling, what the air feels like, all sorts of atmospherics. I try to do that in the slow moments when I’m on the scene with the researcher, family, whoever, but not much is happening just yet.

When the researcher or a family is doing something interesting that I might end up using, I stay quiet and pay attention. I jot down in my notebook any snippets of dialogue or, especially, action, that seem potentially powerful or poignant or emblematic of what I think the scene is all about. I try to keep an audio recorder running and often take snapshots with a point-and-shoot camera. The audio and the snapshots very often help flesh out what remains in my memory and the chicken scratches in my notebook.

Also, the same evening or the next morning at the latest, I try to type up recollections of any character I want to describe or scene I think I might use. These recollections are usually less granular than what I captured at the moment everything was happening, and complement the on-the-scene reporting.

Brooke Borel, freelance science journalist:

I think it’s important to balance getting the information you need with making the source comfortable. If they feel skittish about how you’re recording your time together, you aren’t going to get the best material, but you also need to have a good enough record that you can recreate a scene later on.

When I was reporting for my book, for example, I spent two-and-a-half weeks traveling through the UK, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Germany. Most days were packed. There is no way I could have remembered everything I needed to when I was writing those chapters months later without my audio files, notes, and photos. I almost always have my digital recorder, an Olympus VN-6200PC, hanging on a lanyard around my neck. I point it out early on and explain that it will run in the background so that I can double check quotes and other information when I write the story.

Near the beginning, I also remind sources that anything we talk about could potentially end up in the story unless they explicitly tell me they want to go off the record, especially if they don’t appear to be media savvy. I’ve learned that it’s better have the ground rules clear from the start so there aren’t any surprises. The recorder usually fades into the background after that, but if I get the sense a source isn’t opening up because of it, I do sometimes put it away and rely on my notes. As the recorder runs, I use a small notebook to record details like scenery, a description of my source, and anything else I notice that won’t get captured by the audio. If the source says something particularly illuminating or quotable, I check the time on my recorder and jot down the timestamp along with a note about what they said. I’m intrigued by the Livescribe pen, though, and might invest in one to streamline my process.

I also usually have a small digital camera in my pocket. I take a lot of photos when I’m reporting and have found that I go back through them often when I’m building a scene. I wait until the source seems comfortable before I start snapping, though, and I also ask to make sure it’s okay to take photos of specific rooms or people or items. All that said, I don’t continuously take notes or pictures. Many times during interviews, I’ll set the camera and notebook aside and just listen.

Paul Raeburn, freelance science journalist, author, and chief media critic at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker:

For my new book, Do Fathers Matter? What Science Is Telling Us About the Parent We’ve Overlooked, I interviewed a family with a child with Angelman syndrome and another family with a child with Prader-Willi syndrome. (The two are related to the same set of epigenetic factors.)

I interviewed the children and their parents in their homes, and I made no effort whatsoever to disguise or downplay the fact that I was recording and taking notes. My strategy was the opposite. I asked to sit at a table so I could set up my laptop, I put my recorder on the table, and I tapped away as we talked. I understand the problem: We want people we talk to, especially regular people who aren’t accustomed to being interviewed, to be relaxed and to speak candidly. But I find that when the conversation takes hold, the noise of the keyboard or the downward glance at the recorder recede into the background.

And there is also a principle here: It is essential that reporters identify themselves properly and fully, in order to win the trust of our sources. I admit that in both of these cases, the families and even their children were eager to talk to me. (The child with Angelman has very limited speech, but he was very affectionate and able to communicate happiness and friendship without words.) But in a more antagonistic interview, a source is less likely to overlook recording and note-taking, so even in those circumstances, it’s probably best to dangle equipment and notebooks where they are convenient.

Linda Marsa, freelance journalist and author: 

Sources know why you’re there, so I don’t think it’s a case where you can hide stuff — like when Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein would excuse themselves from talking to sources and would secretly take notes in the bathroom during the Watergate investigation. The main point here is making sources feel comfortable enough that they forget you’re taking notes or recording them.  And if you forget about it — i.e., don’t be obsessive — they’re more likely to forget, too.

I almost always tape conversations when I’m meeting scientists in person. In-person interviews are not a conversation — they require very intense, active listening, which you really can’t do if you’re too busy taking notes. But the new digital recorders — which are so tiny — make it easier to be less obtrusive. And scientists expect that you’ll be taking notes and recording, even if they’re just showing you around the lab.

When I’m with so-called “real people” sources, I usually just jot down notes about key points because you’re really there to get a feel for who they are and to pick up bits of color to flesh out your narrative. I think we all have a tendency to take too many notes, which can be a distraction for your subjects and stop you from being fully present and catching all those telling details that bring a story to life.

You can also jot down notes verbally into your tape recorder — here again, those small digital recorders which fit into a shirt pocket are a godsend. You can go back later and fill in the blanks over the phone or via email.

These days, I use my smartphone a lot to take notes, too — taking quick shots of the person so you remember exactly what they’re wearing and what they look like, or of the scenes so you can re-create them accurately later on. I usually make feeble jokes about what a hopeless technophobe I am — which is true! — so people feel a little more comfortable with me taking photos. And I tell them they’re just for me — we won’t be using them in the magazine.

One other point: Use small notebooks — the kind that can fit in your pocket or purse. Those reporter’s notebooks work well. Here again, you’re trying not to draw attention to what you’re doing, and a smaller notebook is easier to manage. *


Photo by Shutterstock.


Tools: Sipping from the Internet firehose


I’ve heard tales of mythical creatures who use the Internet efficiently. They complete emails and research in surgical missions and then step away without distraction. Or so I’ve heard. I am not one of them. I tend to jump down rabbit holes full of information and perspectives and tantalizing gifs, emerging hours later maybe a little smarter, yet definitely overloaded.

But I know that working smarter, not harder, is vital to a productive freelance career. Good stories lurk in all the blogs, posts, and tweets in the world, waiting to be told. I just need tools to organize them. Here are two that help me get a grip on the information onslaught. Read more »


Jon Mooallem uncovers a wild plan to bring hippopotamus ranching to America


Jon Mooallem

Jon Mooallem is fascinated by the relationships between humans and other animals, a topic he explores in his 2013 book Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America. Mooallem is a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine, and a frequent contributor to other magazines and radio shows, including This American Life, Harpers and WIRED, where for a short time he wrote a column called This Week in Wild Animals.

In researching Wild Ones, Mooallem came across a story that sounded too strange to be true: a plan to bring hippopotamus ranching to the bayous of Louisiana in the early 20th century. The hippos would solve two problems at once, proponents argued: They would provide a new source of protein for a nation in the midst of a meat shortage, and they’d gobble up invasive water hyacinth that was choking waterways and killing fish. The idea made it all the way to the U.S. Congress, which held a hearing on the matter in 1910.

Mooallem first told the story at a Pop-Up magazine in San Francisco in 2010. The story “American Hippopotamus” finally appeared in print in December 2013, in The Atavist. It turned out to be about more than just hippo ranching. It’s a story about a more idealistic time in our nation’s history and two men — spies and sworn enemies — who found a common cause in the hippopotamus scheme.

Here, Mooallem tells TON guest contributor Greg Miller about how he researched this century-old story and tried to make its characters come to life:

hippo-finalHow did you come across this story?

I started Wild Ones in the spring of 2010 and one of the first things I did was I got a little obsessed with this guy named William Temple Hornaday. He was a taxidermist turned conservationist in the early 1900s. I was reading this giant book he wrote called Our Vanishing Wildlife. It’s basically one big screed, but in the middle of it there’s this one detail where he says something like, how stupid it is that Mr. Broussard thinks he needs to bring African animals to America to replace the ones we’ve annihilated. I didn’t know what that meant, but then a little Googling brought me to the transcript of that Congressional hearing in 1910.

Reading through that document was just mind blowing. They would say things like, why not bring zebras, they would make the plains so much more beautiful. And, giraffes taste delicious and the leather is great, let’s put them in Arizona. Read more »


Single Best: Seth Mnookin


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 and author Seth Mnookin shares a singular bit of advice about making time for creative work.

Mnookin is co-director of the MIT Graduate Program in Science Writing and author of The Panic Virus: The True Story Behind the Vaccine-Autism Controversy. Follow him on Twitter @sethmnookin.


Writing Magic: The Mechanic and the Muse



If you haven’t had the pleasure of taking a writing or editing course from Jacqui Banaszynski, you’re missing out. Banaszynski, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and editor who teaches at the University of Missouri School of Journalism and at the Poynter Institute (which offers a deep and wide selection of courses, both in-person and remote, for mid-career journalists of all stripes), is a specialist in the kind of deep-dive narrative journalism we often examine at The Open Notebook. Jeanne and I have both participated in workshops she’s led in the past and have come away inspired, energized and full of new ideas. Banaszynski is going to be leading a terrific-sounding workshop that we’d like to call attention to. Titled “Writing Magic: The Mechanic and the Muse,” the workshop will take place at the at the Madeline Island School of the Arts from June 2-6. It will include a mix of writing exercises, one-on-one instruction, peer critique and group discussion. From the course announcement:

[W]e will explore the necessary steps and core techniques that all good writers master to take them from a fresh, viable idea through gathering the needed raw material through a variety of structural options through a polished, finished piece.  We will place special emphasis on a story’s most essential elements: scene, character, emotion and revelatory detail.  

In a note to “fellow travelers, wanderers, wonderers, writers and lovers of words and stories,” Banaszynski writes that the workshop will “blend inspiration and application — valuable for working journalists, freelancers, travel writers and, yes, those working on memoir and fiction.” Jacqui told me that the workshop will emphasize literary techniques that bring all writing to life, but the focus is on non-fiction – and of special value for people who write from specialty fields like science, health and the environment. She wants to help writers find fresh, human approaches to their work. Check it out!


Data Journalism: A Primer for Science Journalists


Did you ever know someone who was devastatingly handsome, made great conversation and whom everybody talked about even after he left the room?


That’s kind of how I think about good computer-assisted reporting (CAR), also often referred to as data journalism. These projects turn spreadsheets into insightful infographics, support stories with concrete context, get passed around, and keep people talking. Think of the New York Times’ recent interactive piece, “Can you Live on the Minimum Wage?” or its classic “Toxic Waters” series.

As great as that sounds, CAR can certainly seem intimidating to the uninitiated. But your journalism will be better for using CAR, and somebody needs to liberate those data to tell the next big story. Once you get to know some methods, it’s likely you’ll get hooked on bringing added depth to your stories. For scientists-turned-journalists, CAR might even be more familiar than you think. Read more »


Track changes: Making the switch from writer to editor


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Writers and editors don’t always see eye-to-eye. Sometimes those differences can make it feel like they simply don’t understand each other. But many editors come to their jobs after spending many years as writers, and they bring that experience with them when they take on their new roles. Last week, five writers-turned-editors participated in a roundtable discussion, via a series of group emails, to discuss what they’ve learned in making the switch. I opened the conversation and then let it evolve.

The editors participating in the discussion were:

Siri Carpenter, features editor, Discover
Eva Emerson, editor in chief, Science News
Eric Hand, U.S. news editor, Nature
Amy Maxmen, senior editor, Nautilus
Corinna Wu, associate editor, Chemical & Engineering News Read more »


A Day in the Life of Maggie Koerth-Baker



What I’m Working On:
Currently, I’m trying to get back into the swing of my regular rhythm after being pregnant and going on maternity leave last fall. It was really hard for me to focus on work the last month or so of my pregnancy and then Althea was born and I took two months off. She started daycare at the beginning of January, and so now I also have a totally new family routine to arrange my work life around. But I’m getting the hang of it.

I’m a freelancer, but I have a couple of contract gigs that play a big role in my monthly and daily cycles. I’m the science editor at, a technology and culture blog with 6 million monthly readers. I also have a monthly column with The New York Times Magazine. On a daily basis, I have to browse the internet and find neat science-related stories, videos, and pictures to link to at BoingBoing. On a weekly basis, I’m usually working on one of the three feature stories I write for BoingBoing every month. Overlaid on top of that is the Times work, which I usually do over the course of two weeks every month. Then there’s deadlines for other stories that I’ve pitched, a bi-monthly column I write for Ensia magazine, and the time I take to work on my more long-term goals, like a new book project I’m in the process of writing a proposal for.

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Althea (with her dad’s help) ghostwrites a story under the byline “Maggie Koerth-Baker.”

Where I Work:
I live in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I used to work in my office, which is in the basement of our house. I’ve got a walking desk down there and my own separate thermostat, which is lovely in winter. But since I came back after maternity leave I’ve been working at the dining room table upstairs. There’s a couple of reasons for that. First, my office is in the midst of a deep clean/organizing. It’s at that stage where it’s actually almost clean, but still looks like a wreck and it’s hard for me to work in the midst of that. The other issue is pumping. Now that my daughter is in daycare, I have to use the breast pump four times a day, roughly every two hours throughout my workday. Doing that upstairs, a couple of steps from the kitchen sink and the refrigerator, makes the whole thing feel like less of a distraction to my work time. But I like breastfeeding when I’m not at work, so I figure that anything that makes pumping even a little bit less of a hassle is probably worth it. Read more »


Single Best: Elizabeth Preston


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 Elizabeth Preston shares her insights into writing about science for kids.

Preston is editor of MUSE magazine for kids ages 10 and up. She also writes the blog Inkfish, hosted by Discover . Follow her on Twitter @InkfishEP.

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