What single concept or skill do you feel is most important for your students to learn, and what is your approach to teaching it?
All of us, students and employed writers and journalists alike, struggle to write nut grafs. We discussed and explored this concept repeatedly throughout the class I taught this fall. Initially, I defined what a nut graf is, as I understand it, and showed the students many examples of nut grafs in published work. We critiqued them. We also did some in-class exercises where I asked students to find the nut grafs in published stories. Then we practiced writing nut grafs in class based on the information in press releases (the releases do not take the place of our reporting in practice, of course, but we can use them for this exercise as sets of information that can spark stories; also, some releases lack a nut graf, or we can craft a different one).
For this type of in-class writing exercise, I often asked the students to copy each of their candidate nut grafs for a particular story into a single shared document so that we then could compare and discuss their work semi-anonymously as a group. And they were required to turn in a draft of a nut graf before they turned in a full writing assignment/story. I think that helped students understand what their story was about and how to center their story on the plan expressed in the evolving nut graf.
What specific skills-related experiences outside the classroom do you think are most important for students to have in their training?
Students want and need to practice their in-person and phone interviewing skills. Many of us start out as journalists a bit daunted by the prospect of asking people any questions at all, let alone tough questions. We are afraid that people will think we are rude. Or we are not talkative or socially outgoing at first. Or we are nervous at the prospect of speaking with someone eminent or whom we perceive as smarter than us. Or we fear that sources will be condescending or arrogant. With practice, we learn how to deal with these issues, how to prepare well for interviews when time permits, and we develop skills for interviewing both helpful and less helpful sources.
What have you learned in your own career that you most hope to convey to your students?
I have learned that this work/career doesn’t have to be rocket science, that we can learn how to do it well with practice, practice, practice, rather than an academic approach. So, overall, I try to teach a practical course that gives students many opportunities to work on skills—that empowers students and gives them confidence that they can do this work and make a living doing it.
What textbooks and other reading do you use in your teaching?
This past semester, we read from The Science Writers’ Handbook, by Writers of SciLance, Thomas Hayden (ed.), Michelle Nijhuis (ed.); A Field Guide for Science Writers, by Deborah Blum (ed.), Mary Knudson (ed.), Robin Marantz Henig (ed.); and On Writing Well, by William Zinsser. Among those three quasi-textbooks, the students liked Zinsser the most, so I will assign more from it in the future. We read a lot of Mary Roach’s work too and enjoyed that immensely. Jon Franklin’s classic “The End of Science Writing” also drew positive reviews and raises historical and philosophical issues that I like the students to consider.
What resources do you wish were more readily available for students?
A bona fide textbook. It doesn’t have to be long, but a textbook with some definitions, standards, exercises, discussion questions, and examples would be helpful as a reference.
What is a science story that you admire, and why?
I love the fluid narrative writing in Summer Brennan’s The Oyster War.
I also admire so much of the work done by some of my earlier-career colleagues, including this story about the only legal safe injection facility in North America, by Francie Diep, this story about bilingualism in kids with autism, by Ann Griswold, and this story about the shortcomings of the U.S. Indian Health Service, by Nidhi Subbaraman.
I’ll focus on Nidhi’s story: I admire the way she weaves people’s experiences with a fair amount of history, a portrait of a community, and details of the legal and political proceedings that serve as the story’s meat. She focuses on several engaging characters. She captures many powerful quotes from them and uses their words effectively to help paint a picture of the injustices surrounding the featured hospital and the underserved community. The story nicely builds a case, with an arc that peaks by exposing the hypocrisy, callousness, negligence, ruthlessness, and incompetence of some of the people in power. Overall, the story is a terrific example of how journalists can report deeply to tell stories that can spur social progress and redress.