Writing Elegant Background

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Background has a bit of an image problem among science writers. It’s clearly the underdog to its more exciting cousins, the lede and the kicker, which seem to get all our creative attention.

Background, also known as exposition, provides a feature article with the history and context that help a story make sense in the moment and find its place in the bigger picture. It’s a dignified role, but too often we writers treat background as the sawdust sandwich, the murky middle, the part where we stand at the chalkboard and give a history lesson. These are the paragraphs editors tell writers to keep short so we can get on with the story. How then, can writers raise the status of our stories’ tired middles with some creativity and elegance to match the energy of our enticing beginnings and stellar endings?

First, we might start with an attitude adjustment, says writer and editor Michelle Nijhuis. “As journalists we are so trained to think that only the new thing is interesting. History is not inherently boring. It’s our responsibility to make it interesting. That goes for any kind of explanatory context.”

All stories need some explanatory or historical background to tell readers where the story fits into their world. The writer’s challenge is to figure out how much history and context is necessary, where it fits in, and how to write it so it doesn’t slow readers down.

One approach to writing background is sometimes referred to as the Wall Street Journal model. As Nijhuis describes in The Science Writers’ Handbook, this approach involves an opening scene or anecdote, a nut graf, and a stand-alone section of background, after which the story proceeds chronologically. This works well for new scientific discoveries and is the preferred model for many science-news outlets.

An alternative approach, which Nijhuis also describes, is sometimes called the “layer cake,” the “A-B,” or the “zipper” structure. It’s a feature story that “alternates between sections of narrative and explanatory sections of context or history.” It’s a braided narrative approach where background is woven in throughout the story a phrase, a few sentences, or a paragraph at a time.

The approach a writer chooses should depend on the publication’s style, the material available from reporting, and the nature of the story. “You might decide, I really want people to focus on the present day, so even though there is this interesting background story, I’m going to keep that pretty short. Or, you might have the background material and decide it’s really important and want to give it some weight, in which case the braided approach is great,” says Nijhuis.

Both approaches take finesse to do well. “Background information is pretty easy to write poorly,” says Tim De Chant, editor at NOVA Next. “Done wrong, it can read like a list or a lecture. But done right, background can make some of the most opaque concepts perfectly transparent.”


Start with Familiar Ideas

When writing background as a separate section, a writer needs to connect what’s being explained to a bigger picture, says De Chant. The knowledge a background section offers is a reward in itself, but it has greater value to readers if it helps them understand something about their world.

The best background sections start with a deep understanding of the audience, De Chant says. “What is the readers’ level of comfort with the material? What words can we expect them to know? What are we going to have to hold their hand through and what can we hand-wave away so they don’t get lost in the details?”

Start from a point of familiarity and proceed logically. “Background sections should be as straightforward as possible,” he says, “They should also introduce jargon slowly and with prejudice. When jargon is used, I try to ensure that we ease the reader into it using simple language.” To keep it interesting, though, the language shouldn’t be overly plain. A bit of color and imagery can go a long way.

As an example, De Chant highlights Amanda Gefter’s 2014 NOVA Next story “From Discovery to Dust.” The story is about how inflation after the Big Bang—which is thought to have started from a tiny, more or less uniform point—could have created the universe we know today.

Gefter writes:

Quantum fluctuations are born of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, which says that certain pairs of physical characteristics—position and momentum, time and energy—are bound together by a fundamental elusiveness, wherein the more accurately we can specify one, the more wildly the value of the other fluctuates. The universe cannot be perfectly uniform—uncertainty will not allow it. At a precise moment in time, energy varies recklessly; at a well-defined position, momentum soars and swerves. Precise moments and well-defined positions normally mean tiny scales of time and space, but inflation blows all that up. Inflation, Mukhanov told Linde, could take these tiny quantum fluctuations on the order of 10^-33 cm and stretch them to astronomical proportions, creating slight peaks and valleys throughout space and laying a gravitational blueprint for what would eventually become a network of stars and galaxies.

De Chant comments:

I love the way Amanda slowly lowers the reader into the usually intimidating world of theoretical physics. “Quantum fluctuations” are not something a person on the street is expected to know, but there’s a decent chance that they’ve heard of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. In case they haven’t, she explains that in simple language. One sentence in and they’ve already digested two bits of knowledge.

Then she deftly connects it to the rest of the story, which centers around the theory of inflation. “The universe cannot be perfectly uniform—uncertainty will not allow it.” In that sentence, she explains, in simple terms, why the universe is the way it is by building on what the reader learned one sentence earlier. Then, she brings in some imagery. “Precise moments and well-defined positions normally mean tiny scales of time and space, but inflation blows all that up.” It evokes the Big Bang without specifically mentioning it.


Sculpt and Weave

Most science stories will have a mountain of history. A writer needs to choose only enough history and context for readers to understand why they should care about the story you’re about to tell them. When writing about one scientist’s discovery, background is often naturally linear; in that case, it writes itself. Other stories are more difficult, which can make writing background tricky.

“The art in science writing comes from figuring out which thread to choose so that your reader will understand the significance of the new finding or mission or theory,” says Sally Adee, who edits technology features at New Scientist. “That makes it sound easy, but finding good background is like sculpting,” in that it involves carving away unnecessary information, she says.

One main purpose of background material is to set the stakes for stories, Adee says. “For example, a story about a new NASA mission to understand why the sun is magnetic might use the Carrington Event of 1859 as background to show what happened the last time a solar flare hit Earth—compasses went haywire all over the world and telegraphs malfunctioned. While the malfunction was inconvenient in 1859, it would create a major problem in 2016. Suddenly you want to know exactly how they plan to solve the mystery of the sun’s magnetism,” says Adee.

Publications vary in how much background they like to provide, Adee says, so writers need to be steered by their editors. New Scientist, she says, prefers to go very short on background—two to at most four targeted paragraphs. “The attitude is, hurry up and get out of the way so we can tell the story,” says Adee. “But there’s always an exception that proves the rule.”

As an example, she offers Samantha Murphy’s 2013 story “Mood Swings,” “which is about the rising number of patients suffering from treatment-resistant depression. The piece explores how over the past couple of decades, the efficacy of antidepressants purportedly slid from 90 percent to the same as placebo treatment. It is a mystery story that culminates in a failure of science and policy.

Adee comments:

The story is basically all background. Three threads are woven together in this story: the writer’s findings that previous assertions that antidepressants were 90 percent effective had been cherry picked; the rising number of psychiatrists who, desperate for any respite for their “treatment-resistant” patients, were turning to radical techniques; and the emerging theory that depression doesn’t manifest in the brain the way we assumed it does.

All of these things had been reported separately, without context, so their significance had never really been clear. Put into the same feature, it painted a surprising new picture of depression—not just of the science but of the politics and the personal.

I thought it was a stellar piece of reporting and incredibly elegant weaving of several threads of background. The lesson: If you find a story that hasn’t been told fully or well, don’t focus too much on the distinction between background and the main story—just tell the story.


Braid Scenes into Exposition

One strategy to keep historical context interesting is to use scenes throughout a feature story—not just at the beginning and end. “We all learn to work hard on a great beginning scene. We also learn to work hard on the great ending scene. But we get kind of tired in the middle,” says Nijhuis. “We forget that scenes—even really short scenes, a couple sentences—can do a lot to relieve that recitation of background or context.” If a writer can use a scene to bring out the excitement, then context becomes less of a chore and more of a gift to the story.

Rather than standing at the chalkboard telling readers that, say, buffalo hunting was prevalent in the 1800s until about 1901, you can communicate a lot of the context through a mini-narrative. Often, Nijhuis says, you can find out enough information about historical characters to put the reader in a scene and instead say, “So-and-so got off the train on May 15, 1869, and here’s what they might have seen in Montana Territory.” By focusing history on people and their stories, such scenes can carry a lot of historical context. The same is true for any kind of explanatory context, Nijhuis says. Someone made a discovery at some point, “and there’s probably a story there and a scene where they figured it out. That’s context you can use.”

An example is Nijhuis’s story “The Ghosts of Yosemite,” published in High Country News in 2005. That story weaves together a historic and contemporary narrative as scientists use historical data and field journals to track climate changes in the Sierra Nevada range:

Yet in 1910, Grinnell predicted that the real value of his and his colleagues’ painstaking fieldwork would not “be realized until the lapse of many years, possibly a century.” Change was clearly part of the natural world, he wrote. But he also saw “vastly more conspicuous” transformations of the environment in the speedy deforestation, cultivation, and irrigation of the West. He believed that in the future, scientists would return to some of his more than 700 study sites, and use his findings to chart these changes.

That future is now. On a gray August morning, nearly a century after Grinnell wrote those words, I shoulder a backpack on the east side of Yosemite National Park and set off into a light but steady drizzle. I’m not a scientist, but after years spent working and playing with biologists, I’ve acquired a secondhand sense of scientific curiosity. This hike is a welcome chance to indulge it.

Stored in my increasingly soggy pocket are two maps. One, a reproduction of a map drawn in 1915 by Grinnell’s colleague, Charles Camp, has so many elegant squiggles and crosses that it looks like a map to buried treasure. The other, a slice of topographic cartography showing the same terrain, was e-mailed to me just a few days earlier by one of Grinnell’s intellectual descendants.

In the time between these maps, startling things have happened in Yosemite, and so far, their causes are largely unacknowledged by the National Park Service. Just as Grinnell foresaw, his data are providing valuable evidence of conspicuous change in the natural world. But even the prescient Joseph Grinnell didn’t count on global warming.

Nijhuis comments:

In this case I’m “braiding” the narrative of Grinnell’s journey into Yosemite in 1915 with my journey over the same terrain in 2005—I switch from my journey to Grinnell’s and back again as I move further into the story. Braiding is often an effective way to show the modern relevance of historical background, and it can make the story move more quickly by breaking historical information into shorter chunks. Braided narratives can last for a few lines, or can extend through an entire feature or book. If you have a lot of history and you want to give it some weight and you have enough to give it some narrative drive, like in this story, I love to do the braided model.


Answer Questions, Use Your Voice

Braided structures don’t only make information more readable, compelling, and relatable—they also give readers more information, says Jacqui Banaszynski, Knight Chair in Editing at the Missouri School of Journalism.

“Instead of dumping background in a section in the middle, I think the better thing to do is to think about how you weave in little moments along the way,” she says. The background should answer, in brief, the questions that the reader has when the writer introduces something new or challenging or interesting. Answer questions like, “I don’t get it,” “I don’t know where this came from,” “I don’t know what context or relevance this fits into,” right then with a phrase, a sentence, maybe a short paragraph. But, don’t give all the background at once.

In this approach, background is a place where writers need to project confidence in their own authority. Authoritative writing tends to be direct, clear, brief, and unqualified. “As long as you’ve done your homework and can back it up, you don’t need to show your proof around background the way you show proof with new information. Specific sourcing of widely acknowledged and available information isn’t very helpful in a story,” says Banaszynski.

She points to the 2013 Seattle Times story “Laser Maps Reveal Slide Risk with Startling Clarity, but Few Citizens Know They Exist,” by Sandi Doughton. The story is about the massive mudslide that devastated the small mountain community of Oso, Washington, on March 22, 2014, killing 43 people. Doughton’s piece focuses on a highly developed aerial-scanning technology called lidar, which identifies the location and severity of past mudslides with great accuracy, thus helping identify the danger of future slides.

This story is an example of the braided narrative in which background is woven throughout. (Here Banaszynski provides a document with the background sections displayed in boldface.)

Banaszynski comments:

The focus of the piece is straightforward and newsy—the fact that the technology exists but isn’t widely used. But Doughton weaves in helpful background throughout, giving readers some history on when the technology was developed, where it is used and how, and—especially helpful—how the aerial scanning works.

None of that context interrupts the core point of the piece, or distracts the reader for too long. It does, however, provide a deeper picture that teaches readers about science, politics, and governmental decisions.

Whether you—or the publications you write for—choose the block background section or the braided narrative, take care to do it well. Keeping the readers’ interest and answering their questions without slowing the story down is key. The braided approach in particular offers writers the chance to dive deeper into their creative resources, using scenes and voice to make the history and context come alive.

In the end, is there a best way to write background? “No,” says Nijhuis. “The bad way to write background is when people don’t read it because you’ve made it boring or too long, or not relevant to the present-day story. Any way that you can include context that’s accurate and relevant and that people want to read, then it’s successful.”


Christina Selby
Christina Selby Courtesy of Christina Selby

Christina Selby is a TON fellow sponsored by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. She is a freelance writer and amateur photographer based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She writes about conservation science, biodiversity, pollinators, and sustainable development. Her work has appeared in Lowestoft Chronicle, Green Money Journal, Mother Earth Living, and elsewhere. You can find her online at The Unfolding Earth, a blog featuring photography and environmental writing on global biodiversity hotspots; her website; or say hi on Twitter @christinaselby.



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