What single concept or skill do you feel is most important for your students to learn, and what is your approach to teaching it?
So many skills compete for the rank of “most important.” One I’ll choose here is the art of weaving narrative and expository writing, telling a story while explaining something complicated. This skill is particularly important in long-form pieces; the science writer can’t just explain technical details for 5,000 words or more—the audience would flee—but must weave the science into an enthralling story. The true art comes in blending the two forms gracefully so that the reader doesn’t even notice the shift from one to the other. My students find this technique both quite difficult and incredibly rewarding.
Another important concept is an appreciation for the aesthetics of words, sentences, and even paragraphs. Words have their concrete meanings, of course; they also hold possibilities for metaphor, alliteration, rhythm, and general wordplay. As science writers, we spend so much of our time trying to understand and explain complicated information that we might forget that we are also storytellers and wordsmiths.
In teaching these skills, I ask students to identify and analyze the techniques in assigned readings. For instance, I’ll have students trace the narrative scaffolding of a long feature story, marking individual scenes in one color and segments of explanatory writing in another. Then we discuss how the author stitches the parts together. Finally, students experiment with the technique in their own writing.
What specific skills-related experiences outside the classroom do you think are most important for students to have in their training?
The internet, email, and mobile devices make it all too easy to cloister ourselves in our own digital bubbles. Writing produced solely from inside the bubble will show a restricted view. So I encourage students to get out and speak to people and, ideally, observe science in action. Interviewing may feel awkward at first, even impertinent. But the process gets easier with practice. I would also advise students new to the process to critique themselves after each interview. Ask, “How did I do? What did I do well? What could I do better next time?” Try to assess your interviewing skills dispassionately. Don’t feel embarrassed. You’re simply studying this skill and trying to improve.
Second, I advise students to devote time to meeting other people in the profession. Go to a science or writing conference and chat with other writers, editors, and publishers. Get to know what other folks are writing, what professional issues concern them, where freelance or staff writing opportunities exist. These activities will help build the professional network that may land a job or writing assignment. Just as important, they’ll begin building the community of friends and colleagues who will “get” what you’re doing and cheer you on.
What have you learned in your own career that you most hope to convey to your students?
Reporting in the field can be a blast. My most indelible memories from my career are times when I witnessed science or medicine happening, when a doctor, nurse, or scientist allowed me to tag along and be the proverbial fly on the wall. I’ve observed surgeries, ridden with flight nurses in a medevac helicopter, run along a beach with biologists tagging peregrine falcons.
I believe such experiences yield richer, truer, and more memorable writing. They certainly allow you to gather the sensory details (the iodine smell of the sea, the whir of a centrifuge) that add texture to your writing.
They also make for great material to share with family and friends. No one wants to hear about the 8 hours I spent banging out a story at the keyboard. But they might stick around if I talk about the time I knelt beside paleontologists scraping through Mississippi earth in search of 55-million-year-old mammal fossils.
What textbooks and other reading do you use in your teaching?
Let’s see. As I type this, my elbows bump up against the stacks of textbooks that I don’t bother to shelve because I use them so frequently. A few titles with the most dog-eared pages:
A Field Guide for Science Writers, edited by Deborah Blum, Mary Knudson, and Robin Marantz Henig
The Science Writers’ Handbook, edited by Thomas Hayden and Michelle Nijhuis
The Best American Science and Nature Writing (any year). Students can learn a lot by dissecting the craft of authors in any of these books.
Writing For Story, by Jon Franklin
Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writers’ Guide, edited by Mark Kramer and Wendy Call
The Art of Fiction, by David Lodge. This may seem like an odd choice for students of science/nonfiction writing. But some of the most exciting work in our field applies fiction’s tools to tell the stories of science.
What resources do you wish were more readily available for students?
Funding, particularly funds for non-traditional students—part-time students, older students, career changers, and those who must continue working while in school.
What is a science story that you admire, and why?
“Joyas Voladoras,” by Brian Doyle (who died this past year). It’s difficult to describe this short essay. Doyle discusses pencil eraser-size hummingbird hearts and car-size blue whale hearts, and gives new perspective to the heart’s anatomical and metaphorical features, all with brilliant imagery and poignant observation. It’s a good piece to study for the aesthetics I mentioned earlier.