Finding the Science in Any Story

 

Back in the spring, an editor emailed me to ask if I’d take on an assignment about comedian Amy Schumer’s recent movie, I Feel Pretty. I don’t write about entertainment or Hollywood, and by that time the film had already sparked reviews and op-eds in dozens of publications. The editor and I worked to find a different angle: a scientific one.

I spoke to experts and read studies, and I also sat through all 110 minutes of the movie. The piece I ultimately wrote was part neuroscience and part humor, and my editor was thrilled. Not all science writing has to be deeply academic or focused on dense concepts. Science writing can be crowd-pleasing, and shareable, and even sarcastic or funny. And it can belong in publications whose focus might seem far removed from science, such as magazines centered on fashion, business, food, public policy, sports, parenting … or just about anything else.

For a freelancer, finding a scientific angle on a trending news topic can make a pitch pleasantly unexpected, and more likely to pique an editor’s interest.

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“[Science is] one more way of understanding the world and unpacking a current event on another level beyond the ‘who, what, where, when, why,’ ” says Cari Romm Nazeer, a former editor at The Cut who now heads up Medium’s service and advice section. “When you take a story and try to extract science from it, it can sometimes make that thing a little more relatable, and it can be a fresher way of getting into a story that readers aren’t used to.”

You also, in my experience, don’t have to be a scientist—or even consider yourself a science writer—to write about science. Instead of writing about a mental state they’re in, a personal essayist might examine why their brain is doing what it’s doing. A music journalist might talk to experts about the harmonics and acoustics of a new album, or how the science of sound impacts what does and doesn’t make the charts.

Nazeer argues that there’s at least a little bit of science in everything people “do or touch in our day-to-day lives,” and becoming attuned to it could open countless avenues for writers to turn ideas into stories. If your goal is to break into science writing, the starting point is simple: Consider an interesting question or examine an intriguing character. Then, you’re well on your way to crafting a piece that tells a great story, with science to back it up.

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Identify the Science

Some stories about science don’t start out that way. Sometimes, the science just shows up, says Andrew Zaleski, who’s published features in Popular Science, the MIT Technology Review, and Medium. That was the case with his story about a shark fisherman, published in the summer 2018 issue of Popular Science.

“The theme of the issue I was pitching was ‘danger,’ ” Zaleski says. “I’d heard about this fisherman and I thought, ‘OK, shark fishing is pretty dangerous. So, what can a shark fisherman tell us about science?’ Is it smart, safe, good, bad to take sharks out of the ocean? What does this guy think?” Ultimately, the story became one about conservation and marine ecosystems.

Zaleski doesn’t consider himself a science writer, but he knows that, often, focusing on the scientific aspects of a story can help him sell it to a particular publication.

“There are a couple of stories I’m looking at now that are science-y,” he says. “But I also think they’re just good stories. I’ll dial the science up or down, depending on the publication that takes them. Sometimes the story is just there to convey the information about the science. Other times the science is just a companion to the story.”

In October, Zaleski published a feature about the invasive spotted lanternfly in Bloomberg Businessweek. That publication may seem an odd choice for a story that quotes entomologists and horticulturalists, but it was a case, Zaleski says, of tailoring a science story to fit a target outlet. “The story ultimately has an economic angle,” he says. “But in order to talk about why these bugs suck so much, you have to explain the science.”

In that case, Zaleski approached a science story from a different angle, but it’s also possible to do the opposite, with an idea that may not initially appear to have a scientific foundation.

Nazeer says there’s a wealth of scientific questions surrounding the thoughts and events people experience in their daily lives, all just waiting to be asked—and written about. “Finding it just requires paying closer attention to patterns in everyday life that we don’t necessarily think of as being science material,” she says. “There are so many quirks of human behavior that can have a lot of psychology applied to them.”

 

Not all science writing has to be deeply academic or focused on dense concepts. Science writing can be crowd-pleasing, and shareable, and even sarcastic or funny.

 

Nazeer points to one of her favorite stories, which she wrote last year for The Cut: a piece that traded on the trope of why so many couples fight at Ikea. “That’s a good example of taking something we don’t think of as a scientific phenomenon and talking to psychologists about what’s happening there.” Nazeer spoke with experts whose research backed up her hypothesis that visiting Ikea together is bad for a relationship. “They all explained that trying to make decisions together and balance each other’s needs and wants creates this kind of perfect storm and makes our brains want to get into an argument.”

Many of the best science stories Nazeer has assigned, she says, come from writers looking for a deeper explanation of something seemingly insignificant. “I think the best thing you can do is pay close attention to idle conversations with your friends, or the weird things you find yourself thinking about,” she says. “Those casual moments can sometimes be the spark for an unexpected idea. We had a piece a while back about the difference between cute and ‘ugly cute.’ It came out of the writer freaking out about a pug. You can take those things and treat them as phenomena worthy of inquiry, and get a fresh, fun, surprising story as a result.”

 

Find Your Expert

Once you’ve identified the scientific inquiry hiding in a story idea, the next step is to find someone with actual credentials to explain it to you.

“It can be a doozy sometimes,” Zaleski says. “I rely a lot on the sources I talk to. I wrote a story for Popular Science about a guy who’s pursuing immortality, and I was finding people who work at aging-research centers, and I read this book that was like a crash course in biology. I probably spoke with 12 to 14 people before everything started coming together.”

While this is, admittedly, the time when having a science degree would come in handy, it’s possible to distill complicated concepts by just being a good reporter. Scientists often respond to an honest, empathetic interviewer just like any other source, and asking detailed, informed questions about their research may encourage them to open up. It’s also helpful to know what you don’t know, and not be afraid to ask. Most importantly, you have to be willing to do the research. In order to explain the science to your readers, you first need to have a firm grasp on it yourself.

“For folks who don’t have a science background, it can sometimes be a little bit of a harder lift,” Zaleski says. “I have a degree in English literature. I just have to make sure I talk to a ton of people, and that I understand the concept. I think over time it just gets easier, and you begin to realize what it is you’re looking for.”

 

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Read the Studies—but Don’t Get Too Caught Up

When you’re looking for answers to the scientific inquiries you’ve found in a story idea, studies can really come in handy. In fact, you’d be surprised by the wide—and sometimes weird—array of questions scientists in university labs and research centers have asked, answered, and published papers on.

“The best stories strike a balance between being informative and relaying information from a study without bogging the reader down with details they don’t need to know,” Nazeer says. “So you need to be asking yourself how deep into a study you need to go in order to explain what the researchers found.”

However, Nazeer points out, not all science reporting has to be based on studies. In fact, she says, that can be a bit of a pitfall.

“There are new studies coming out all the time, and you can end up on a kind of hamster wheel where you’re not taking a step back to look at phenomena divorced from new research,” she says. “The more interesting approach, as an editor and a reader, is looking at things that apply directly to everyday life and the hidden forces that shape how we think, behave, and interact.”

 

Tell the Story

Ultimately, a story—whether it’s about food, fashion, sports, or science, and regardless of where it’s published—is still a story. Zaleski says his best ideas, many of which turn into science features, all start out as just a collection of interesting characters and scenes. His shark-hunter piece, for instance, was about marine biology and oceanic conservation, sure; but it was mostly a story about Mark Quartiano, “the Darth Vader of shark fishing.”

“He was fascinating and entertaining, and he was the way to carry the reader through this broader story of ocean conservation,” Zaleski says. “It always comes back to who the characters are. Is there an arc? Is there tension? Is there conflict? Then you’re just building out the parts where the science comes in.”

 

Kate Morgan is a freelance journalist whose writing on science, food, travel, and fascinating people has appeared or is forthcoming in Popular Science, Saveur, Woman’s Day, The Washington Post, USA Today, Slate, O Magazine, and many others. Follow her on Twitter @ByKateMorgan.

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