Riding the Emotional Roller Coaster of Being a Science Writer

 

As I sit down to write this, I notice that I’ve been holding my breath. It’s a subconscious symptom of a now familiar tension—a fear that this time, the words just won’t come to me, or that they’ll come so slowly that I’ll miss my deadline.

If this story progresses like most pieces, I’ll follow the same pattern. I’ll write a few paragraphs. Hate them. Rework them. Delete them. Tea, biscuits, and despair. At some point later, I’ll find that my writing engine gets into gear, but I’ll face a few more cycles of frustration and satisfaction until I finally arrive at my finished draft that I hope is half decent.

Once I’ve pressed send, I’ll probably reread the attachment and suddenly all its flaws will become apparent. I’ll imagine my editor reading it—angry, or worse, embarrassed for me. The editor’s feedback won’t be as bad as I have imagined—only in my own mind could an editor be such a harsh and tactless critic—and we’ll have a back-and-forth until the piece finally sees the light of day, after which I’ll have a momentary rush of endorphins until my next assignment. It’s a cycle that repeats with every piece of journalism I write.

I know that I’m not alone in experiencing these regular ups and downs. In June 2019, Erin Griffith, a business journalist at The New York Times, tweeted a rough graph outlining the peaks and troughs of writing. “every time a non-writer friend asks ‘how’s work going??’ i either stare at them with dead eyes or gush about how lucky i am to have the greatest job on earth. so i made this chart to explain,” she wrote. It clearly struck a chord—her tweet was “liked” more than 24,000 times.

Science writing, of course, is no different. (Indeed, Ed Yong, now a science reporter at The Atlantic, had previously published a very similar graph.) As Carl Zimmer—a New York Times columnist and award-winning author—told me in an email: “Anyone who thinks science writing is emotion-free hasn’t tried it.”

I find the topic particularly thought provoking, since I recently wrote a popular-psychology book, The Intelligence Trap: Why Smart People Make Dumb Mistakes, which includes a chapter about the many benefits of emotional awareness and regulation. I’d examined the consequences for medicine, law, and business, but I hadn’t really considered how my emotions shape my own writing. How can we have fewer of those dead-eyed moments and more of the gushing joy? And should we aim for more objective detachment if we are to produce our best work?

 

The Blank Page

The researching and reporting of a science story can, of course, represent a challenge before we even put our fingers to the keyboard. Reporters need to read complex papers, synthesize different strands of research, and secure interviews—none of which is cognitively easy.

In general, however, most of my colleagues seem to agree that the joy of exploring a new subject is one of the peaks of our job—an excitement that can quickly evaporate as soon as we start squeezing out that very first paragraph.

Nadia Drake, who is a contributing writer for National Geographic, points out that staring at a blank page can create an unrealistic pressure for “the perfect words to unfold in the perfect order, with perfect nuance and impact and accuracy, the first time”—which, as she points out, is “not going to happen.”

The paralysis of our own expectations certainly fits my experience. But Drake says it’s worth considering whether feelings of writer’s block are also a sign that you don’t know what the story is yet. “In those instances, I’ll review my notes, the paper (if it’s about a study), the related literature, my audio recordings, and continue reporting until I have a solid feeling for how to shape the narrative,” she told me in an email.

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When she feels certain she is ready to write, Drake finds that the best way to break the initial anxiety is to put some words on the page. “I just start writing whichever portion feels the most organic or is closest to my cognitive surface. It could be the first sentence, it could be an explanatory paragraph, a descriptive segment, a setup for a favorite quote—it doesn’t matter. Once I get that going, the rest kind of naturally flows,” she notes. “And then once those initial imperfect words are there, I can begin sculpting and rearranging and tinkering until I’m satisfied.”

Given my own struggles with the blank page, I rather like the idea of imagining the first draft as a rough lump of clay, rather than striving for immediate perfection. And it is a comfort that even an experienced writer such as Zimmer often finds his first takes “a dreadful patchwork of clichés and zombie narrative.” Zimmer says he tries not to dwell on that frustration, by “reminding myself that even the most terrible draft is a starting point. The next day I can try to make it readable.”

Steve Silberman, a former staff writer at Wired and the author of the New York Times bestseller Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity, agrees. He told me that his first drafts can be extremely variable. There is no secret to writing a pristine first draft, Silberman says, and so the best strategy is to simply “plow on” regardless of how bad you think the writing is.

If you are still struggling to get the words flowing, it might help to start writing in a different format entirely, says Rachel Riederer, a writer and a member of the editorial staff of The New Yorker who has also taught writing at Columbia University and the City University of New York. She has often asked her students to draft an email explaining the contents of their piece. This creates “a space where they might feel a little more chatty and casual than a Word doc,” she told me in an email. For her own writing, she sometimes begins with bullet points that slowly flower into a structured argument. This kind of approach, she says, gives you “a safe little cushion by starting out telling yourself that you’re just brainstorming.” Eventually, you may have a ready-formed first draft.

 

Stepping Back

The reworking and rewriting of that rough text can present its own challenges. Once our words are on the page, we may become too attached to our own prose, meaning that we can’t bear to make a single change.

This reminds me of a wider psychological phenomenon, Solomon’s paradox, named after the biblical king who was renowned for his ability to solve others’ dilemmas even though he was unable to find good solutions to his own chaotic private life. Experiments have demonstrated that we are often much wiser when pondering other people’s problems than we are when thinking about our own.

Similarly, many writers struggle to judge their own writing objectively, even if they are usually very astute readers and editors of others’ work. As soon as we begin to feel personally and emotionally invested in something, we struggle to see it clearly.

To overcome Solomon’s paradox, the research suggests that you want to find “psychological distance” from the problem at hand—anything that lets you feel more detached and less personally invested in it.

With writing as with life, that is easier said than done. Silberman, during the writing of Neurotribes, had a slightly rock’n’roll approach to this. “Many writers have found that looking at a manuscript in different states of consciousness, can be one way of assessing its true value,” he says. For some, it’s alcohol. “For me, it was cannabis.” Writing while sober and then editing while high, he says, can help you to look at your words from a new perspective—although he agrees that “it is not an approach without its perils.”

 

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For many writers, a short period away from the writing might help us to see our words afresh. I personally find that a night’s sleep is not quite enough—it helps if I take at least a day to work on another project, to act as a kind of palate cleanser. I also like to change the font and line spacing before reading again—somehow, that tricks me into forgetting that I wrote the words myself.

Another cognitive quirk that I’ve noticed can conspire with Solomon’s paradox is the sunk-cost fallacy. I’m loath to lose words and sentences that I’ve worked so hard to craft, so I’ll often spend hours trying to make them fit, even when they should go. One way around this, I’ve found, is to simply move them to a separate document. Other writers sometimes include such matter in an “overmatter” section at the end of their drafts, or in a tracked comment to their editor. Most of the time, this material will never see the light of day—I wonder how many editors even read that overmatter—but somehow doing this makes it feel like less of a sacrifice to remove hard-won words from a draft.

Having immersed myself in the scientific research on our cognitive biases, I also recommend a bit of role-playing. When I do this, I attempt to see my writing through the eyes of my harshest critic. If they were to read my feature or essay, what holes would they identify in the argument? How could they misinterpret my phrasing? Experiments show that this kind of thinking overcomes issues like confirmation bias, so that we analyze an argument more dispassionately.

Ultimately, though, there’s no replacement for asking another reader to take a look. “Like a lot of writers, I can swing between thinking what I’m writing is amazing and [thinking it’s] awful,” says Zimmer. “Getting frank responses from other people is the best way to manage those swings.” And that also includes taking on board your editors’ thoughts once you are finally ready to submit.

 

Letting Go

Receiving editors’ feedback and undergoing fact-checking is often seen as fraught. In Griffith’s viral Twitter graphic, these stages of the editorial process are near the nadir of her self-esteem journey.

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Most of the writers that I’ve spoken to tend to be far more positive, however. Drake says she finds it a great reassurance to know that a talented editor will be reading her work. “For me, there is no greater salve to writerly stress than trusting my editors,” she says. She similarly sees fact-checking as a “welcome safety net.”

Drake says one key to managing the emotional turmoil that editing can bring is to think about the person who is actually going to consume the story. “Remember that changes to the story should always serve the reader,” she says. “That sentence I put in there because I think it’s whimsical and funny? It might actually be distracting for someone whose attention is already splintered. That third opinion I fought so hard to get from the curmudgeonly scientist? It might be too in the weeds for a science-interested reader who only needs a quick caveat.”

It can also help to remind ourselves not to view editors’ criticisms as a personal attack; they should instead be taken in the spirit of collaboration. “All of those people who are giving feedback and working alongside the writer on a piece—they are your allies! They are helping to make the piece polished and impeccable,” Riederer told me in an email. “Those people—the editors, copy editors, fact checkers—don’t think a writer is bad or stupid when they find a factual error to correct, or some awkward phrasing to finesse…. Making a really successful piece of writing is a big job and it takes a lot of hands.”

For particularly cutting feedback, Zimmer suggests taking some time before responding. “I try to find a productive way to spend a day doing something else,” he says. “Once my emotions have settled a bit, I can come back to the piece and deal with it with some clinical detachment.”

 

The Long View

In my experience as an editor at New Scientist and BBC Future, I’ve found that the very best writers are also the most receptive to feedback. Despite their many accomplishments, I’m often blown away by their humility. The worst writers, in contrast, can be very precious about the most mediocre prose. If someone thinks they are too good to be edited, they probably aren’t very good at all.

I don’t think this is a coincidence: The best writers’ willingness to learn from criticism, as much as their natural talent, has helped them to hone their abilities, whereas the others have never really taken that opportunity.

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It is another reason to try to see the positive in negative feedback. As Drake puts it: “If you can absorb constructive criticism and apply it, then you’ll be even better at what you do than you already are.” And that goes for the response after publication too. I’d recommend that every writer do a postmortem of their writing and try to understand why it appealed or didn’t.

When dealing with a disappointing response, I try to recall the advice of the psychology writer and Guardian journalist Oliver Burkeman, who argues that you should stop striving for perfection in every piece and instead try to consider how the overall quality of your writing is changing over time. If you take the long view, you’ll relieve the pressure during the writing itself and be more open to criticism afterwards.

Ultimately, I have to accept that a certain level of stress and frustration could even be a virtue: I’m pretty certain that without it I would not be able to grow as a writer at all. I’d be too scared to venture outside of my comfort zone and to look for new ways of telling stories. The aim, for me, is to moderate those feelings so that they energize rather than paralyze me—to be able to use them constructively and to more fully appreciate the joy of the job.

 

Robert Davies

David Robson

David Robson is a freelance writer based in London and Barcelona. He has worked as a feature editor at New Scientist and BBC Future, and his writing has also appeared in The Atlantic, The Guardian, Aeon, and Mosaic. His first book, The Intelligence Trap: Why Smart People Make Dumb Mistakes, was published in 2019. He is @d_a_robson on Twitter and you can contact him through his website, http://www.davidrobson.me.

3 Comments

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  3. Excellent and thoughtful piece. I was lucky to be able to learn on the job, hired by an industry magazine and mentored by the editor who ruthlessly edited everything I wrote. With a two-person editorial staff, eventually I edited his writing and he edited mine, and I learned that editing was an invaluable collaboration. My first book was a collaboration with an editor I had written for; I wrote a rough draft, he turned it into a pop-science book, and I learned a lot. After writing for many years, I welcome editing, and when I read through edited versions, I look to see if the facts are right and the story is written clearly and well, not to see what was changed.

    One hint I can add if you’re stuck — stop staring at the screen, get up and walk around. Sometimes just getting up will prompt me to think of a way to solve a problem.

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