Getting Personal: When and How to Write Yourself into Your Story

 

In August 2020, Nicholas St. Fleur, a science writer at STAT, was shocked to hear that actor Chadwick Boseman had passed away at age 43 of colorectal cancer, a disease that has high prevalence among Black men. The news hit St. Fleur especially hard—not only did Boseman exude fitness (“That’s the Black Panther!” he says), but, as a young Black man whose mother had battled the disease, St. Fleur knew he was at high risk.

He wanted to publish a piece that would convey the gravity of the health risk while also addressing the stigma around the disease. Alongside his reported story, he decided to include a video documenting his own colonoscopy experience. “It was a bit scary,” St. Fleur recalls, but he felt his personal story could lend authenticity to his feature.

Science reporters often cover topics that hit close to home. They may find themselves in the eye of the action or with personal experiences related to their stories. And a first-person perspective can be a potent tool to make science stories more engaging or relatable, or to pack a bigger emotional punch. The “I” signals that the author is emerging from behind the curtain to share something special.

But not every article benefits from a personal touch, especially if making the science writer a character distracts from the main points of the story. And publicly divulging personal experiences requires vulnerability and an openness to sharing private information that may be uncomfortable or even risky. However, unleashing your personal perspective on the page can work well if you know when to do so.

 

When to Go Personal

For all its fascinations, science can sometimes be perceived as cold and impersonal. One time-tested way to remedy that perception is to frame stories around a compelling character whose questions, problems, or triumphs might help to engage readers, says Megan Molteni, a science writer at STAT.  “If you’re that character, you can do it through a personal lens,” she adds.

To do that well, it’s important for journalists to ask themselves, “Who am I to this story?” says San Francisco journalist Elizabeth Weil, a feature writer for New York Magazine. If you decide to insert your personal experiences, you should have a clear understanding of your purpose and place in the story.

One good reason to approach a story from a first-person perspective is when you have valuable and relevant professional expertise. When the movie Don’t Look Up was flooding the news in early 2022, U.K. science writer Eva Amsen started out writing a straightforward, third-person article about how scientists and science communicators were represented in the film. But while writing, she realized that her more than 15 years of professional experience were relevant to the topic. She leveraged that experience to give greater authority to her article.

In other instances, as in St. Fleur’s case, a journalist’s life experiences may lend unique insight into a subject. In December 2021, The Atlantic writer Ed Yong published an account of his decision to cancel his 40th birthday party in light of the ongoing COVID surge, intertwining his personal perspective with insights from his extensive reporting on the pandemic. Yong’s dilemma may have resonated with readers who also faced similar pandemic-era choices.

One of the most powerful reasons for reporters to choose to make themselves characters in their own stories is because doing so enables them to serve as a proxy for readers.

Molteni, then working for Wired, found herself in the middle of a developing story by chance when she got stuck in Argentina while on vacation in mid-March 2020, just as COVID-19 prompted the country to lock down. Once she returned to the U.S. safely, her editors expressed interest in pandemic interventions abroad. As a witness to unfolding events, she used her experience navigating the quarantines and travel bans in South America to highlight the human impact of new policy changes in foreign countries in response to the worsening global crisis.

One of the most powerful reasons for reporters to choose to make themselves characters in their own stories is because doing so enables them to serve as a proxy for readers, who can experience the story’s events along with the reporter. As a senior technology writer at Wired, Lauren Goode is used to inserting herself into her pieces, sharing her personal opinions in tech reviews of new products and services.

But a 2021 feature on how web apps kept memories of her canceled wedding alive was her first foray into including her personal life alongside rigorous reporting. When she pitched the idea, Goode’s editors encouraged her to pursue the story for readers who may be similarly disturbed to find their digital footprints lingering on the internet. Through her description of the history and development of websites and apps that preserve “milestone” memories and events, Goode’s readers discovered with her how a person’s browsing habits can trail them for months or years.

 

Packing a Punch

When you’re looking to heighten the emotional impact of a story, a first-person perspective can provide textured details and personal reflection to pull your readers deeper into the narrative. For instance, global warming is such a long-term and complex problem that it can become hard to keep readers engaged if they feel disconnected with a story or think they’ve read something similar before. In 2020, Sammy Roth, who reports on energy and climate for the Los Angeles Times, penned a poignant piece about coping with “climate despair” that strongly resonated with readers. (He has since called upon other reporters to express their own views about the climate emergency and the need for climate action.)

Sometimes, the choice to adopt a first-person voice isn’t obvious. While facing the effects of and writing about California wildfires for The New York Times Magazine in 2022, Weil didn’t inject her own feelings into her initial draft. But without a first-person voice that captured her thoughts about her beloved home state, the story didn’t feel like an authentic reflection of an issue that is personally significant for her. “I wasn’t airing my whole truth,” Weil says. “It wasn’t helping the story at all.” After consulting with her collaborator and editors, she opened the piece with a lengthy first-person lede that highlighted her emotional connection with the Golden State, making the impact of climate change and wildfires even more striking.

In some cases, personal details may come across as jarring, gratuitous, or distracting.

Science writing blended with elements of memoir also allows writers to reflect on personal and social impacts of scientific advances, as Agustín Bernardo Ávila Casanueva, a science communicator at the Center for Genomic Sciences of the National Autonomous University of Mexico, discovered when he was asked to contribute a story to the Mexican magazine Gatopardo’s special issue on identity in 2021. After deciding to write about the implications of DNA testing for individuals, he realized that the insights raised by his own ancestry test would fit well into the story. It was the first time Ávila Casanueva had written about himself, and he was nervous to do so. But he found that writing the piece offered him the opportunity to process what he’d discovered about his genetic heritage and his predisposition to certain medical conditions, and to more fully recognize that a person’s genetic code does not encompass their entire identity.

 

When Not to Insert Yourself

Just as important as choosing when to include yourself in your science story is identifying when your experience is inappropriate or unneeded.

First, you should acknowledge your own biases, as you would for any source. Can you integrate your experiences with those of other people and communities relevant to the story? Consider your story in “the broader context of what is going on in your community or … at the moment,” says Goode, “because it is possible to publish a personal [story] and have it come across as tone deaf.”

While writing about her experience in Argentina, Molteni faced the challenge of reconciling her personal story with the many stories unfolding around the world due to the far-reaching effects of the pandemic. She ultimately relied on her science journalism skillset to navigate the tricky balance of framing a global science story with her own experience—interviewing public health experts and including data from the U.S. and Argentina along with material from outside sources for additional context.

In some cases, personal details may come across as jarring, gratuitous, or distracting. St. Fleur says he would be hesitant to write about his personal experiences in a story that doesn’t directly relate to him—for example, in an article about prostate exams for older Black men. In such a case, St. Fleur says, “I would really want to think, Am I adding to this?

A straightforward news article may not benefit from a personal detail or perspective, Amsen points out. And overuse of first-person narrative in science writing runs the risk of losing readers’ attention if their primary goal is to learn about science, warns Alvin Powell, a journalism instructor at the Harvard Extension School and science writer for the Harvard Gazette.

 

Get Your Story Straight

Successfully integrating a first-person narrative into a story requires paying attention to basic tenets of solid reporting that are essential to establishing credibility with readers, notes Powell. That includes principles such as accuracy, clarity, balance, and transparency about your perspectives and biases.

While drafting her lockdown article, Molteni fact-checked her quarantine experience in Argentina with her partner, comparing their recollections against global timelines of infections and policies. She strongly believes that building trust with her readers involves being “ruthless about interrogating … your own experience with the same kind of rigorousness that you’re interrogating the science.”

For Florence Williams’ 2022 book Heartbreak, she fastidiously fact-checked the details of her dissolved marriage with her own family, giving drafts to her ex-husband and children for feedback and their perspectives as well.

Establishing a clear chronology of your personal story also helps with organizing and writing your article. Goode recalls that when she was preparing to chronicle the technological bread crumbs of her canceled wedding, her former editor at Wired, Nick Thompson, told her that narratives should have “a river [that] only flows in one direction.” Clear timelines can help readers follow multiple story threads, including both scientific reporting and narrative details from the writer’s life. With that advice in mind, Goode structured her essay around milestones in her career and relationship that coincided with events in the tech world, such as the development of tools and apps that track people’s online activities.

Achieving a successful balance between scientific and personal material requires critical evaluation of what information is necessary to achieve your writing’s purpose.

It’s also important to be mindful of the overall balance of science reportage and personal narrative. When writing about her divorce, Williams says, she had to be conscientious about how she organized her material so that her personal story did not overtake the data and science underpinning her book. “I wanted any personal material I put in there … to speak to the science,” she says. Likewise, she adds, “I wanted the science to be able to speak to my [personal] story.”

Achieving a successful balance between scientific and personal material requires critical evaluation of what information is necessary to achieve your writing’s purpose. Your editor can be an invaluable external sounding board to help identify when and how personal elements might support a narrative. Freelance journalist Wudan Yan, who in 2018 described her decision not to have children in a OneZero piece about the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement, says she sees editors as objective outsiders who can provide context on balancing the personal with the reported to achieve the “Goldilocks amount of information.”

In overusing the first-person voice, writers may also run the risk of sharing too much information about themselves. At the more harmless end of the spectrum, gratuitous oversharing may be merely annoying to readers—akin, as Goode says, to people documenting every tedious detail of their daily lives on social media. To avoid writing a “navel-gazing personal essay” that could fall flat with readers, she took a broad view of how industry algorithms latch onto consumers’ digital habits, using her own wedding as just one example in a piece that also included numerous tech and social media industry experts.

Beyond the possibility of a little embarrassment or of undermining a story’s main aims, sharing personal information can also, depending on the story and circumstances, carry considerable personal risk, including making the reporter vulnerable to harassment or threats, legal exposure, or employment, insurance, and health care discrimination. Reporters shouldn’t make the decision lightly to take on such risks, and before going down that road, should try to identify what risks their story might pose and potential ways to counter them.

Before Ávila Casanueva decided to reveal sensitive personal and family information when writing about his DNA testing results, he thought long and hard about the risks. He thought, he says, that “people will know this about me, and they can try to somehow hurt me or get to me.” In the end, he decided to take that risk because he strongly believed that his own story would best suit the magazine issue’s focus on identity, and that it communicated something of moral significance: that “you are who you are.” After his story was published, he received positive feedback from people who said the article “felt more like a conversation for them, like that they actually do know me.”

Another risk is that, like Goode’s canceled wedding, your story will exist online for a long time to come. Goode acknowledges that the idea of an article still being shared on the internet 10 years from now could scare writers into never publishing anything personal. But without taking that risk, she says, “you’re denying yourself the ability to experiment with different kinds of writing, and you’re also denying yourself the potential to connect with … your readers in a different way.”

 

 

Steve Fisch

Adela Wu

Adela Wu is a resident physician at Stanford Healthcare and a science writer and artist whose work has appeared at NPR, ABC News, and Intima. She was part of the AAAS Mass Media Science & Engineering Fellowship cohort in 2021. Follow her on Twitter @adelawu.

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