The American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA) hosted its annual conference last week at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York, and we've been posting recaps of a few panels we were able to attend. Here are links to the previous recaps we’ve posted:
- Sassy Sentences and Wicked Good Prose: How to Craft Better Writing: San Francisco-based journalist Constance Hale shares her tips for perking up your writing in surprising ways.
- Social Media Crash Course: Write Tweets People Read: Social media experts from BuzzFeed and The New York Times share their insight.
- The Hero's Journey: The Fiction Foundation for Great Nonfiction Interviews: Writer Mary-Kate Mackey shares tips for nonfiction writers.
- Taking Control of Your Book’s Success: A Self-Publishing Primer: A panel of bestselling authors and book publishing professionals cover the basics of self-publishing.
- So You Want to Be a Bestselling Novelist: Diane O’Connell, a book development expert and former Random House editor, led this workshop.
- Humor Writing for Yuks (and Bucks!): A panel of writers talk about how to add humor to your writing.
This final recap is about the ins and outs of science writing. The panel featured Carl Zimmer, who writes a weekly column for the New York Times and a blog, The Loom, for National Geographic; and Pamela Weintraub, the neuroscience and longform acquisitions editor at Aeon and contributing editor at Discover. Linda Marsa, a science and medical journalist and author of two books, moderated the discussion. The three panelists have covered medicine and science issues for decades.
Neither of the panelists are actual scientists. “A real strength in not being a scientist is that you’re not afraid to ask really stupid questions,” said Zimmer. “[Scientists] will talk to you as a reader, not a scientist.”
Where do you find ideas? How do you shape them into stories and how do they evolve into books?
Zimmer came up with two of his books by writing magazine articles before realizing he had enough material for a book.
“If there’s a rich subject where there’s fascinating history that branches off in different directions, it’s a subject that can hold up the weight of a book,” he said.
He also suggests asking yourself a really big question and doing some research to determine if there is enough material for a book.
Do you have to write proposals? How do you show book publishers that there is a book here?
Zimmer said his agent will never let him get away with a short proposal. Proposals have to be about 75 pages, a long way to writing the book itself. Research for the proposal itself may take up to 3-4 months, but a strong proposal can really help “sell” the book idea.
Are people open to the idea of you coming down and interviewing them even though you may not have an assignment?
Zimmer joked that unlike politicians or other subjects who tend to shy away from journalists, scientists love when someone takes interest in their work.
Where do you find your best ideas come from for books and articles?
Zimmer emphasized the importance of keeping an eye out for what is in science journals each week -- not just the big ones, but also the smaller ones that relate to an area of interest. For general subjects, he knows he’s “just going to have to keep hunting for the right story about that subject,” he explained.
He also suggested always being available for sources.
There is no single efficient way to finding stories, and it definitely takes a bit of leg work and research.
What should we be reading?
“You can’t pretend to be a skilled journalist on all of it,” Zimmer said.
He recommended focusing on a realm of interest, even if the interests range. There is a lot of scientific information (as well as junk to push aside), so it is better to find a niche. He personally reads about 20 or so science journals altogether.
How do you determine if a story is worth pursuing?
“One thing I’ll do is gradually build a list of people in different areas whose opinion I really trust and who are willing to give me their thoughts on something,” he said.
He added that, after a while, a journalist can usually tell what stories will work or not. He suggested avoiding hype stories and doing a lot of research to find the right hook.
What issues do you think are under-covered in life sciences?
This was a tough question for Zimmer to answer, considering there is already so much out there about many science topics.
“If I’m doing research on anything online, I will find some articles about it,” he said.
He did add that there are places that are not being reported well and areas not getting as much attention as it should, including, in his opinion, climate change.
What would you suggest to a young student today on how to build a science career?
“Find one relatively narrow but high-profile subject and beat it to death,” said Zimmer. “Become the person that people want to go to when things develop on that particular subject.”
It is easier to branch out to other subjects later on, but it is hard to get noticed as a beginner science writer, and a good way to do that is to really excel in something.
What is the one thing you learned over time that you wish someone had told you starting out?
Zimmer advised not cramming too much information and understanding into a piece. There is a finite space, and one should take what was learned and figure out the stories that can be told, not to make just a miniaturized encyclopedia page.
He also suggested taking a bunch of the science classes, even if they don’t relate to your major.
Does it bother you if somebody who doesn’t have a science background sends you a pitch?
“Not at all,” said Weintraub, “but I do care that the person can understand the science.”
The degree is irrelevant, but the writer has to be able to grasp the material they are writing about.
What are you looking for in pitches?
“I am looking for a new idea that has not been written about before that is a great narrative story and has a big idea behind it,” said Weintraub.
She said one cannot have a story about a topic, but rather a story has to have a dramatic arc and a protagonist. Just finding the interesting character (scientists, miracle patients, etc.) is probably a false path to go down, but the researchers may have some fascinating stories.
“They just need to be really into their science. The science is the story, but it still needs to be told through the protagonist and their activity,” she added.
What do you think are the big ideas right now?
“A lot of things that are big ideas have this very old feeling to them,” she surmised.
Do you feel it is worthwhile going to science conferences?
Weintraub noticed many small stories that can be covered in a day for newspapers, as well as some great longform stories, at scientific conferences. One can find some “big idea” stories at conferences. They are also good places to find sources and groups of scientists working together, she said.
As an editor, what are the biggest problems you see when people turn in stories?
“These stories need to be narratives,” said Weintraub. “What narrative means is that the story has an arc; it has a dynamic momentum that has a beginning middle and an end, and you read it like you might read a great novel.”
Science stories should not just be a modular giving of static information; rather, they should move the narrative forward with each paragraph.
“Science itself, and how it is done, is a narrative story if you’re telling it right,” she said, adding that the science most oftentimes becomes the protagonist.
What is absolutely the wrong way to approach you?
“I think the right way is to send a brief email with an idea, outlining it in just a few sentences without a long pitch, and ask if I would be interested in a longer pitch,” said Weintraub.
The best way is through email. If there is no response, don’t worry about sending another one a few days later.
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