This is tedious. We’ve been doing this for years now, with no progress. Two sides, shouting at each other, shouting past each other, resorting to caricatures, and making no/little attempt at mutual understanding. Let’s do better.
For the residents of Lakeshore, Ontario, the black fungus caking their homes was a problem, and they blamed the local distillery. For James Scott, the Sherlock Holmes of fungi, the identity of the unsightly mold was a mystery waiting to be solved. And for Adam Rogers, senior editor at WIRED, Scott’s quest was a story that needed to be told. Rogers spent three days tailing the fungus detective, and the result is a beautiful, sensory, fungal whodunit, with a brief history of alcohol on the side.
I was recently asked if I wanted to contribute anything to the Open Notebook, a site where science writers write about science writing. It specialises in taking big, important stories and dissecting how they were conceived, crafted and refined. It’s about the stories behind the stories. I’ve been a fan of the Open Notebook from the beginning. Not only does it highlight the best science writing around but we get a wonderful look at how the best professionals in the field do their work. It’s an antidote to the caricature of the lazy, uninformed science journalist, and it helps those of us who care about the profession to aspire to higher standards.
When I was thinking which story to delve into, Adam’s whiskey tale was an obvious choice. It was one of my favourite pieces of the year. All of the elements of a great science feature are here. It’s a story, not a review, and it uses a compelling central character to explore the fascinating and overlooked world of fungal science. The explanatory element is crystal clear without skimping on detail. The prose is vivid with sensory detail and has a light, lilting cadence to it. And more than any piece I have recently read, it bares open the process of science, and the curiosity and passion that drives its practitioners. It’s science as a quest: frustrating and never-ending, but always captivating.
Check out Adam’s story if you haven’t already, and then read about how he built it at the Open Notebook.
Image by Shadle
I’ve just spoken at the opening plenary of the second day of the World Conference of Science Journalists at Doha, Qatar. It’s a panel called “Am I a science journalist?”with myself, my fellow Discover blogger Chris Mooney, Mo Costandi, Homayoun Kheyri, and Cristine Russell.
Here’s the description of the panel:
In the evolving world of science communication, how do we define a science journalist? This panel will discuss whether the venerable word “journalist” can or should be applied to some, all, or none of the new generation of science bloggers and educators who are remaking the field.
And this is what I said:
British readers might have caught wind of a new Guardian/Wellcome Trust Science Writing prize, aimed at finding the “next generation of undiscovered science writing talent.” Since the announcement, the Guardian have been pumping out a series of pieces on tips and tricks for good science writing, penned by established writers.
Alok asked me for something different – he wanted a reflection on the importance of entering and winning competitions. I won the Daily Telegraph’s young science writer prize in 2007, which in many ways was the spiritual predecessor of the new Guardian/Wellcome Trust one. My thoughts on that win, and its importance in my career, is now up at the Grauniad. Read More
Two months ago, I used an online tool called Dipity to create an interactive timeline about reprogrammed stem cells. It was picked up by the Guardian, Boing Boing, Nature Medicine and Science, discussed in two flattering posts by John Rennie, and discussed on a trifecta of journalism analysis sites: the Knight Science Journalism Tracker, Nieman Journalism Lab and the Columbia Journalism Review.
In response to comments about whether anyone would actually pay for stuff like this, I mentioned at the time that I was talking to an organisation about creating similar timelines as a freelancer. That organisation is Nature, and I’ve just produced my first timeline for them. It charts the progress of the ongoing Fukushima disaster, pulling together Nature’s coverage, which I already credited as being among the best in the market.
Fukushima disaster on Dipity.
Having now done two of these, I think I’m starting to get a sense of how to use Dipity. I reckon that it works best for subjects where there is a solid story, and whether the passing of time is crucial to the telling of that story. In the case of the stem cells, you could watch a fast-moving field as it grew and unfolded. In the case of Fukushima, you can see a difficult situation grow and unfold in a similar way. The scale – years in the first, and days in the second – are different, but the sense of a developing sequence of events is important.
I’ve been tempted to do others since the original timeline, but they all seemed to be a thematically related but otherwise unconnected collection of events that was shoehorned into a timeline format. A slideshow or a even a list of bullet points would have sufficed. I’m still working this stuff out, but it’s fun to have an ever-growing playground of toys to experiment with at no cost.
Where do journalists get their sources from, and how should they make use of their sources? Last month, I discussed this topic as part of a panel on “Expert sources in science and health”, organised as one of several training workshops for science journalists.
The panel, chaired by Kevin Marsh from the BBC College of Journalism, included:
Here are the videos. We each talk for around 5 mins and there’s a lively audience debate later.
On Twitter, John Pavlus recently asked me which bit of the writing process I like most – researching and collating information, or actually getting it down on paper.
So to answer that question more fully (and because it’s been a bit of a slow week), here’s a graph depicting my process of writing a feature. Enjoyment’s on the vertical axis, time runs along the horizontal. This applies to longer features rather than blog posts – those are more straightforward and less emotionally variable.
(And yes, I know “regurgitated” is spelled wrongly in the image. I can’t be bothered to change it)
I finally downloaded my recordings from the ScienceOnline 2011 conference that I attended back in January. Here are a couple of sessions for your listening pleasure. These were recorded using my Livescribe pen so the audio is passable if not brilliant.
The first is the Death to Obfuscation workshop, featuring Carl Zimmer and myself. It’s on writing about science for a broad audience, who isn’t obliged to read your stuff. We consider basic elements and pitfalls that writers need to consider, from the level of individual words and sentences, to paragraphs and pieces. The audio’s a bit tinny because the pen was near a projector and the audience questions are a bit muffled, but you can hear pretty much everything that Carl and I are saying. I’ve cut out a bit near the end with a written exercise because the sound of 70 people writing for 5 minutes isn’t particularly gripping.
The second recording comes from a session on online science journalism, asking whether it’s better or merely different. With me on the panel were arch-writers Virginia Hughes, David Dobbs, John Rennie and Steve Silberman. We flitted through a wide variety of topics. It’s worth it just to listen to John’s passionate rabble-rousing speech somewhere in the middle.
A couple of house-keeping things.
Firstly, if you cast your eyes a few pixels upwards, you’ll notice the snazzy new banner. All the Discover blogs now have them to give us a bit more of an individual feel. I love mine/them. The designer’s done a great job with reconciling the “rocket science” bit with the fact that I write almost entirely about biology. You can see the rest of the logos on the sidebar, and I’ll probably be doing a Cafepress store at some point.
Secondly, you might have noticed that there’s also a “Support Science Writers” box in the sidebar. I’ve added this in light of my new initiative to voluntarily pay for the best science writing that I read. In the comments, people suggested various ways that these micropayments could be done easily, but all the best suggestions involve adding some sort of code to one’s site.
While a simple solution may take some more work, I’ve implemented these Paypal buttons as a temporary fix. The top one goes to the writers I pick every month, distributed equally (any donations this month will go to February’s picks, and so on). The bottom one goes to me and I’ll match a third of the donations and send that to the chosen writers too.
Both go to my Paypal account but they’re tagged differently so I can sort through all the donations and distribute them easily. This isn’t ideal by any means, but like many things on the Internet, I thought I’d give it a go and see what happens. So if any of you would like to support NERS or any of the other great blogs that I link to, please feel free to contribute. There is, of course, no expectation to do this.
For reference, here are the people who I’ve donated to this month:
“That’s brilliant. I’d pay good money for that.”
I’ve been saying this a lot recently. My RSS reader, Twitter stream and other sources of incoming goodies have been chock-full of stand-out pieces – posts that are long, thorough, beautifully written, and most of all, unpaid. Have a look at Greg Downey’s opus on the biology of holding your breath, or Delene Beeland’s piece on Ethiopia’s church forests, or Brian Switek’s post on human origins, or Bora Zivkovic’s tour de force on clock genes, or Steve Silberman’s… well pretty much everything by Steve Silberman.
I read these pieces in amazement that their writers should stick them up for free, when so many others pen far lesser works for a salary. Clearly, the writers are happy to provide free content and they get various advantages out of it. But I absolutely believe that good writers should be paid for good work. I read these pieces and think, “That took a lot of effort. It’s a shame they didn’t get paid for that. I’d pay good money for that.”
And then, last week, I thought, “Hey, why don’t I pay good money for that?”
So I’m going to. As of this month, I am putting my money where my mouth is and trying to set an example. The basic idea: every month, I’m going to choose ten pieces that I really enjoyed and donate £3 to the author as a token of my appreciation.