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Interview with Thomas Levenson

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Guest post by Richa Malhotra, a science journalist originally from Agra, now residing in London. She did a Masters in Biotechnology and discovered that her interest lies in science journalism. She seized the opportunity to intern with Current Science, a fortnightly published from India.

What skills should one have to be a science writer? What is the art and craft of science writing? What are the stumbling blocks to be overcome? What does it take to make it big? These are questions great science writers may have answered on their own. But what if an aspiring science writer could learn from more experienced practitioners?

Thomas Levenson is a Professor of Science Writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in USA. He is the author of Ice Time: Climate, Science and Life on Earth; Measure for Measure: A Musical History of Science; Einstein in Berlin; and Newton and the Counterfeiter: The Unknown Detective Career of the World’s Greatest Scientist. He has also produced  documentary films that have been broadcast internationally, and he writes more ephemeral pieces on occasion.  He likes doing all of these things, but if forced to do only one for the rest of his years of creative endeavor, he says that he would choose to write books — but he adds that he would be sad if he had to give up the rest of the many things he does. He doesn’t like being asked about top five or top ten things about writing (I am telling from experience!). I interviewed him ahead of the UK Conference of Science Journalists in London and had so much to learn from him that I wanted the conversation to go on and on. The conversation lasted one hour and here’s the outcome.

How did you get started on science writing?

After I left university I began travelling and I got to East Asia. I went to the Philippines and started working as a local stringer for the Reuters News Service. I realized that I didn’t know anything about the Philippines. All I knew was what I had read in the newspapers back in the United States. I didn’t speak Filipino and didn’t know the country in detail. But then my bureau chief asked me to cover an international conference on coral reef biology. Covering that conference  it dawned on me that scientists knew specific things – actual facts.  E.g. if they wanted to know what’s the reef’s productivity they measured it. If there was dynamite fishing going on they could quantify its effects. I realized that if I started with scientific facts about anything and then looked at how people behaved around that knowledge, I could learn things not just in science, which was itself wonderful, but about culture, society or economics as well.  If I wanted to write about those things I had a solid ground of facts where I could start from.  It was this combination of a reliable method of making knowledge and the ability to use the results of that method to test all kinds of other questions about how people live together in history and in our present times that I found really fascinating.

Did you ever feel like quitting science writing?

No. I always get to learn; I get paid to ask questions about cool stuff. I also think that the rest of the journalism has a great deal to learn from science writing.  I don’t believe that being a science writer closes off all other kinds of journalism. If I want to write about politics, I can use knowledge, for example about the state of actual science about climate change to make some detailed points. If there is a certain body of knowledge and a good reason to hold it (which is true of climate change) and people don’t want to act on that knowledge, things like why they don’t want to act on that knowledge, what other considerations are impinging, and why politicians might be doing something, then you may in the end it be writing political journalism but it starts with basics in science reporting.

You are the head of the Graduate Program in Science Writing at MIT (except for the year starting July 2012). Could you share the key features of a science writing program?

We are very much a practice-driven program. We don’t emphasize the theory of journalism. We demand a lot of writing; students are writing and rewriting all the time. Our course ranges from doing very short, daily news pieces (reporting on what a scientist did in his lab), with as much context and interpretation as one could do in 500 words produced with a short turnaround, to a 10,000 word thesis. The thesis is a work of contemporary science reporting and writing – it’s not a theory thesis. It is not book-length but it comes in at the length of a short e-book (e.g. Kindle Single, TED books). Byliner Originals and Atavist are the websites that are publishing this kind of work.

We also require our students to learn the basics of making interpretive narrative stories in video and audio, what’s usually called documentary. But like all media genres, documentary is  changing as technology and distribution methods are changing. We ask our students to spread their wings across a wide range of possibilities to bring out information and ideas about science to the public. We are small and the faculty–student ratio is very much in the student’s favor. Perhaps our most important attribute is that we are at MIT, a leading research institution. The students have lots of sources of stories and ideas right there.

What is your response to those who say writing cannot be taught in classrooms?

I think when people say you cannot teach writing, what’s in their minds is that you cannot teach somebody to be Jane Austen (fill in your favorite author). But there is an awful lot about what even great fiction writers do that can be taught. Part of what we teach in science writing is how to handle a specialized beat.

You have the same issue in, say, sports journalism; both are specialized beats but have different bodies of technical, beat-specific information.  Bluntly, the science stuff is harder. There is a lot of specialized information you need to know to write knowledgeably about cricket or baseball, but it is harder to write about physics. The specialized knowledge requires more effort to learn.

But for any beat or genre, you can teach a lot about the difference between a story and a topic, how to organize your material so that you will capture the reader’s interests, how to think about a sentence, how to think about a paragraph, how to go from smaller stories (500-word news piece) to longer (1000, 1500, 3000 words) pieces, what you have to think about in terms of structure…These are things people have thought about for a long time, and have got lots of specific and valuable information to impart.

When we teach structure you can begin with Aristotle who wrote about structure long ago. The architecture of a well-made story is something that you can absolutely teach. Can you teach people to be imaginative in their idea of what a story is? Can you teach style, marvelous use of language and narrative skills? The answer is, in part yes you can teach all of these things.

What skills make a good science writer?

A science writer must have the ability to understand enough about the science, to know its significance and a grasp of the field. Science, as practiced, is an enormously, demandingly-narrowly focused effort. What you have to know is how to learn a field deeply enough so that you can  get past “a scientist said  something and therefore it’s true and interesting.”

Even if you are a science writer who prefers to cover a single area within science, like astronomy or neuroscience, you really need to have a sense of how the culture of the discipline you are most interested in works, what it takes to come up to something that’s important rather than simply interesting, how labs work in that field (or if it’s a real calculation or model-based field, how does that process work, how researchers there conceive of models). You need to understand the norms and habits of the daily life of the field. If you are a general science journalist covering more than one field, or if you are a magpie like me, going after the shiny bits, then you have to have an appreciation that cultures differ from discipline to discipline. You need to spend some time as you come into a new area understanding again about how all that works.

You need to have a strong sense of story. You have to know how the story you want to tell fits into a larger research narrative – what scientists are trying to find out on a larger scale as they pursue each individual experiment. You need to have a gift for translating. It is important to be able to understand the science but also understand how to express the ideas of the science in ways that inform the reader (not baffle them!), but making sure you don’t do damage to the science. You have to be accurate even if not fully detailed.

Science writers should never think of themselves as dumbing down the science. They are interpreting the science and the results, and expressing it in a language that does justice to both sets of stakeholders – the science makers and the science readers. But you need to have this dual narrative sense; how something that you are covering fits into the larger narrative of science and how that same result fits into the narrative of your audience.

Do you think science writers, particularly those with a science background, are cheerleaders?

Sometimes, yes.  You have to be careful about that.  Many of us go into science writing because we want to bring the good news to people, to let the public know about all the wonderful knowledge and useful inventions science genuinely does produce.  But it’s important to remember that  science is itself a many- billion-dollar enterprise, employing thousands or millions of people worldwide every year. It’s a profession with ethical norms and values that I believe are higher than average. But there’s a distribution and there will always be people over the left side of the distribution who won’t be behaving right. There are many players, corporations, institutions, and governances whose efforts may need to be investigated. Science is both big business and a highly competitive profession. There will be a behavior within the profession that isn’t about science per se but the behaviors of scientists. You need to keep an eye on that.

At the same time, science is knowledge of great human benefit.  Because of the way we pay  for it, that knowledge rightfully belongs to the public.  The job of a science journalist is in part to simply take that knowledge out of the area of professional communication and science meetings, and make that available to the people. In that sense it is cheerleading. Some science writers are also advocates for investment in science institutions and prioritizing science knowledge over other kinds of knowledge or argument in public debate, and in that sense you can see what science writers do as an explicit form of  cheerleading. But the important thing that the scientists, science writers and public have to remember is that scientific knowledge, is always conditional; more research can lead to different answers than the ones we report today. So even when you are cheerleading you have to remember you may not be right.

How do you deal with writer’s block?

If you are a writer and you stop writing, there can be lots of different reasons for the halt, and the remedies will be different, depending on what’s going on. If it’s something in your (personal) life, then obviously the problem you have is external to the writing and has to be solved on its own terms. But if it really feels like it’s internal to the writing, the most common reason you stop and can’t start again is that you have got something in the piece wrong in a couple of fairly common ways. One is you have been writing and writing but you aren’t really sure of what you are saying – what it is you actually want to communicate, what the central idea of your piece may be. That’s when you have to stop and read what you’ve written, and ask yourself the simple question:  what am I trying to say here.  Sometimes it’s just that straightforward: you pause, and you think a bit, and you try to remember what was interesting to you about the pitch in the first place.  That’s when you may find you need to do more reporting, by the way.  Sometimes, that’s really the problem – you thought you knew what you were writing about, but  you don’t know quite enough yet to get the story down – or the story shifted in the reporting and you need to go get some stuff that shed light on the new angle.  Whatever:  the point is you can solve a lot of problems just by trying to talk yourself through your story.

The other common source of writer’s block comes when you are writing a story you want to write but you have got the structure of it wrong. When you think of structure it’s like working away through a maze. It is like you built this beautiful structure but you realize that the staircase to the third floor is missing.  That happens to me more frequently than I’d like. When it does, I find myself trying to step back from the words themselves, the sentences and the paragraphs, and really think about the architecture of the piece – I outline all the time, and I try to think of the design of the story at that point more than any of its specifics.

So to put all  that into a nutshell: when you aren’t writing because of a problem in the writing, in my experience the two most common causes are a mismatch between what you think you are writing and what you actually got in terms of the material — and then even if you do have the right material and the right story, you can write it with an organization that doesn’t work and you need to then rework it.

Is there something you’d like to convey to young science writers out there?

The great thing about science journalism is they pay you to be curious, they pay you to find out stuff, they pay you to play with some of the most beautiful intellectual work that’s ever been done. So enjoy it and if you don’t enjoy it, find something else to do. There’s no reason to get up every day and hate to go to work.





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  1. 1. skumar 2:50 pm 07/27/2012

    Who is the interviewer? Bora Zivkovic or Richa Malhotra? Please clarify!Otherwise, the interview is quite illuminating…

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  2. 2. Bora Zivkovic 2:52 pm 07/27/2012

    “Guest post by Richa Malhotra….”

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  3. 3. skumar 7:19 am 07/28/2012

    No thank you and no marks for this non-illuminating reply. That it’s been posted by Richa Malhotra is apparent. But my simple straight-forward question was, and still is, who has conducted the interview: Bora Zivkovic or Richa Malhotra? Care to answer it straight?

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  4. 4. Bora Zivkovic 7:54 am 07/28/2012

    Richa Malhotra conducted the interview and wrote the guest post. Bora Zivkovic, as the editor of this blog, posted it.

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