This is a series of Q&As with young and up-and-coming science, health and environmental writers and reporters. They – at least some of them – have recently hatched in the Incubators (science writing programs at schools of journalism), have even more recently fledged (graduated), and are now making their mark as wonderful new voices explaining science to the public.
Hello, welcome to The SA Incubator. Let’s start from the beginning: where are you originally from?
Hello, thanks for having me! Originally, I’m from Phoenix “It’s a dry heat,” Arizona. I escaped the high temps to go to grad school at UC Davis, and moved to Santa Cruz after finishing my PhD. Though I spent most of my time there glued to my laptop, furiously writing and rewriting (Santa Cruz’s science writing program is intense!), eleven months of an ocean view (and nearby redwood forests) convinced me that it’s the perfect place to live.
But, besides a recent run-in with poison ivy, Washington, D.C. is a close second. Especially after this election. I’m already looking forward to taking my daughter to the re-inauguration. What a great history lesson. And everyone knows toddlers love history.
Which science writing program did you attend? Why did you choose that one? What are your best experiences there?
I choose UCSC’s SciCom program because of the heartfelt, earnest recommendations I received from recent graduates. They zeroed in on two main points:
1. SciCom will make you a better writer.
2. It’s hard work, but worth the effort.
The former students made surviving SciCom sound like finishing a marathon, or going though childbirth. I haven’t run a marathon, but after completing the program I agree with the comparison: SciCom demands sweat and tears, but you end up stronger, and with something impressive to show for your work. It’s like boot camp for writers: The instructors put your words through the wringer and squeeze out something readable.
Finally, I stumbled across this letter from SciCom’s director, Rob Irion, while googling through program details — it clinched my decision to apply. The letter offers candid advice for applying to science writing programs. It’s tailored to budding journalists, but has crossover appeal. And it’s funny. (Some excerpts: Be interesting. Be original. Don’t use emoticons). The man packed a semester’s worth of career counseling into one letter, and made me laugh. I knew I had to work with him.
I’ve used Rob’s advice for cover letters, fellowship applications, and keep a spare copy tucked in my back pocket for emergencies (not actually, but it really is good.)
Though I devoted my time in Santa Cruz to wrenching words from my head, riffling through notes, and talking to scientists (which I discovered I love), some of my favorite moments were exploring the city with my family and classmates. (We went spelunking in the caves under campus, roamed the hills, and tried to stuff as many slugs as we could into a tree.)
The most challenging part of the program was starting with my (then) 4-month old daughter, Briar. Sleep, I also discovered, makes writing a lot easier.
What professional experiences have you had so far—publications, internships, jobs? Feel free to include a bunch of links here! What is your current job?
I just came off a fantastic internship at Science News. I learned so much and can’t encourage new students enough to apply for a slot. The magazine has lively writers, and patient editors who always took the time to explain the polishing that made my articles gleam.
In the Santa Cruz program, I also interned at the local newspaper and public radio station, the Santa Cruz Sentinel and KUSP, and at the Multiple Sclerosis Discovery Forum — a shiny-new website that lays out the latest MS research and publishes in-depth background articles about the disease. At the MSDF, I wrote about immune cells gone rogue and dove into my first video project: a look at what MS looks and feels like for different people.
Now, I’ve landed at the National Cancer Institute, in the Health Communications Internship Program. This internship is long — 1 year — but it introduces interns to the many different offices at NIH (there are a lot) and has both health communication and science writing positions.
On writing stories:
The point of science writing is to communicate. As one editor recently told me, “No one cares if your sentences are perfect.” People do, however, want to understand what they’re reading.
The communication idea goes for pitches, too. Editors wade through lots of pitches. Keeping writing simple and direct makes them happy. (Happy editors = good.)
I tape record everything, and transcribe nearly all my interviews with scientists. It’s laborious, but I always pick out something new on second listen. And, when I’m fact-checking a story, it’s nice to go back to the typed transcript. At meetings, I also snap quick iPhone pics of posters and presentations.
On time management:
Write everyday. This is especially true if you’re like me and have a little one at home. I never know if tonight’s the night I’m going to wake up at 3 a.m. for an hour or two. So, tackling small chunks of writing every day gives me some buffer, and lets me spend more time reading over what I’ve written.
How do you find stories to report?
This is a tricky one! Besides the obvious routes (like EurekAlert and mining the journals), I like to sign up for news releases from my favorite institutions. They’ll often link to new research articles and images that might not pop up in the big journals. If you’re into physics (and who’s not?), the American Physical Society has an active blog that introduces new articles. (APS is where I found one of my favorite stories at Science News: an article about lunar swirls.)
I’ll lurk on Twitter too, to feel out what’s new, and see if any scientists’ names stick out. Finally, I like to talk to my scientist friends from grad school. (Binders full of scientists?)
Can you give insight on your writing process? Once you get a topic you’d want to write about, how do you proceed from there?
I’m a slow writer. Words only begin to leak from my fingertips after I’ve stared at my screen, gnawed on my fist a bit and watched the clock run down. Writers, an editor at Science News once told me, are either builders or sculptors. Builders pry words from their brains, plunk them onto paper, and mortar the pieces bit-by-bit into place. Sculptors pour out whole sentences and paragraphs, then snip a word here, prune a phrase there, until they’ve got something manageable. Sculpting sounds fun. But, I’m a builder. And laying down words takes time.
I’m sure most (all?) other writers can speed through first drafts faster than I can (and without elaborate rituals), but for anyone who’s stared too long at a blank screen, here are a few tricks that help rev up my writing.
First, for almost every news article I write, I start with a little word brainstorm. Basically, I peck out a list of every word I can think of that’s related to my article topic. If I’m writing about color-changing soft-bodied machines, for example, I’ll pump out synonyms for camouflage and robots. For an article about llama semen (see why I miss Science News?), my wordstorm was a little more risqué. Most of those words didn’t make it into the story, but brainstorming got the juices flowing (sorry, couldn’t resist). And, it put words on the page.
Next, I’ll often scribble a few notes at the top of the document — tips I want to keep in mind while writing the article. Like, “Make it easy to read,” or “Use good verbs.” Kind of like a pep talk — it helps me focus on keeping my sentences lean, and my writing active.
Finally, I’ll jot down placeholder nuggets of what I want to include in the article—and where. Literally, these are as simple as: “chunk about semen collection,” “chunk about llama ovulation.” I juggle the nuggets around and flesh them out as I go.
At this point, I’ve got my wordstorm, I’ve got my writing reminders, and I’ve got my chunks. Now it’s time to take a break. I feel as if I’ve made a good start. And when I come back to the computer, I can bang out some simple sentences. Every now and then, I’ll dip into my wordstorm for pizzazz, swapping out boring verbs for sparkly ones, trading in dull words for color.
Then, I’ll read it all aloud and listen to how the words sound together — I’m always surprised how some phrases can looks so good on the screen, but sound so bad out loud. Not too much later — Who’d have guessed it? — I’ve got the main pieces in place and the sentences semi-smoothed out: Finally (at long last!), I’ve built something.
Do you write a personal or science blog? How much do you use social media networks, e.g., Twitter, Facebook, Google Plus, Tumblr, Pinterest, Flickr, YouTube etc., to promote your own and your friends’ work, to learn and to connect?
I do have a blog, but it’s buried under about a year’s worth of cobwebs. Some day, I’ll nurse its shriveled remains back to health — mainly because I love the blog’s name so much that I can’t let it wither away completely. (Aliquots. My husband came up with it.)
Facebook and Twitter (@MeghanDRosen), take up most of my social media time, though my Facebook use is mostly personal, and I tend to load my Twitter account with all the things I can’t post on Facebook (politics).
I’ve dipped into Google Plus, tinkered with Tumblr, and pinned projects on Pinterest, but don’t use those networks faithfully. In fact, a recurring snag with my social media usage is staying consistent. Even microblogs are hungry beasts. One way to keep them fed might be to collaborate with other spare time- challenged science writers. (Interested?)
I’m also toying with ways to use Pinterest for more than just recipes and crafts. I love the site’s format, and have pinned up enough DIY projects to jam-pack every weekend until I’m 50, but want to find a good way to tack on sciencey stuff too. I’m open to ideas. Last fall one of our guest speakers, David Cohn, reminded our class to be “agile and iterative” when experimenting on the web. (Cohn’s the founder of the community-based reporting site, Spot.us. I interviewed him here.)
I’ve neglected social media a bit the past few months, but this Q&A has pumped me full of a new resolve to stay connected!
Thanks for having me!
Previously in this series:
Kristina Ashley Bjoran
Mary Beth Griggs
Amy Shira Teitel
Noby Leong and Tristan O’Brien
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