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Notes on Science Writing

Science writer J.R. Minkel recently asked journalists “how you handle the pressures of the job and what motivates you to get up in the morning.” Below is my response, originally posted in my outtakes catchment. Though I try to keep this blog separate from my work, I’m making an exception here, because the answer touches on issues that are deeply important to me.

The opinions expressed are entirely my own, not those of my employers. I’ve included a lot of links, partly out of vanity but also to give a sense of what my work involves. More of my stories can be found here.

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I wake up in the morning happy to go to work — most days, at any rate — in part because I enjoy thinking and writing, and am lucky to do it for a living. And I write about science in part because I think I can contribute, in some small way, to the sum total of good in this world, whether by providing knowledge that’s either immediately useful — don’t expect your genome to answer all your medical questions; parse John McCain’s stem cell rhetoric carefully — or adds to the richness of everyday experience: maple seeds ride tornadoes, birds see magnetic fields, evolutionary dynamics act on complex molecules as well as organisms.

At any given moment, I’m at some level advocating a principle. Even writing about the unusual physical properties of granularity reflects a belief that contemplating them is worthwhile, and that pleasure derived from watching streams of grains behaving as a liquid is an essential good. Sometimes the principle is more abstract: knowing that chromosome topography could explain some of what genetics alone cannot, that artificial intelligence might be used to tease patterns from otherwise-impenetrable networked interactions of genes and proteins,  may not lend itself to obvious practical application; but in some way I believe that individual wisdom and the public sphere’s health is nourished by the spread of this knowledge. The same goes for discussions of genetic selection, cognitive overload or evolutionary theology.

Sometimes the advocacy is more overt. If researchers are right about certain cetacean species having a level of personhood comparable to our own, if industrial husbandry practices accelerated the emergence of swine flu, then there are decisions — from shipping speed policies to dietary choices — that can and should be considered. At moments when my advocacy is more pronounced — or when a topic is particularly sensitive, as with the evolution of religion — I take special care to be as thorough and responsible in my reporting as possible, and safeguard against my own biases. Obviously I try to apply these standards at all times, but some stories require them more than others.

For the most part, I’ll stand by how I handle the responsibilities and pressures of my work. For the last two years, this work has mostly been writing for Wired.com — first as a traditional blogger, and then as a daily news writer with content published on a blog. Recently I went half-time in order to pursue longer-form stories and book projects, but I’m also happy to be freed from the daily grind of writing one full news story and one brief story nearly every day. This is extremely hard work, especially when one wants to be truly thorough — doing that third interview, or fourth, looking at back literature, fully understanding mechanics and context rather than waving my hands around them. I like to think I’ve managed this as well as possible, most of the time, given the constraints; but I know I’ve often fallen short.

Sometimes, of course, just one or two interviews are necessary. Making that judgment is a necessary skill, and I’ll sometimes go for the easy story rather than one that will  have me working until bedtime. At other times I’ll pass on a story because I know I won’t be able to do it justice. Drug development is especially noteworthy in this regard; I feel more comfortable covering early-stage research — where I might be able to talk about a novel approach that’s noteworthy in itself — than a Phase II or III trial which has generated reams of data that almost certainly can’t be evaluated in the four-to-six hours allotted for reporting and writing a story, might be skewed, or invokes an economic or social context that can’t properly be contained in a 700-word article. In short, I don’t want to hurt anyone, or waste their time, and that’d be easy to do in this genre.

These cautions apply to many health and medicine stories, though there are some that I’ve been able to  cover consistently over time — the death during a gene therapy trial of Jolee Mohr; the development of sirtuin-targeting “anti-aging” drugs. And there are some types of stories — one is exemplifed by a group of studies being published Wednesday in Nature — that I’ve consistently ignored as a matter of principle, because knowing when something is not news is a pressure unto itself.

Finally, I don’t report from press releases.

Image: Marc Smith

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