Science Writing at AWP 2013

We’ve written about our fondness for attending science-oriented panels at the annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference on a number of occasions (see HERE and HERE and the links in these posts). This year—earlier this month—we were able to attend two science-writing panels at AWP, “Science Writing for All” and “Engaging with Science: Poetry and Fiction.”

AWP 2012: Lofty Ambitions bundled up in Chicago
AWP 2012: Lofty Ambitions bundled up in Chicago

The moderator for “Science Writing for All,” science journalist Robert Frederick, opened the panel with a nerdy science—GPS—quip: “According to something in space, it’s 1:30p.m.” That set the tone for the panel and for trying to live up to the panel’s title, namely that science and science writing is everywhere and for everyone.

A constant reference point for the panel was the forthcoming book Science Writer’s Handbook, edited by Thomas Hayden and Michelle Nijhuis. Each panel member was a contributor to this text, and each made at least one reference to it. Though we haven’t seen a copy of it yet, Doug will be ordering one for the university’s library. The panelists made it seem like a lively collection chock-full of practical, pragmatic advice for the aspiring science writer.

Frederick used the book as a launching point for his presentation. “Is this science writing?” Frederick asked while waving a hand towards a slide displaying an image of the gang from The Big Bang Theory.  We’re huge fans of TBBT—though we watch it on DVD, several episodes in an evening, as opposed to in real time, so, please, no Season Six spoilers (we’re looking at you Brigid Leahy)—and when it became apparent that Frederick wasn’t just posing a rhetorical question for the panel to contemplate, Doug happily shouted, “Absolutely.” Other voices in the crowded conference room piped up in agreement. One image at a time, Frederick’s slides added NCIS, Sherlock, and Grey’s Anatomy to the conversation. Each time, he re-invoked his question and received affirmation from the rest of us. The audience hesitated only at the last image rendered, a Downton Abbey still. Frederick indicated that Downton Abbey, a favorite among writerly and literary types we know, probably wasn’t science writing, but, as a good scientist, he considered the series an unfinished experiment and was going to continue to collect data until he was certain one way or the other.

Frederick continued his effort to paint a portrait of the everywhereness of science and science writing by asserting that humans are always experimenting. While we are not all scientists, we are all experimenters. Even as children we try things out. Frederick experimented with playing in the dirt and with swimming, noting that the former was done in isolation but the latter encouraged others’ participation. He extended the experiment by combining dirt and water, leading to a clear response from his mother; she shrieked.

This panel covered a lot of ground, touching upon the role of craft for any science writer and the importance of metaphor and how scientists and science writers use language. Green houses, for instance, are good things, whereas greenhouse gas is insidious. Or the term genetic blueprint implies a designer; it works as a metaphor. While science writing can be about big ideas, the details—the words chosen—matter a great deal.

The other three panelists were Jill U. Adams, Jenny Cutraro, and Douglas Starr, which allowed the session to cover even more ground.

Entrance to the California Science Center
Entrance to the California Science Center

Adams is a scientist who runs a science fair for kids and who has written a lot of articles. One of her pieces in the Los Angeles Times examined the controversy of more than a year ago about whether schools could count pizza as a vegetable in the lunches they provide students. Who knew that tomato paste got special treatment that other purees don’t get? Who knew that tomato paste may actually earn its special treatment with more of vitamins A and C than green beans and more calcium and iron than applesauce? The point, for Adams, is that, in science writing, science is about people and policy.

Most of Cutraro’s recent work is science writing for kids and teachers, but she also brought up her previous job as a science writer at Purdue University, where she summarized—and thereby translated—science that was being done there. She pointed out how many places science writing happens, from hospitals to museums to television shows like NOVA to publications like National Geographic to The Learning Network website.

Cutraro had some specific pointers for those of us interested in writing for a young audience: use direct leads, define terms early on, limit each sentence to one scientific concept, use analogies that make sense to the audience, and don’t assume prior knowledge. These suggestions, of course, can be adapted for an adult, lay readership as well.

After hearing about all these places to publish science writing and tips for getting one’s work published, Starr gave sobering news: it’s difficult to make a living as a science writer. His suggestion—and his books Blood and The Killer of Little Shepherds bear this out—is to find areas where science overlaps with some other aspect of the world, such as science and the legal system or, as with Adams’ article, science and the school system. He also pointed out that, while the internet has undercut the importance of newspapers, the shift has opened a channel through which institutions directly connect with their constituencies or readers.

Lofty Editing
Lofty Editing

So, do you need a graduate program to teach you how to be a science writer? Starr says no but talked about what Boston University’s Center for Science and Medical Journalism teaches: how to think, how to dig into a story, how to interview, and how to structure a story. He recommend reading John McPhee’s recent article in The New Yorker called “Structure.” He also recommend Jeanne Fahnestock’s book Rhetorical Figures in Science.

We’ll end this week’s post with that little snippet of serendipity, for Fahnestock was one of the faculty who trained and supervised graduate teaching assistants in English at the University of Maryland when Anna earned her MFA there. But return next week to read more about science writing at AWP.

5 thoughts on “Science Writing at AWP 2013

  1. Wow — so glad to read that you liked our panel — thank you!

    Serendipity indeed: Fahnestock also advised one of my spouse’s advisors. My spouse, in turn, gave me a copy of Fahnestock’s book shortly after it came out. That prompted me to pitch/moderate a panel on rhetoric in science at the 2007 National Association of Science Writers’ meeting. I invited Fahnestock to be on the panel, but she couldn’t make it. She suggested Leah Ceccarelli, who gave a very impressive talk. I’ve been reading Ceccarelli’s stuff ever since, and invite you to as well.

    Thanks again!

    1. Robert–

      Doug here. I absolutely enjoyed the panel. In particular, I think that your enthusiasm for the material set a perfect tone for the discussion.

      Thanks for the Ceccarelli recommendation. We’ll be sure to track her work down and add it to our always growing list.

      Best.

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