Writing in General, and Science Writing in Particular: The New York Times

We’re having a great time at the Santa Fe Science Writing Workshop this week. The days are jam-packed with talks about writing, lectures from academics about their research, meetings with our workshop groups, and socializing over meals.

David Corcoran, the editor of the Science Times section of The New York Times, has given two talks. We mentioned the importance of editing—of being edited—in our most recent post about Good Prose, a book by author Tracy Kidder and his editor Richard Todd. Corcoran showed us the story behind the story—the story of the editing process—for this week’s lead story in Tuesday’s Science Times.

David Corcoran reading poems in Santa Fe
David Corcoran reading poems in Santa Fe

A story idea can come from a staff writer, a regular contributor (who sometimes looks like a staff writer to readers), a freelancer who has a history with the newspaper, or a new freelancer. In the case of “In Pursuit of an Underwater Menagerie,” the writer is a scientist and curator at Cornell University who had contributed to NYT’s Scientist at Work blog.

The editors at the newspaper liked her writing. Corcoran and our peers at the Santa Fe workshop found her sentences full of intimacy, specificity, and sensory detail. In particular, Corcoran surmised that she’s comfortable with language like a person who reads a lot. “It’s a gift to be able to write that beautifully,” he said. The editors at NYT also liked her project: her quest with a filmmaker to find and film the real-life sea creatures represented in a nineteenth-century glass collection.

Corcoran initially discussed the possibility for this story with the author, C. Drew Harvell, three or four months ago. It’s timely because she’s doing the project right now, but it wasn’t a news story that had to be written quickly. He asked for 1400 words. For more timely stories, the writing happens as few as the day before the Monday deadline for Tuesday’s Science Times section.

Lofty Ambitions on our way to lectures in Santa Fe

Every writer in the Science Times section gets close editing. Corcoran is first-line editor for all the stories that appear in that section. He weaves streaks and chunks of red and blue text into the tracked-changes version of article drafts. In particular, he wants a strong nut graph—the in-a-nutshell paragraph early on that conveys the gist of the story, why the author is writing it, and why a reader needs to read it now. In the end, editor and writer are collaborators of sorts.

Though Harvell’s story was requested, Corcoran is the person a freelancer contacts with a pitch. If he’s interested, he’ll discuss with the writer the timeframe and length and possibilities for add-ons, like the 360-degree photographs that accompany Harvell’s story and were shot by a NYT photographer using a contraption involving a hamster wheel.

Freelancers shouldn’t get too excited, though, about their pitches to NYT. Over the past six months, staff writers and regular contributors wrote 86% of the articles that appear in the Science Times section. That makes sense; these folks are paid to fill those pages. Established freelancers contribute another 10% of the articles. That leaves only 4% of stories by new freelancers. Corcoran added that new freelancers usually have significant experience writing for other venues.

The New York Times is a tough market to crack. But it is open to new ideas and new writers. And other venues can help a freelancer build clips while forming the amazingly cool story idea for Science Times.

PREVIOUS POSTS IN “Writing in General, and Science Writing in Particular”:

Good Prose

Elie Wiesel


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