Writing in General, and Science Writing in Particular: The Wall Street Journal

“Read. Read other people,” Wall Street Journal reporter Robert Lee Hotz advised participants at the Santa Fe Science Writing Workshop. “Go read Jane Austen. How did she pull it off? […] Look for techniques.”

Space Shuttle Columbia (NASA)

Hotz is a long-time journalist whose work includes an amazing six-part series about the Columbia space shuttle accident investigation called “Butterfly on a Bullet.” He’s covered genetic engineering and earthquakes. He’s been to the Arctic and the Antarctic in search of a story. So when he shared his notions of the nuts and bolts of science writing, we were listening attentively.

Before a writer even gets started on a project, whether it be a news story, a magazine feature, or a book, Lee advises that he or she shed preconceptions because those assumptions can make a person deaf to what’s really being said. He insists, too, that writers can’t write what they haven’t reported. In other words, writing is the culmination of a lot of information gathering and sifting.

Columbia’s Data Recorder (NASA)

In Hotz’s view, “Facts are transformative.” He firmly believes that people need information, not assertions, so that they can make more informed decisions about their lives. He calls himself an obsessive researcher and, in the midst of research, knows that he will use just a tiny fraction of what he’s gathered. “But you don’t know in advance which 1%.” Readers may learn a great deal from reading a piece by Hotz, but his goal isn’t teaching science to his readers. He wants to gather, organize, and share facts about the world and universe in which we live so that we can make better decisions for ourselves.

The core of Hotz’s talk focused on the following rules of thumb for doing science writing (or perhaps any kind of research-based nonfiction):

  • Look people in the eye. “Get out of your office,” Hotz said. “Talk to people directly.” There’s really not substitute for in-person interviews if you have that time and money.
  • Character matters. Rebecca Skloot, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, agrees with this point, and once said at an AWP Conference, “People need stories in order to read the science.” And stories need characters.
  • History matters. The past provides a context for understanding subjects, facts, events, and issues. Hidden connections may reside in this sort of research, and it’s story is part of the word history.
  • Find a guide. In other words, Hotz said, “Look for a person who can blaze a path for you into the thicket.” Hotz had a guide crucial for his research into the Columbia investigation who never appeared in the published story.
  • Organize as you go. At Lofty Ambitions, we’re familiar with being in the midst of events or research and not having time to stop to organize everything we’re accumulating. Drafting our book proposal forced us to organize our thoughts and writing, but it might have been easier if we’d had a system going into the project (which we might have developed if we’d realized from the get-go that it was a big project). Hotz recommends yellow legal pads and DevonThink (software that author Steven Johnson also recommend when we saw him read a couple of years ago).
  • Piece it together. Outline. Build the outline with information. Use footnotes to indicate where you got the information so that you don’t accidentally plagiarize later and can provide the footnotes to a fact-checker later.
  • Begin in the middle. Hotz recognizes that other writers get stuck perfecting the first sentence before going on. He advises, “Don’t begin, just start.” Writing chunks and scenes without worrying about order can help a writer build a draft more quickly. Or write in chronological order, even though you know the information will need to be reordered later. “I personally believe there’s no such thing as writer’s block,” Hotz asserted. “It’s a writing and thinking problem.”
  • Structure matters. Referring to his Columbia story, Hotz said, “Structure mattered to the space shuttle itself, and it mattered to the piece I was writing.” He emphasized that how we know something—who said it, how we found it, how it fits into the story—can matter as much as what we know.

Ta-dah, you have a story—an article or a book.

And then it goes to an editor. Hotz has great respect for his editors and reminded us that, ultimately, the editors are right even if you disagree. The important thing to remember is that when an editor suggests a change, something stopped that reader. The editor may have a good fix, or the writer may need to figure out how to rework the story so that readers aren’t tripped up or distracted.

As a result of our individual conversation with Lee Hotz, we’re already in the midst of figuring out how to rework our story. The process is both daunting and exciting, and that’s why we do it.

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

The New York Times & David Corcoran

Good Prose, Tracy Kidder, and Richard Todd

Elie Wiesel at Chapman University

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