Writing in General, and Science Writing in Particular: Handbooks (2)

This is the latest post in our series “Writing in General, and Science Writing in Particular.” To peruse all our posts on SCIENCE WRITING, click HERE or the tag in the right sidebar.

A Field Guide for Science Writers (2006)

FieldGuideScienceWritIn our last post, we discussed The Science Writers’ Handbook, which was published just this year. Today, we talk about A Field Guide for Science Writers, which is The Official Guide of the National Association of Science Writers and which is in its second edition.

The collection is divided into six sections. The first three are about the craft and practice of writing, including different markets for science writing (and other kinds of nonfiction). There are two topic-driven sections, one covering the life sciences and the other covering the physical and environmental sciences. The last section is about writing from with institutions, whether that be a university, a museum, or a corporation—about being a public affairs or public information officer.

There’s something for almost any reader among the chapters, even though some chapters won’t apply to a given writer or project. Here, we focus on chapters contributed by people who were instructors at this year’s Santa Fe Science Writing Workshop.

Chapter 8: Large Newspapers by Robert Lee Hotz

Given the state of traditional publishing, if you don’t already have a regular newspaper job, chances are that you’re not going to publish your writing at a large newspaper, though special sections do include freelance articles. Still, Lee Hotz’s chapter is a good read and reveals how news cycles work and how a breaking story bumps a deeply researched feature. This piece also discusses how technology—digital recording, Dragon, and askSam—can support research and writing. For updated, more in-depth wisdom from Hotz, see our recent post on his Santa Fe lecture HERE.

Chapter 20: Explanatory Writing by George Johnson

George Johnson’s latest book is The Ten Most Beautiful Experimentsand his book about cancer is due out in August. “I remember with some precision when I began believing that there is nothing so complex that a reasonably intelligent person cannot comprehend it,” Jihnson writes in his field guide chapter. We may quibble with Johnson’s belief, but he uses a guitar amplifier, string theory, and quantum computing as convincing examples. Even if thorough or deep comprehension requires expertise, it makes great sense for the writer to believe that nothing is beyond the writer’s—and, therefore, the reader’s—grasp. While Lee Hotz, in his workshop, warned against analogies that obscure meaning or oversimplify complexity, Johnson points out, “A science writer is an illusionist. The conjuring is in the service of a noble cause: getting as close as linguistically possible to scientific truth.”

Chapter 21: Narrative Writing by Jamie Shreeve

The Jemez Mountains were home to three Native American peoples, and some of their lodgings and ceremonials structures are accessible on a visit to Bandelier National Monument.
The Jemez Mountains were home to three Native American peoples, and some of their lodgings and ceremonials structures are accessible on a visit to Bandelier National Monument.

Jamie Shreeve, an editor at National Geographic, opens his chapter with a quote from Muriel Rukeyser, so Anna figured this chapter was among the best. Then, in another move that convinced us of Shreeve’s good sense, he turned to cognitive science, saying, “There is some evidence that the brain is hard-wired to remember information better if it is transmitted in narrative form.” He explains narrative as basically something that has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Using this simple definition, he argues, “narrative is endemic to science itself,” whether it be the life cycle of an insect or a paper in a science journal. Then, Shreeve, who holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop, complicates what narrative means—and that’s what makes this chapter most worthwhile.

Chapter 26: Mental Health by Paul Raeburn

Raeburn is the author of Acquainted With the Night: A Parent’s Quest to Understand Depression and Bipolar Disorder in His Children, and he read the opening at Collected Works bookstore in Santa Fe during the workshop. He had written books about Mars and agriculture, but he started writing about mental health after his children suffered mental illness. As he points out in this guide, “Researchers know far more about the heart, the kidneys, and tumor cells than they do about the brain.” So his personal experience guided his investigation in ways that filled out the science story. He admits that stories of mental illness can be heart-wrenching to write and to read, but he suggests, “If you want your story to be fair and accurate, save a paragraph or two to report that there’s hope.”

Chapter 31: Space Science by Michael D. Lemonick

Lemonick wasn’t at this year’s Santa Fe workshop, but we write a lot about space exploration at Lofty Ambitions, we’re going to participate in a weeklong astronomy crash-course this summer, and this chapter has sound advice no matter the topic. “When I became an astronomy writer,” Lemonick says, “the challenge was to make everyone else—those who aren’t passionate about the inflationary universe—share that fascination. I had to understand the science deeply enough to be able to restate it in my own words, clearly and accurately.”

That’s the responsibility of any nonfiction writer. And our curiosity and desire to learn new things keeps us at this task.

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