Writing in General, and Science Writing in Particular: National Geographic

Joy. As emotions go, it’s a relatively straightforward one to communicate. We can share with others our joy in doing something in so many ways: the tone of our voice, facial expression, even the way we move. After watching Jamie Shreeve (at the Santa Fe Science Writing Workshop) describe his role as an editor at National Geographic, it’s clear that this is a man who finds joy in his work.

LightningNASAEarly on in his presentation, Shreeve made mention of a recent New Yorker article by Adam Gopnik. Shreeve indicated that Gopnik’s piece, “Yellow Fever,” placed National Geographic in the category of a historical artifact, something more passé than an ongoing endeavor. But Shreeve indicated that National Geographic, as a print magazine—not its cable network and online presence incarnations—continues to have a monthly subscription of around five million. Each issue, he said, is then “passed around” with a total readership of approximately forty million.

When we did a little poking around ourselves for some facts, our Google search provided us with a further statistic: National Geographic has 3,071,766 followers on Google+. This was by far the largest number of followers that we’ve ever encountered for a G+ group, and it inspired to check out National Geographic’s Facebook numbers: 14,938,980 likes and 380,963 talking about this. With those numbers, it’s way too soon to be writing an obituary for this magazine that was first published—as a scientific journal—in 1888.

So what’s going on at National Geographic, and what can we learn about writing in general and science writing in particular? First, it’s impossible to pick up an issue of National Geographic without realizing that the content of the magazine is image heavy. In fact, Shreeve went so far as to say that National Geographic is “image driven.” He pointed out that this approach to content—content driven by images—was sometimes an uncomfortable fact of life for writers. Writers naturally chafe at the notion of the narrative being driven by photographers and images, instead of the other way around. But with 125 years in print, the formula appears to work and is not merely tied to the rise of digital presentation of content.

CuriosityMarsIn addition, Shreeve himself is a writer and holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, which has a reputation of being the most writerly of writing programs. Shreeve joined National Geographic in 2006 because it took him four years to write his book and he wanted a change and because the magazine wanted to raise the quality of the writing. “We needed voice,” Shreeve said. “We needed variation. We needed talent.” Because the photographers want a big canvas, the story needs to be big as well.

So, Shreeve thought about what writer would accomplish that and approached John Updike, whose story “The Man Who Loved Extinct Mammals” convinced Shreeve that Updike would be great for the dinosaur story National Geographic wanted to run. It turned out that, when Updike submitted the article, it became clear to Shreeve that the author didn’t know much about dinosaurs. Luckily, Updike was “immensely personable and grateful” for the editing.

The big story and this kind of back and forth between author and editor (see our post on Good Prose for more on that interaction) means that a National Geographic story takes a long time from idea to print. In fact, after the story idea is approved, it can sit in limbo for as long as six months. That’s in part because 80% of the stories at this magazine are generated by the editors and because the magazine consciously moves beyond the time-sensitive stories.

After budget approval, the photographer and author can easily take another six months to pull the pieces together. George Johnson recounted the lengthy process that he, Shreeve, and storm-chaser Tim Samaras went through to produce the story “Chasing Lightning.” The idea emerged in 2006, but the first writer didn’t work out. By July 2008, Johnson was working on the story about getting a photograph of a lightning strike in the making, which Samaras was attempting to shoot with a retrofitted camera originally used to photograph nuclear weapons tests. Johnson spent time out in the field with Samaras. By 2010, the story was approved for publication, and it appeared in the August 2012 issue. Sadly, just this summer, Samaras died while chasing storms.

Doug at Bandelier during the Santa Fe Science Writing Workshop
Doug at Bandelier during the Santa Fe Science Writing Workshop

To succeed with the kind of stories that National Geographic does, the writer needs patience and the ability to collaborate with the photographer and the editor. A writer needs to find a big story and do it differently than most other publications. Shreeve noted that subjects like big anniversaries work, if the writer thinks well ahead. He advocates “chunkifying a story” so that it can be handled in logical sections and create an interplay with the images. He admits that his job is “something I’m still learning” but advises, “Your writing brain is going to inform your editorial brain.” He also pointed out that the website is now under magazine control and that getting an assignment for the website is easier than for the print magazine.

That the magazine now oversees the website is just one way that National Geographic defies Gopnik’s death knell. The latest print issue arrived at our door this morning, complete with “Field Trip on Mars.” Before John Grotzinger’s article even begins, the first ten pages include foldout photos shot by the Mars rover Curiosity. If you look at this article on the website, you’ll find additional photographs, an interactive graphic about the rover, and video of Curiosity’s touchdown.

National Geographic bought Science Blogs and hosts Phenomena: A Science Salon. National Geographic was named Best Tablet Magazine and Best Multimedia at this year’s National Magazine Awards. If you have an iPad and don’t yet have the National Geographic app, you are really missing out!


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