Ed Yong and the Craft of Science Writing

By Allie Akmal

The words STORIES MATTER appeared in giant letters on the screen behind science journalist Ed Yong, as he stood, backlit, on the stage at Scripps Research Auditorium on a recent drizzly Thursday afternoon in San Diego.

“Science is not just this purely objective empirical neutral force that can be dissociated from the rest of society. Those two things are incredibly intertwined … stories matter,” Yong explained to the audience of several hundred graduate students, scientists and science writers who had tramped through the rain to hear the scicomm star give a talk entitled “Why Storytelling Matters in Science.”

A staff science writer at The Atlantic magazine, Yong was invited to speak by Kristian Andersen, director and principal investigator of the Scripps Center for Viral Systems Biology (CViSB), on the occasion of the first annual CViSB workshop.

Yong, who has 150,000 Twitter followers, is something of a science writing wunderkind. After two years of graduate school in science, he told the group, he realized that he was better at talking and writing about science than doing it. So he switched gears, began writing and, over a decade, built a reputation and a following with his blog, Not Exactly Rocket Science. According to Yong’s final blogpost, by the time he shut the blog down in 2016, he “had written more than 1,800 pieces under its banner.” Yong credits his success to hard work, certainly, but also to luck and good timing. He said the field of science writing is competitive and harder to get into these days.

Over the course of the hourlong talk, Yong demonstrated the approach that has made him a success: getting his audience to care about science by getting them to care about the researchers behind the science he’s describing. Like openly transgender neuroscientist Ben Barres, who helped put long-overshadowed brain cells called glia on equal footing with neurons. Or Iranian medical geneticist Pardis Sabeti, who arrived in the U.S. as a refugee and whose work today involves worldwide travel to sequence viruses like Lassa and Ebola during outbreaks.

“The people who we are affects the science that we do, the questions that we want to pursue, the ways in which we look at and analyze our data,” Yong said, arguing for why diversity matters in science, and how science communicators have a responsibility to share diverse stories. “We, by the choices that we make, affect who is seen as being a part of science and therefore who gets to be part of science and therefore the type of science that gets done.”

Yong walked the audience through a 9,000-word feature about whether the world is ready for an epidemic like the 2014 Ebola outbreak, breaking the story down into an eight-part emotional arc he wanted readers to experience. He advised aspiring science writers to deconstruct pieces they like, and figure out what makes them tick.IMG_6471

And while many people think that journal papers, with their careful language, are the embodiment of science, Yong argued they’re only part of the story. A big part of what makes a piece come alive, he suggested, is attention to sentiment. “Feelings and emotions are part of science. They’re part of conduct of science. You can’t take them away from the supposedly neutral, objective, empirical methods and results sections that fill papers.”

He also counseled against a model of lay science communication that “treats people as empty vessels into which you pour facts and knowledge and suddenly they become wiser, they change their minds, they become into whatever [topic] you want them to become into. And, sadly, that is not how any of it works. That is not how people process information.”

“If you take away just one thing from this talk, let it be this,” Yong said, “You cannot displace a feeling with a fact. It just does not work. You can only displace a feeling with a different feeling.”

Like arriving at a talk feeling curious, and leaving feeling really inspired.





How to Use (And Not Abuse) Direct and Indirect Quotes, Part One


This is Part One in a two-part series on using direct and indirect quotes. Check back soon for Part Two!

By Tiffany Fox

Quotations (also known in journalism as direct quotes and indirect quotes) help to humanize science and often add much-needed emotional contrast. They provide a sense for the “characters” in our stories – what drives them, how they speak and how they relate to the world. Many times – especially when a source is particularly charismatic or cantankerous – the use of quotes can mean the difference between a stuffy, boring technical piece and a story that vibrates with life. But it’s important to know how to use quotes effectively, and for that, we offer these tips:

  • First and foremost, caution must prevail. Quotes can be the most contentious aspect of a story. If your source feels you did not quote him/her accurately, s/he will often complain (irksome), will sometimes ask for a printed correction or retraction (embarrassing), and will almost certainly be wary about serving as your source again in the future (a death knell if the source is important for your beat).
  • Precision is of the utmost importance when using direct quotes (i.e. using quotation marks to signify exactly what has been said, word-for-word). Any quote you use must be verbatim.* If you think you might have misheard, either ask the source to confirm what they said, paraphrase what they said (aka quote indirectly) or leave the bit out of your piece entirely.
  • Recording your interviews serves as “insurance” for your use of quotes, but you must get consent to record in advance, and surreptitious recording is illegal in many states, including California. This consent can be either written or – even better – recorded prior to the beginning of the interview. Experienced writers are adept at copying down quotes verbatim without the use of a tape recorder, but if the topic is at all controversial, a recording is still the way to go (plus it makes it possible to repurpose the interview as a radio broadcast or podcast!)
  • In most cases – unless a source is particularly quotable – you will use quotes rather sparingly, lest the reader wonder if you have anything to add to the story yourself. On the flip side, a story with very few quotes might make the reader suspect no sources were actually interviewed. In general, you will want to quote at least two sources for any science news story. Feature stories about one particular researcher can quote that researcher at length and need not quote anyone else.
  • Please, whatever you do, do not waste your valuable quote real estate on mundane detail, eg. “I am 58 years old and I am a microbiologist,” she said. Just paraphrase the dull stuff, and save the direct quotes for the more evocative bits. For example: Bartlett, a 58-year-old microbiologist, describes tardigrades as “a miscroscopic cross between a teddy bear and Jabba the Hutt.”
  • It can be a bold choice to begin a story with a direct quote if you’ve got a particularly enticing one, but it can be difficult to do without context. Ending a story with a quote can also be very powerful, but you run the risk of saving your best stuff for the end, when you might have lost the reader. Use your discretion.
  • Avoid a long wind-up to a quote, particularly when the quote doesn’t add much. Example: When asked how he felt about the new particle physics laboratory, which would cost $22 million and take 10 years to construct, Dr. Mayberry said he was “pleased.” (Talk about anti-climactic!)
  • In most cases, it’s best to just use said when quoting someone, given the purpose of said is merely to help the reader keep track of who is talking. If a quote continues to a second paragraph, using she added or he continued is also appropriate. When you start using observed or noted it can sound vaguely like you are editorializing (Example: “My colleagues around the country have changed their tune about my research,” Prof. Humperdink observed.) Sometimes it is appropriate to use words such as according to, alleged, contended, contested, etc. to signify something is open to dispute. But for the most part, just use said. And for heaven’s sake, don’t start distracting the reader with nonsense like he chortled or she opined.

** A note about verbatim quotes: It’s acceptable and common to remove excessive use of filler words, i.e. “um, ah, uh, you know” to avoid bogging down the story. However, sometimes strategically leaving those words in can convey a sense of uncertainty, which might be important. Also be careful about including poor grammar or dialect if it makes the source sound unintelligent. If it’s relevant to the story to mention the source speaks with a lovely Castilian lisp, go ahead. But please don’t go so far as to quote the source as saying, “Thee thells thea thells down by the theashore.”

Check back soon for more tips and techniques, or add your own in the comments!

Meet Monica May, SANDSWA Logo Contest Winner

By Alyson Smith

Monica May, a science writer at Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute (SBP), recently won the SANDSWA logo design contest. Her concept features a lighthouse – a reference to San Diego’s fishing and shipping history and May’s view of science journalism as illuminating facts to protect our society.

May enjoys learning about both science and how authors craft compelling stories. After earning a bachelor’s degree in molecular biology from UC Santa Cruz, she worked in a lab at the La Jolla Institute for Immunology studying dengue fever. In pursuit of a position that combined her loves of science and storytelling, she worked for Canale Communications (a life science-focused communications agency) before moving to her current position.

monica-mayMay puts her science writing skills – many of which she learned through the Science Writing I course at UC San Diego Extension – to work at SBP, where she has been for six months. She writes press releases about institute research, coordinates media relations, and writes a newsletter for donors and the general public. She is also tasked with handling the institute’s social media accounts, and she enjoys the challenge of effectively communicating science on each platform. “It’s a cool way to story-tell,” she says.

May joined SANDSWA after the kick-off happy hour last July. She appreciates this opportunity to meet local science communicators and participate in members-only events such as the behind-the-scenes tour of the Fleet Science Center. She encourages everyone in (or interested in) this field to join SANDSWA and explore science writing courses at UCSD Extension. She believes that “especially in this digital age, it’s so important to know people and to have a network and community.”

Outside of communicating science, May enjoys reading, hiking with her beagle, and exploring San Diego’s arts and culture scene.

You can follow Monica May on Twitter here and read her articles for SBP here.

The new SANDSWA logo: Monica May suggested the winning concept, which was then designed by Priyanka Paurana.


Miniature Tornadoes and Other Joys of the Fleet Science Center

By Xochitl Rojas-Rocha

San Diego’s Fleet Science Center, it turns out, is full of delightful secrets as well as science.

The San Diego Science Writers Association turned out on a chilly January evening to start 2019 with a tour of the city’s popular science museum. We began with a brief overview of the science center itself, and then were released (and encouraged) to find a partner and play alongside the children at the exhibits.

SANDSWA members check out the Fleet’s wood shop. Photo: Steve Murray

The fun bit about science is that you’re never caught up; there’s always something you haven’t explored. The exhibit floor was home to a display with alternating hot and cold coils that taught you about how your body senses differences in temperature; the iconic whisper dishes that demonstrate how a murmur can pass undisrupted over the heads of screaming children from one side of the room to the other; and even a display that uses vapor to show the formation of a tornado, in miniature.

Yet, the highlight of the tour might have been traveling behind the scenes to see how the museum’s IMAX dome theater worked. According to the museum’s website, where you can find a list of current showings, the theater screen can generate images nearly eight stories high. But it’s the machinery behind it all that is so surprising. Two huge reels have to be loaded with the physical film before the audience can enjoy their show. The projector itself is equally massive, and rises from the floor with a deafening rumble. No one makes this technology anymore, which makes the film itself incredibly expensive to replace if it’s damaged. The IMAX dome theater at the Fleet is the last of its kind.

original imax projector circa 1970s
Original IMAX projector, ca. 1970’s. Photo: Lynne Friedmann

Moving into the future, the museum’s goal is to push for stronger connections between existing science education programs. Staff described an ongoing collaboration in Barrio Logan that provides the community with information on whichever topic they want to learn about, including nutrition. Also arriving at the museum in the coming months? An exhibit about the science behind magic — think levitation and invisibility. How would those magical acts work, if they were real?

The human brain loves newness, and so I love visiting places I’ve never been most of all. The tour of the Fleet Science Center was a treat. I’ll be coming back again, just to watch that IMAX projector in action!

On Being Freelance

That work space looks unusually tidy

I was laid off from my communications job at Sanford Burnham in 2011, the collateral damage from a grant funding crisis. Theoretically, I could have gotten a similar position at Salk, TSRI or UC San Diego, but I was concerned the same funding issues would catch up with me. When my risk-averse wife gave her blessing, I decided to go freelance.

A number of people warned me against it, but they were all former journalists and knew it would be challenging to make a living pitching publications. I had a different model in mind: working for universities, research institutes, biotechs and nonprofits. I occasionally perform random acts of journalism, but mostly I work for organizations.

The slow economy was a concern but that may have been an advantage. Companies lay off full timers, but they still need the work done. Signs are pointing towards another economic downturn, which could really test that hypothesis.

In the Beginning
I started by calling everyone I knew who could either hire or refer me. Not really a pitch so much as just letting them know I was freelancing. I hated calling like that, but almost everyone was supportive, and I was incredibly fortunate to get a project that week. Networking is a long game – some of those calls generated business two years later – but it’s good to be lucky.

When people want advice on freelancing, I always ask what their Rolodex looks like. My experience with Sanford Burnham, and Scripps Health before that, gave me lots of contacts who knew my work. Otherwise, it’s just pure cold calling. Some people are good at that, even enjoy it. But if that’s not you, give it some thought.

I also ask what kinds of samples prospective freelancers have – prospective clients will definitely want to see your work. There’s lots of ways to create samples: blog, volunteer at a nonprofit, write random spec pieces.

The Work
My first rule is: Always show up. That means meeting deadlines, responding to calls and emails within a few hours, communicating with clients if there’s a problem and generally being transparent.

This may seem like no-brainer advice, but it’s not. There are lots of flaky freelancers. Every couple of years, I get a call from someone who has lost their writer – they have literally gone MIA – and the deadline is coming up. I always say yes, it’s a function of my hero complex.

As a consultant, my job is to solve my clients’ problem(s). That means showing them the work is in good hands. From the moment they make the assignment, I want them to feel confident they can cross it off their list.

What I’ve Learned

Long-suffering colleague

Working at home was hard at first, but it’s grown on me over the years. Being alone means fewer distractions. As an FTE, there are always meetings, urgent email strings, birthday parties, fires to put out. Sometimes, it’s hard to get to the actual work, even if you love it.

Some people worry that being at home will present its own distractions. Fortunately (or unfortunately), I’m not the type to clean my house to avoid work.

The flexibility is wonderful. My kids were 10 and 7 when I went on my own, so I got to be there when they came home from school, or I could carve out 20 minutes for an impromptu game of street football, or take them to the orthodontist. It all worked, as long as I got my projects done on time.

Is it feast or famine? Sometimes. Being slow is frightening. Nobody likes waiting for the phone to ring. Being busy can also be scary. Sometimes multiple deadlines fall on the same day. But fear is a great motivator, and it has made me a better writer. On a professional level, that may be the best win of all.

December Updates


Sorry for the prosaic title, things are hectic.

First, you may have noticed the groovy new SANDSWA logo. Many thanks to Sanford Burnham Prebys science writer Monica May for the concept and graphic designer Priyanka Paurana for the finished product. For her creativity, Monica won a year’s membership in SANDSWA – nice.

On January 3, SANDSWA members are getting a free Ruben H. Fleet Science Center tour, featuring CEO Steven Snyder, PhD, and marketing director Wendy Grant. Not a member? That’s easily remedied: JOIN NOW.

Happy-Hour.jpgThere was another awesome happy hour at AleSmith on December 4. We’re sad if you missed it, but there will be another one coming up in February. We’re open to location suggestions.

Want to improve your science writing chops? SANDSWA board members Heather Buschman and Tiffany Fox are teaching UC San Diego Extension’s Science Writing I, Tuesday evenings January 15 through March 12. This course changes lives. Check it out.

And finally, do you feel like SANDSWA’s blog posts have gotten a little monochrome (exhibit A)? That’s okay, you can help fix it. We are constantly looking for guest bloggers to add new ideas into the mix. Send us a note, we’re always open.


What’s Happening at SANDSWA

Happy Folks
Josh, Ramin and Steve bring home the hardware at the recent SD Press Club Awards

There’s a lot going on at SANDSWA, and so little time to cover it, so here’s a quick summary to keep you up to date.

The 45th Annual San Diego Press Club awards ceremony was held on October 30 and SANDSWA members swept the Magazines, Science/Technology/Biotech category. Congrats to Steve Murray, Ramin Skibba and Josh Baxt (now referring to himself in the third person). Steve earned multiple honors that night, and Ramin – our fearless leader – received the Rising Star award.

The National Association of Science Writers (NASW) conference was held this past October in Washington, DC, and Heather Buschman, Patricia Fernandez, Lynne Friedmann, Katherine Leitzell and Ramin Skibba kindly reported out during our most recent happy hour. Here are some highlights:

  • Delegates from 12 regional groups attended the first science writer group congress. They discussed funding sources, events, recruitment, mentoring and leadership.
  • How do we teach scientists to communicate clearly? No surprise, scientists like data.
  • How do we write about gloomy problems like climate change? People may not like the raw science, but they will respond to characters, narrative and suspense.
  • Make sure your writing is culturally competent. Try to walk in another culture’s shoes. Proper spelling means including the appropriate accents (In Spanish año means year; ano means anus). No “Columbusing,” check your writing for references that might devalue formerly colonized people.
  • Embrace video (show, don’t tell)

Of course, this is a summary of a summary, so a tertiary source? Anyway, I know you want more, so check out our fabulous slides.

The Society for Neuroscience conference is having a press reception at the convention center on Sunday, November 4 at 4 pm in room 22. SANDSWA is plotting to pack the event. You can apply for press registration here.

SANDWA’s next awesome happy hour will be held at AleSmith on Tuesday, December 4, at 5:30. You know the drill: drink, chat, eat, network.