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.





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.

How Science Writers Help Scientists to Think More Deeply

hand raised

I recently came across a compelling passage (below) from computer scientist Luis von Ahn, the founder of Duolingo and CAPTCHA, among other things. What struck me was how accurately his words reflect what we as science writers do each time we say, “I don’t understand. Can you explain that to me?” As von Ahn notes, asking for an explanation can have the effect of helping scientists (and others) to think more deeply about what they do, and how what they do might fit into a larger context.

And that, when it comes down to it, is how science (and humanity) progress.

Here’s what von Ahn has to say:

“My PhD advisor [at Carnegie Mellon was] a guy named Manuel Blum, who many people consider the father of cryptography [encryption, etc.]. He’s amazing and he’s very funny. I learned a lot from him. When I met him, which was like 15 years ago, I guess he was in his 60s, but he always acted way older than he actually was. He just acted as if he forgot everything. . . .

“I had to explain to him what I was working on, which at the time was CAPTCHA, these distorted characters that you have to type all over the Internet. It’s very annoying. That was the thing I was working on [later acquired by Google], and I had to explain it to him. It was very funny, because usually I would start explaining something, and in the first sentence he would say, ‘I don’t understand what you’re saying,’ and then I would try to find another way of saying it, and a whole hour would pass and I could not get past the first sentence. He would say, ‘Well, the hour’s over. Let’s meet next week.’ This must have happened for months, and at some point I started thinking, ‘I don’t know why people think this guy’s so smart.’

Later, [I understood what he was doing]. This is basically just an act. Essentially, I was being unclear about what I was saying, and I did not fully understand what I was trying to explain to him. He was just drilling deeper and deeper and deeper until I realized, every time, that there was actually something I didn’t have clear in my mind. He really taught me to think deeply about things, and I think that’s something I have not forgotten.”

Where Do I Even Begin?

How asking questions can help you find your lede sentence

By Tiffany Fox

“The most important sentence in any article is the first one. If it doesn’t induce the reader to proceed to the second sentence, your article is dead.” — William Zinsser, On Writing Well

By TookapicIs there a science to writing a good opening sentence, otherwise known as a lede?

Maybe not, but there is science that suggests a good lede can mean the difference between your story being read and your story being, well, written off. The harsh truth: You have exactly eight seconds to capture your reader’s attention — unless your reader happens to be a goldfish, in which case you have nine. Continue reading “Where Do I Even Begin?”