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.





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.


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.

The Public Good

Drosophila melanogaster

There may be science writers who do it for the paycheck. I don’t know any, but I assume they’re out there. The science writers I know do it because they love science and want to spread that joy. They are constantly amazed by the new information.

But there’s also a sense of public responsibility. Science shouldn’t be a private thing that only a few people understand. We need to spread the word.

Politicians sometimes cherry-pick a specific research project to mock as wasteful. Sarah Palin famously took on fruit fly research in 2008. She was probably talking about a $211,000 effort to study Bactrocera oleae, a pest that strikes olive trees, in an effort to support the California olive industry. Still, a lot of Drosophila melanogaster researchers bristled at the attack.

This kind of rhetoric is hard to combat – sound bites are much easier than science. If she was talking about Drosophila, it would be hard to go on CNN and explain the value of model organisms without getting too far into the weeds.

Like so many other things, we need to be proactive. These attacks stick because people often lack the fundamental scientific understanding to recognize their flaws. We probably can’t remedy that entirely, some people refuse to be informed, but we can at least create a knowledge base to help people understand.

We live in a time when people often dismiss science – the one discipline that has the best chance to help us through our many crises. That’s discouraging, but it doesn’t mean we’re not making a difference.

Which is basically what we’re doing in our day jobs. Every time we post an article or news release or blog post, we’re adding to that knowledge base. We’re creating a firewall against bad information with accessible science. Perhaps someone is interested in understanding the argument and a Google search leads to your explainer. That’s a win.



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?”

On Becoming a Science Writer

Operating_a_Computer_Keyboard_MOD_45158109People sometimes ask me what I did to become a science writer. It was a circuitous path, but it’s worth noting that my degrees are in history and creative writing. I had to get the science knowledge through other means.

I make this point because it’s not an exclusive field. In some ways, I’m disadvantaged because I have to figure out things I might have learned in undergrad biochem. On the other hand, it becomes a voyage of discovery for me, much like my readers. Now that I know the science better, I have to occasionally check myself because I’ve started using jargon my audience might not understand.

For those who are interested in becoming science writers, from English majors to MD, PhDs, the first requirement is wanting to do it. I love my job, but I still have days when I really don’t want to write at all. It’s not writer’s block (that’s an entirely different post), it’s just work malaise.

My underlying desire to communicate science gets me through. I can’t imagine what it would be like to feel tepid about it. I’d probably have a different career by now.

The second step is writing. At some point, or even many points, people will ask to see your writing samples. You can write a blog (be sure to publish consistently, people notice), do some volunteer writing for your favorite scientific nonprofit, get an internship. Find a way to get the words out.

Take a class or two. UCSD offers an entire science communication program. Some of these classes are taught by SANDSWA board members Heather Buschman and Tiffany Fox, as well as scicomm guru, Lynne Friedmann.

Network like crazy. The San Diego Biotech Network holds periodic events. CG Life is hosting their annual Unwind party on August 9. Other possible resources are PRSA, HCC and IABC.

Also, by the way, SANDSWA is having its first happy hour on July 11 at Farmer & The Seahorse on Torrey Pines Mesa. You should come. We’ll chat more.