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Turning blueprints into watercolors

Science writers hone skills at workshop

August 3, 1999: "It's the lede, stupid."

Followed by the "nut."

The message is simple and to the point, but many writers need to have it reinforced. Writing the lede - story lead, in newsroom slang - was one of several lessons offered at the fifth annual Santa Fe Science Writing Workshop held in mid-June.

Right: More than a millennium ago, Anasazi residents of the nearby Tsankawi pueblo were doing basically the same thing as science writers at the Santa Fe workshop: trying to explain how the universe works in terms all can understand. Links to 600x405-pixel, 157K JPG. Photo Š1999 Holly Dooling.

Science writing is a challenge different from writing other news because many people feel intimidated by the word "science" even as they are enticed.

Science writing is also an unusual meeting place, for this is where the writer turns blueprints into watercolors. But before the patrons enjoy the show, you have to draw them into the gallery.

"The lede is the most important thing," said Sandra Blakeslee, a longtime science writer for The New York Times and instructor for my group. After that comes the "nut graf," the paragraph that explains why the story is important as news or an intellectual curiosity.

Other nuggets from the Santa Fe workshop include:

  • Always put yourself in the reader's shoes and include what's important to them. Don't make the reader work too hard.
  • Good writing is like clear thinking. If you're going to write before you think, you're in trouble.
  • A key element to keep in mind while writing is to assume that the reader is innocent - not ignorant, but unknowing and willing to learn.
  • Scientists don't need to be made out as braniac geeks whose work is inaccessible. Science writers need to humanize their stories. Scientists are just people with the same problems as us.
In one ideal form, the lede is more than just the first sentence of the story. It comprises three or four paragraphs that give the reader a complete abstract. It establishes why the subject is important and interesting, and then brings the reader back to the starting point where the writer expands the details in an orderly fashion.

At least that's what you'd like to do. Because of deadline pressures, some stories report the news in a more compressed format. Typically, a New York Times story will be about 800 words long, enough to fill a single column in the paper. A special report can go to 2,200 words or more, but only with special permission of the assistant managing editor.

As a result, stories often don't convey details that a scientist or even the writer might like to see included. Even outside print, in cyberspace, it's a good limit to keep in mind since any reader's attention span is limited. So, knowing what to leave out is as important as knowing what to put in. (Besides, the leftovers give you another story to write.)

Left: Writers sometimes feel that they are being swept away by a tidal wave of scientific data. Hokusai's The Wave.

Because science is a journey rather than the destination, writers are obliged to watch for changes in the scientific community.

"Science is an ongoing process," cautioned Laurie Garrett, a science writer for Newsday and author of "The Coming Plague." "What appears to be absolute truth today may be hogwash tomorrow. Rarely do you report something that's so huge it's going to be a standalone and will be the Holy Grail for years."

And if it's rarely the Holy Grail, rarely is it Gospel. Blakeslee cautioned the reporters in the group never to write a story with just one source. She said that while scientists want to be taken at their word - and media relations officials often would like their releases to be used as-is - the writer owes the reader a dose of balance, she said.

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H.L. Mencken, the scion of American journalism, cautioned that "If your mother says she loves you, check it out." This is especially important in health stories where great hopes may be pinned on new drugs that show promise in trials. Even the recent Hubble Constant story, Blakeslee and other instructors noted in a session critiquing several reports on the announcement, was reported with other scientists offering competing results.

In writing for radio, Richard Harris of National Public Radio said he tries to use no more than three statistics per story, reasoning that anything more might overwhelm or lose the listener, although frequent analogies to familiar objects or events are OK.

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He noted that most stories about the Hubble Constant were bogged down with discussions of units - megaparsecs, in particular. "One way out on the radio is to forget the numbers and tell what it means," he added. Statistics are a special problem since few readers or writers understand them, especially when they express confidence in something that has no objective measure. The risk of having an auto accident in 10,000 miles of travel can be calculated more easily than claims of 90 or 99 percent confidence in the Hubble constant measurements.

It goes to the issue of accuracy and precision. Writers must always be accurate - that is - correct. But they usually have to sacrifice precision in order to communicate the story, something that leaves some scientists uncomfortable.

NASA-affiliated attendees at the Santa Fe workshop were (from left) Diane K. Fisher and Sandi Beck of Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Dave Dooling of Marshall Space Flight Center, Jarrett S. Cohen of Goddard Space Flight Center, Carla Rosenberg of Glenn Research Center, Judy Conlon (not pictured) of Ames Research Center. Photo by Holly Dooling.

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On the flip side of using a limited number of statistics, Garrett and other instructors expressed an interest in seeing something that they are unlikely to pass to the readers: the data. In health reporting, in particular, Garrett said reporters should have access to data so they can check the methods and results for themselves. (This ability is not widespread, though. While Garrett is one of the few with training in this area, other science reporters get their beats because of personal interest. The science writer for one West Coast newspaper admitted she got the assignment because she was the only one in the newsroom who could work percentages.)

Dennis Overbye, deputy science editor of The New York Times, said his paper prefers to acquire a scientist's original data and draw graphs or other depictions directly from the data rather than reusing a press release image.

Left: "After you finish the Hubble Constant, I have a new germanium detector I want you to work on." Detail from Winslow Homer's Art Students.

One level down from checking the data yourself is relying on results that appear in peer-reviewed journals. That way they know that other scientists in the field have critiqued the study - including its method and results - before publication.

And using peer-reviewed articles is what the instructors had us do at the start of the workshop. The first day consisted of talks by two researchers, one discussing his new work on complexity, and the other talking about networking (including the "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon" phenomenon). From these, those of us on one track were to develop story ledes that our instructors critiqued. On the other track, the students brought in a work in progress to be critiqued by others in your group and your instructor. A few of us did both.

My lede? It's below. If I did it right, I don't need to explain anything more:

In a 1953 science fiction movie, a dinosaur-like monster proved nearly impossible to kill because it had no organs, no central nervous system to be shocked senseless, no circulatory system to be drained dry. Instead, "The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms" was composed of countless identical cells, a concept that violated what we learned in high-school biology: As size increases, so does complexity.

It turns out that no one has ever proved that. Complexity seems to be in us and every creature big enough to see, so it has become one of those "everyone knows it's true" assumptions that sometimes happens in science.

"That sets my blood boiling," said paleontologist Daniel McShea of Duke University. It also makes him curious enough to challenge himself and his colleagues to define what is complexity in life and to ask whether we humans really are more complex than lesser creatures. The answers promise to be a long time coming, and to touch everything from the lives of a cell to the structure of society.

To start this quest, McShea asks a simple yet loaded question: How many different kinds of parts does a cell have?

(If you want to find out more about McShea's work, check the Santa Fe Institute Bulletin.)

Check, please

While most of the lessons in the Santa Fe workshop were from the viewpoint of instructors who are part of the working news media, most of the students were from various institutions, including six working with NASA. Several were trained scientists considering second careers as writers.

This raises a difference in the writing process within institutions and within independent news organizations. At Science@NASA, the writer vets the story through the scientist for his or her corrections to ensure accuracy. Then it is reviewed by the Science Communications Roundtable, scientists and others in the lab (some of whom are quite good at catching typos and bad phrases that slip through normal editing).

Right: Somewhere, out there, is the story. All the writer has to do is reach through the fog and grab hard facts. Friederich's The Wanderer.

The news media, though, do not normally submit stories for review, largely to avoid even the appearance of prior restraint or control. This leads many scientists to refuse interviews with most reporters for fear that they will be ridiculed if a story about their work carries errors and they did not have a chance to correct them.

"We don't claim complete perfection," Harris noted. "Our general policy is 'Don't start showing this around.'" However, NPR and many other media outlets allow or encourage reporters to call scientists back to verify quotes and explanations of detailed scientific elements.

Left: A) "You want to edit what out of my story?" or B) "He wrote what about my research?" Detail from The Scream by Munch.

"Stories that are wrong are not ones with factual errors," Harris added, "but those that go on the wrong track" and lead the audience to an incorrect conclusion.

And that can be compounded.

"The biggest mistakes are when a bad story starts a cascade of bad stories even though each of the individual factoids are correct," Garrett added.

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