Resources: Articles

AHCJ freelancers contribute to new book on science writing Date: 03/02/20

Siri Carpenter

By Carolyn Crist

Several AHCJ members are part of a new book, "The Craft of Science Writing," which was published at the beginning of February. The 300-pager, available for $10 as an ebook and $25 as a paperback, is a collection of articles from The Open Notebook, which covers the stories behind science writing.

Among the more than 35 contributors, AHCJ members include Christie Aschwanden, Jeanne Erdmann and Kendall Powell. You’ll also recognize The Open Notebook editor Siri Carpenter, Washington Post health editor Laura Helmuth, New York Times columnist Carl Zimmer, and many more.

The book is organized into five themes:

  1. Who is a science journalist and how do you become one?

  2. What makes a science story and how do you find one?

  3. How do you report a science story?

  4. How do you tell your story?

  5. How do you build expertise in science writing?

The essays also offer advice about how to pitch stories, evaluate scientific and statistical claims, report on controversial topics, and engage readers with a scientific story. Carpenter, the book’s editor, chatted with me about what inspired the book and what else readers will find inside.

What sparked this project?

Carpenter: The book captures the last 9.5 years of work we’ve been doing at The Open Notebook about the craft of science writing. We’ve published more than 400 articles, and it felt like a great time to create a book. Thanks to a grant from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, we had the opportunity to curate a collection of those articles.

How did you begin pulling the book together?

Carpenter: At first, I thought I’d pick out my favorite pieces to create the book, and then I realized I had compiled 100 with the list still growing. Then I began a process of figuring out which articles would go well together and began organizing a handful of themes that worked well together. From there, I could spot the holes where we might develop new articles, and now the book contains both previously published and new pieces. With the five themes, a beginner could start at the first chapter and read straight through, or a more experienced writer could pick and choose in no particular order.

Why is it important to produce a book about science writing?

Carpenter: This is a challenging time for both science and journalism. We’re living in a time when even the definition of a fact is a subject of debate, and we’re bombarded by misinformation about how both scientists and journalists work. This book paints a vivid and detailed picture of the best science writing and how it works, from finding and selecting stories to reporting them, writing them, editing them and factchecking them. It’s a valuable primer for anyone who wants to be a critical consumer of scientific material, even if they don’t want to be a science writer.

What response have you received so far? How was the book launch party at the AAAS meeting in Seattle on Feb. 13?

Carpenter: I was thrilled, moved and gratified that so many people came to the launch party. We had about 150 attendees and sold out of books, which is exciting, and everyone responded warmly. I woke up the next morning in my hotel room and scrolled through social media, soaking up the posts. It feels wonderful to know people are excited about the book. It took so much work to create it, and this is so worth it.

What do you think AHCJ members would enjoy in the book?

Carpenter: Many of the pieces are not particular to science and can encompass health, the environment, and anything in our similar universe of ideas. Any writer can benefit from reading about story ideas, reporting tips and the process of including diverse voices in their pieces. Of particular interest, AHCJ members might like Jane C. Hu’s chapter, “What Are the Odds? Reporting on Risk,” as well as [AHCJ board member] Jeanne Erdmann’s chapter, “A Conversation with Linda Nordling on ‘How Decolonization Could Reshape South African Science.’” Simply put, this book wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for Jeanne. She started The Open Notebook with me, and she had the enthusiasm and vision for a project that I couldn’t see at the start.

How will the book help freelance writers?

Carpenter: I’ve been a freelancer for almost my entire career since 2002, so the book includes chapters about pitches, self-advocacy and communicating with editors. One of our most popular articles ever, Laura Helmuth’s “How Not to Pitch,” includes key pieces of what she calls “pitch hygiene.” There’s also a chapter on Impostor Syndrome, which is so incredibly common among scientists, journalists and freelancers. Sometimes you need to “punch it in the face,” as my friends joke. Even [in February], when I was stressed about public speaking and the book launch party at AAAS, [AHCJ member] Kendall Powell reminded me to “punch it in the face,” which always makes me think about my fellow freelancers. I feel like this is the book I would have wanted for myself for all these years as a freelance writer.