The bumpy descent into Santa Fe airport, aboard a 50-seat SkyWest Bombardier CRJ200, reflected the road I have taken towards becoming a science writer. I first heard about the Santa Fe Science Writers workshop last July, when I applied for the Northwest Science Writers Association Career Development Grant. I remember thinking how wonderful it would be to write in Santa Fe, one of the most beautiful places on Earth. I could improve my writing skills, network with journalists and build self-confidence that being a science writer is a plausible goal for a professionally trained scientist.
Safely on the tarmac, the high desert, with her red and brown striated hills pock-marked with stubby green piñon trees, and impossibly blue skies with a few cotton white clouds, surrounded me like a welcoming embrace.
The week long workshop – with 45 other aspiring science writers and communicators, plus five experienced science journalists – began with a round-the-room ice breaker of introductions.
Several PhD students or recent grads, a few freelance writers, a few people like myself who work for science institutions and our instructors: Michelle Nijhuis, Guy Gugliotta, Joel Achenbach, Sandra Blakeslee and George Johnson plus special guest David Corcoran.
The conference room we would be in for the majority of the week was warm, dark, and cramped with rows of seats that didn’t allow for easy scribing on a laptop. Luckily, the speakers presented engaging topics – from dissecting the stories on the front page of the New York Times, Science Times to learning the basics of freelancing – to keep me from becoming claustrophobic.
The first full day we spent at the Santa Fe Institute. David Corcoran kicked off the day with a dissection of a story in the New York Times Science Times section. He led us through the story beginning with the lede and asking – “Why would someone want to read this story?”
We listened to two scientific presentations by scientists at the Santa Fe Institute, which provided background for our first assignment – write an engaging lede to a science story about one of the talks. Later that day, in our smaller groups, we quickly learned this was a nearly impossible task unless you had some back story about the subject matter or followed up the lecture with an interview with the scientist.
The biggest lesson I learned during the week is a cool topic is not a story. It is easy to think of a half dozen cool topics, but it is difficult to inspire the reader to walk with you through the forest of cool facts.
A conversation I had with Guy Gugliotta, while in line at the lunch buffet, drove this point home. I eagerly told him about a story I was writing about a cool new research technique scientists at the NOAA Alaska Fisheries Science Center were using to study endangered Steller sea lions in a remote part of the Aleutian Islands. He looked at me blankly and said “the process is not the story.”
I pleaded my story, telling him the scientists are using this cool new thing called a hexacopter to potentially find more information about why the westernmost part of the Steller sea lion population continues to decline.
“That’s the story.” he said.
“Oh.” I said, and went off to a corner to eat my lunch and ponder his brilliance.
The lede to the article I brought to workshop, titled Below the Fog – soon to be published on the AFSC website, didn’t include why-should-the-reader-continue-reading-this-article. My initial draft hedged bets on the reader being wowed by the description of the remote place the scientists had to work, why they were there was buried in the fifth paragraph.
Good writing is the key to good science communications. “Get it right, be fair and revise” are the first three of 18 key things all good science writing should have according to Joel Achenbach, science writer with the Washington Post and Achenblog. Number seven resonated with me because it is the most difficult – “Cut your copy; leaner is always better” – in other words, make every word count.
The organizers of the Santa Fe Science Writer’s Workshop made every minute count. Besides the stimulating presentations throughout the week, I received great feedback on my writing, I read and edited intriguing work by my group-mates and was relieved to learn that if science writing were easy, then everyone would be doing it.