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Writers Talk About Writing

Lessons from Science Writing

As the science reporter for KQED Public Radio's Quest program in San Francisco, Amy Standen covers a wide beat: Science, environment, technology, and everything in between. We were curious to know how Amy tackles her diverse subjects -- nuclear power, indoor air quality, peregrine falcons nesting under the Bay Bridge -- and brings them to life, subjects that could sometimes be a tad, um, dry. Amy's approach to writing about science holds insights to writers of every stripe. Here's our conversation with her:

VT: What attracts you to writing about science?

Amy: I'm not a scientist and I don't have an educational background in science. But writing about it is a great challenge of translation. I like taking complicated ideas and making them understandable. As a journalist, science gives you that challenge more often than other fields do.

VT: Do you use a certain approach to covering scientific subjects?

Amy: I think a lot about how to interview people about complicated scientific subjects. I often say things like "pretend you're talking to a classroom of 7th graders" or "so what's the big deal here?" or "why are you so excited about this?" Those kinds of questions get people to take five steps back from whatever the subject is and be a kid again, to express their excitement about what they're working on.

VT: It also sounds like an approach to jar your subjects from speaking in "scientist talk" rather than in plain English.

Amy: Yes, it's almost impossible to describe something you're really, really excited about in incomprehensible terms. So the translation between scientific and layman language takes place almost automatically. But still, getting people to explain things in plain language can be hard to do. Some people are just naturally able to get out of science mode and have a gift for talking about what they do. But the vast majority of people stick to the language of their discipline.

VT: Can you give us an example of one of your stories that illustrates your approach?

Amy: I'm working on a story right now about nuclear power in California that has a lot of challenges to it. First of all, it's a story that's received a lot of coverage. It's also a policy story. Public policy can be even deadlier than science jargon. But it's the policy here that gives rise to the story: A legislator introduced a bill to do something. But bill-speak doesn't always make for good storytelling.

VT: I can't disagree.

Amy: I'm talking to scientists and policy people about why nuclear power may or may not be coming back to California. But I decided I also wanted to remind people of how scared we once were of nuclear power.

VT: Why?

Amy: I think it's important to bring back this really vivid fear that people had during the Cold War about nuclear power. People - particularly of my generation, I think -- have become much more cavalier about it. We think about nuclear power as a clean, greenhouse gas-free power source. Three Mile Island and Chernobyl don't necessarily come to mind.

This is what gets me excited about the story: Realizing that you're dealing with something that has played a major role in American history, something that really strikes an emotional chord for so many people - anyone who lived during the Cuban Missile Crisis and watched The Day After, and experienced firsthand the deep fears about radioactive material. So trying to get back to that, rather than just focus on the policy, is for me where the story gets interesting and where I feel I can do something different with it.

Also, it's those kinds of big picture issues that get the subjects that I'm interviewing really excited and, therefore, get me better quotes to use in the piece. Why is nuclear power so scary? What is so special about it? And the perennially useful question: "why should I care?" These are really basic questions but they fire up people to talk about why this story matters.

VT: You're creating a compelling human story out of a dry policy issue.

Amy: Exactly right. It's always got to be a human story. Otherwise, it doesn't matter.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday July 4th 2007, 10:04 AM
Comment by: Charles L.
Nice article. But much too brief. Indeed too brief to provide too many compelling lessons.
Friday July 13th 2007, 10:51 AM
Comment by: Lynne F.
Good reminder to link science, policy or industry-speak with people's feelings or reactions to humanize the story. However, I would've liked to read more about how to overcome an interviewee's often overriding interest in the arcane details, as well as an interviewee's objection to bringing up anything negative (e.g. Three Mile Island) associated with the subject at hand.

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