Tuesday, July 23, 2013

On Science Writing


I came into this internship with ferocious enthusiasm, the kind that’s rivaled by royal baby stalkers or, dare I write, Justin Bieber fans.

How could I not be stoked? National Geographic is an incredible publication with a talented staff and illustrious history.

This internship has been an ideal situation; I’ve written for the website and gained valuable clips, sat in on some fascinating meetings and proofread the September issue.

But along the way I’ve realized how unglamorous it can be to write for a top-selling, award-winning publication.

When I leapt into my National Geographic internship, I knew I wanted to learn science writing, but I had no idea how the process would differ from my other writing experiences. I was taking on an entirely new subject with unmitigated passion but also with sheer ignorance of its intricacies.

Over the past seven weeks, I have desperately attempted to parallel the writing quality of my incredible colleagues at National Geographic, but to no avail.

I am, as the gamers say, a n00b.

I may love dinosaurs, but writing about them isn't nearly as whimsical.
Science writing is a completely different animal compared to art writing, profile writing or feature writing.

Elements of those writing styles may sneak into science writing, but for the most part it differentiates itself on one aspect—exactitude.

There are thousands of ways to present a personality, a painting or a movement. But there’s just one way to explain how to repopulate a butterfly species, why flamingos are pink or why fish fall from the sky.

While my style may affect how I write those descriptions, it will not change the actual scientific processes of them.

Science writing is a constant personal struggle between my creative tone and the need for a simple explanation the public can understand.

Sometimes I amp up the crazy, convoluted descriptions, losing clarity in a jumble of scientific evidence and catchy alliterations.

Other times the straight science overwhelms my voice and it reads like a lab report.

I am fortunate that my editor and supervisor, Marc, has so patiently guided my writing through intense rounds of scrutiny and questions I never would have thought to ask the scientist.

These edit sessions can sometimes jar my self-confidence, leaving me doubtful of my place at the internship and as a journalist, but my wonderful friends and family always remind of the value of someone who cares enough to teach me through tough edits.

Science writing, I now understand, is among the most difficult types of writing because one must explain a complicated, jargon-laden concept to the general public in a creative way.

This is all done under a tight deadline, sometimes in the course of an hour or so.

I have so much respect for my co-workers, who write clear, funny stories that make science interesting and compelling for just about anyone. They sometimes write two or three stories of this caliber in one workday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. It’s incredible.

Some day, after rounds of more grueling, harsh edits, I will emerge from my numerous writing flaws a stronger, more mature journalist. Some day, I want to turn around complex science stories as cleverly as the amazing science news writers at National Geographic.

I know this internship has brought me closer to that goal. And I know science writing has improved my overall writing skills.

Because when you’re writing about something as complex as particle physics, you know other tasks just won’t seem so daunting.

By Harmony Huskinson, Arizona State University, National Geographic
Edited by Mary Clare Fischer, University of Maryland, Kiplinger's Personal Finance

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