How to seduce (and enlighten) with the tools of literary narrative journalism, by Angela Posada-Swafford*
I opened with a slide on the latest Star Trek into Darkness movie with the following dialogue:
Kahn: “I am better”
Kirk: “At what?”
“That is science journalism. Like all journalists science writers have to know their stuff, have a good eye for the story, but they have to write better than anyone else, because science is tough to sell.”
In the 24 colorful and entertaining slides that followed, I talked in very practical terms, and gave plenty of examples on how to seduce and enlighten a reader using the narrative literary tools of good writing. I had about an hour, if not less, for the whole exercise. In future conferences, this workshop on narrative literary science journalism needs to stand on its own, and needs to be extended to at least two or even better, three hours. It needs to give the students room to practice and think.
Even so, the session was successful because the slides stressed the fact that popular science writing and storytelling means blending narrative and color with accurate scientific data and theory. That it means
- bridging two worlds
- translating and interpreting valuable research into pleasurable and inspiring reading, viewing or listening experiences
- this often means humanizing — even anthropomorphizing — science
We humans are storytellers by nature. We all love a good tale. This is how we began sharing our experience with our children, all reunited around a prehistoric fireplace some place.
I breezed through a short introduction on forms of writing where you can use narrative: magazine articles, the science and nature essay, science poetry, memoirs, books, the large Sunday paper story or series of stories.
“Words are like atoms”, I said. “But complexity in biology is given by molecules. Just the same, in literature, the molecule is the image. And when it is connected with verbs, it becomes the imagery. The stronger the verbs, the stronger the imagery”.
We looked at how narrative and literary journalism helps the writer to allow the reader to inhabit a place and a mind. How it uses sounds and smells to communicate complex ideas and theories, such that the subject is not just clear, but compelling. The short story, I stressed, is the universal school for writers of all topics.
- It has a complication
- a body of story (the development)
- a resolution
- and because it is short, it is very demanding.
Through examples, we looked at the art of crafting a lede that hooks the reader with a tight grip. We studied the outline and the structure of a piece to be dissected. We looked at the rhythm of a story, how it flows like a musical movement. We looked at style:
“Your own national anthem sounds different if sung by Placido Domingo than by Madonna”, I said. “Find your own voice. Your own style”.
We looked at how to develop a character, because science is made by people. And yet, at the same time a story can be told from different points of view: a scientist, a neutrino, or even a cell. We also examined tools like comparisons and metaphors and transitions, and how, when and where to sneak in the explanatory science.
The second part of the session was an exercise where I asked them to test their creative juices by writing, in 25 words or less, the first paragraph of a story, using the words
“fresh, hair, tangled”
I could tell the audience liked it. We then read them out loud. I had to leave behind at least two other writing exercises.
In conclusion, I think my session was practical, colorful, easy to follow, terribly short, and lots of fun. I would like to do it again, and I think if we extend it and place it on its own, it can do a lot of good towards training future narrative literary science writers.
Blood Infusion for Staggering Science Journalism
Capacity Building Workshop at the World Conference of Science Journalism WCSJ 2013 Helsinki
A few impressions from the presenters and some participants
(7 short videos, you can skip from one to another
– Apologies for the bad quality of the audio)
Ángela Posada-Swafford is uniquely straddled upon three worlds, three cultures, and three styles of science journalism: Born in Colombia in 1960 and living in Miami Beach, she has been the US Senior Science Correspondent for Muy Interesante magazine, edited in Madrid, for a decade. She was the first Hispanic journalist to be selected as a Knight Fellow in Science Journalism at MIT and Harvard in 2000, and the first Hispanic selected by the NSF to work at the South Pole, Antarctica, as a journalist, in 2006. In October 2011 she served as the Co-chair of the 21st Conference of the National Society of Environmental Journalists, SEJ, in Miami. She has been writing stories on science, the environment, and exploration for 25 years for all media platforms, digital, print and broadcast, in Spanish and English. In the past her articles, radio documentaries and TV have appeared in Astronomy, WIRED, National Geographic, The Boston Globe, The Miami Herald, El Tiempo in Colombia, Gatopardo Magazine, National Public Radio and Discovery Channel Latin America. On December 2012, she was honoured by President Juan Manuel Santos as one of 100 distinguished Colombians living abroad.