Ed Yong, a staff writer for The Atlantic, has done stellar reporting and writing on the Covid-19 pandemic that earned him a 2020 AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Award and a George Polk Award for science reporting, among other honors. In a piece for Catapult's Don't Write Alone site, Nicole Chung spoke recently with Yong about his approach to science writing, including his well-considered embrace of uncertainty and nuance. The following is an excerpt from Chung’s Q & A with Yong, Chung’s entire interview with Yong is available here.
Nicole Chung: What are some of the challenges of science writing/storytelling, and what are some of your favorite things about it? (I realize there can be overlap here!)
Ed Yong: There is overlap! A very crude way of looking at science is seeing it as a march toward truth, and that’s true to an extent, but I see it more as an erratic stumble toward slightly less uncertainty. It meanders a lot; scientists disagree over basically everything; and some of the discussion of "controversies" (over climate change, vaccination) can mask the fact that there really is broad scientific consensus on certain things.
A lot of people who enter science writing start by looking at the published, peer-reviewed literature as almost gospel, and think, I'm just going to take and translate this—but there is actually a massive amount of complexity and uncertainty, and all the work is affected by all the work that has been done; by societal norms and values; by the systems that influence which people get to be scientists in the first place. Both science and journalism have this value — truth and fact and rigor — but when you actually delve into that, it becomes very complicated. I think that is both the challenge and the joy of science writing and storytelling — to try and integrate and synthesize across a lot of often conflicting sources of information, and make sense of the world based on available data we have at hand. It’s a complicated affair, and demanding.
If you do it well, science writing trains you to grapple with uncertainty, to embrace nuance, to run toward complexity, to really try hard to make sense of the world. The pandemic writing I did was very much an exercise in doing this. But the other writing that I did before put me in good stead to do it in the context of a big global disaster and tremendous uncertainty. The book I'm writing now, about animal senses — there's so much we don't know, so much that conflicts, so much that is influenced by history and culture and the limits of our imagination, and it is both really hard and tremendously rewarding to try to make sense of that. This is the core of science writing.
Q: I'd love to talk about the structure of your stories, how you approach building a compelling narrative arc while also synthesizing what must be pages and pages of research and reportage. Can you tell me a little about your writing process, and how you craft your narratives?
A: The way I approach a short 1,000-word piece about a paper, and the way I approach an 8,000-word feature on the pandemic, and the way I'm approaching this 120,000-word book, is essentially the same. And it gets easier with time.
First I read a lot of source material, papers, interviews others have done, and then I interview a bunch of people about them — I try to find both context and critique, to fit what I'm writing into the wider situation in the world and the arc of scientific history. If I'm writing about the pandemic, I might call thirty or forty different people and get their views about the central animating question I’m trying to answer in this particular story, like "When will this end?" or "Why are we stuck?"
After I've done all the reporting, I spend a lot of time structuring. Even with a short piece, I will have an outline document, where I will map out almost what every paragraph will say—just bullet points in a Word doc, nothing fancier than that. When I look over my interview transcripts, I’ll pull quotes, slot those into the outline. I might make little notes while I’m talking to people: "lede," or "this is the kicker." Everything goes into this massive document, mapping out what the story is going to be. I will have that done before I start really writing. And then I just sort of work through it.
It's the same with the book—before I started it, I had mapped out all fourteen chapters, and knew roughly what was going to be in each. I had a very clear idea what each chapter should be doing, what each section should be doing. The outline gives me something to work with, change from; it stops me from that horrible feeling of staring at a blank screen, wondering what to do now. It also makes it easier to troubleshoot — I can look at the outline and go, "Why is this not working? Does this bit just not belong here?" If I've done the conceptual work and know what each bit is meant to do, what each chapter has to accomplish, I can more easily figure out what's not working. Sometimes, if I'm really stuck, I'll do a kind of reverse outline, where I'll look at everything I've got and then write a short clause, like a bullet point, for every point — and then it becomes easier to see what I've got.
I do really feel that 99 percent of writing problems are actually structuring problems — or, in journalism, they may also be reporting problems. Either you didn't think through the structure beforehand, or you just didn’t do enough work to be able to determine what the structure should be.
Q: What advice do you have for hopeful science journalists and storytellers?
A: You can't take what is already published in science literature as a given. Your job is to help your readers make sense of the world, and to do that you have to notice when things you're reading don't seem right, and try to find out why.
You can learn a ton by reverse-engineering really good work. If there are pieces that resonate with you, it’s worth breaking them down, section by section, to see how the writer has structured that piece. You, as a reader, can see where things are working, why they're working, and kind of osmose the techniques writers you like are using. A lot of techniques are very transparent, you know, they're there on the page for us to see and learn from.
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