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Hot off the press: The Science Writers' Handbook

May 21, 2013

Thomas Hayden edits wise new volume on writing sciences stories that count.

Thomas Hayden

Aware of a void in resources available to help aspiring science writers enter the field,  Stanford lecturer Thomas Hayden teamed up with Michelle Nijhuis to produce an engaging "how to" guide" that draws on the experience of 30 seasoned professionals. The end product is the just-released Science Writers' Handbook which will be celebrated at a special event at the Stanford Bookstore on campus on Wednesday, May 29 at 4:30 p.m. Thomas will be available both to share stories from the book and sign copies.

Thomas teaches science and environmental writing and communication to students through the School of Earth Sciences and the Graduate Program in Journalism. His students publish the environmental advice column SAGE (Sound Advice for a Green Earth) and regularly contribute to The Peninsula Press.  In addition, he is executive producer of the student-run Generation Anthropocene podcast.  He is the author of two other books and continues to write about science, the environment, and sustainability issues for national magazines including Wired, Smithsonian and National Geographic. In the following Q&A, Thomas addresses the who, what, why and how of creating The Science Writers' Handbook.

What prompted you to write the book?
Communicating science to the public is a crucial endeavor – the divide between what science knows and what people understand and believe has simply grown too wide. But there are very few resources to support people who want to take on the hard work of actually putting science communication into action. I wrote this book together with 30 professional science-writing colleagues to share the hard-won knowledge of our more than 300 years of collective experience doing exactly that. The science writer Carl Zimmer calls our book “a wonderful cheat sheet for the profession,” and that’s what we hope it will be – a shortcut into the field for the next generation of science writers, and a survival guide for those who are already doing it.

Why now?
Science is full of powerful, engaging and enlightening stories, and the public appetite for well-told science stories is strong. But it’s not easy to become an excellent science writer, and especially with the recent disruptions in journalism, to make a living and a life doing so. I left full-time science journalism nearly five years ago so that I could come to Stanford and share what I know about communicating science with students and faculty – I came back to academia after a decade away to recruit more science communicators, essentially. This book is part and parcel of that scheme.

What's your target audience? Who will benefit from reading the book?
We wrote the book for just about anyone who is interested in writing about science for broad audiences. Active science writers, science writing students and journalists interested in learning how to cover science effectively are probably the core audience. But we think that graduate students considering alternate careers and scientists who want to write for the public will find a wealth of useful information here, too.

How did you decide on the approach?
The Science Writers’ Handbook grew out of a long, meandering, and ongoing conversation among the book’s authors. We all belong to an online science-writing group called SciLance (“science freelancers”), where we discuss every possible aspect of communicating science, from practical issues of conveying complexity and uncertainty, to literary issues such as structuring stories and interviewing for narrative, to the business realities of negotiating contracts with publications, and even finding ways to balance writing with family and other obligations. It just made sense that we’d make the book a continuation of that online conversation, with many contributors sharing their insights and experiences on every aspect of science writing.

Given the dramatically changing media landscape, what positive developments would you like to see in science journalism in the next 10-15 years?
In reviewing our book, E.O. Wilson makes the point that “Each passing day science writing, like its subject, becomes more important to us all.” I couldn’t agree more, but I consider effective science journalism not just a crucial social good, but an endangered one. I think we need to find more new models to support quality science journalism independent of ad sales and magazine subscriptions. And the good news is that that’s happening, with everything from foundation and university-supported publications to crowd-funded and subscription-based online reporting efforts. We just need to make sure that the ethos and best practices of science journalism 1.0 are baked into the innovation and creativity of what comes next. That’s another role I hope The Science Writers’ Handbook can help fill.