The life of a science writer

I mentioned recently a piece in the New Scientist on giant dinosaurs and in my capacity as an ‘advisor’ on the article I exchanged a great deal of information with the author James O’Donoghue on the subject and his role as a science writer. As a result I though he might like to put across a few thoughts about life as a professional journalist in the science field and he kindly contributed this essay on how he fell into science writing:

I was in the Natural History Museum in London yesterday and was struck, as always, by the incredible numbers of young people there, with dinosaurs the most popular exhibit of choice. But what happens to the children, and their fascination with prehistoric life, as they grow older? It seems that many come to regard their youthful enthusiasm as something they grow out of and that has always struck me as being very sad. For I was one of those enthralled children once and I too buried my curiosity for many years.

Some of my earliest memories are of fossil hunting – for brachiopods and crinoid stems, for belemnites and ammonites, and, I can also remember inexpertly retrieving a marine reptile from a disused quarry once. Somehow my passion for palaeontology got left behind as I grew up and I went on to become a press and publicity officer for the British government for several years, culminating in becoming head of information at the Serious Fraud Office in 1994. But I always knew where my real interests lay and in 1998 finally got an opportunity to give up work and study palaeobiology at University College London, graduating with a M.Sci (First Class Honours) in 2002. I then applied my media skills to palaeobiology. Initially I focussed on a popular book on prehistoric life and that work continues to this day. My first feature for New Scientist appeared in 2007 on the Ediacarans, with features on the Ordovician Explosion and on the origin of trees in subsequent months. I have now had five features in New Scientist and have also been published in Deposits magazine and in Current Archaeology.

As anyone who works in palaeontology will know, there is a huge amount of research work that goes unsung and unpublicised but which would appeal to a wide audience were it made accessible enough. And that is where I step in as I have always been able to spot a good “story”, whether it is on fossils or on fraud. Mostly, I choose my own subject matter and then approach a magazine with the idea although I also get commissions.

Conveying the story to a wide audience is quite a responsibility. Accuracy and fairness are paramount and I, and my editor, go to considerable lengths to ensure that what is published is a fair summary of the research. It would be a terrible shame to get it wrong and alienate colleagues in the scientific community and mislead readers who may never again read about a particular debate. For example, last year I wrote a feature for New Scientist on the evolution of flowering plants and I would guess that most people who read it will not have encountered the subject in feature length form anywhere else. Therefore, I am always mindful that I am acting as ambassador for the subject that I write about – and I certainly don’t want to be the one who goofs up!

Distilling complex information and explaining it in an entertaining way are the nuts and bolts jobs of the science writer. You also need to get the structure of a feature right and that requires the narrative progressing in a satisfying way from beginning to end. It is always frustrating having to leave out most of your research – popular science writing means paring a subject down to its very essence and there are always great stories that go untold as the word count won’t permit it. Once I have a draft ready then a lengthy process of answering queries from the editor and revising the draft begins and can take many weeks to complete. Graphics and headline copy are produced by other members of the team and the writer usually has little to do with that side of things.

Maybe the children who swarm round the Natural History Museum never really do lose their interest in dinosaurs and prehistoric life. The enormous audience for the BBC programme Walking with Dinosaurs proved that the public will engage with palaeobiological subjects as long as it they are presented in an accessible way. My feature on dinosaur gigantism for New Scientist has been one of their most successful stories of the year so far. What’s more, it gave huge numbers of people a peek into the fascinating debate on the subject – providing a level of insight rarely encountered in television documentaries.

The grown up kids are still out there but for most of the time their interest in prehistoric life lies dormant. It’s time to shake them out of their slumber.

You can read more about James’ work or contact him via his web site here.

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