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The Best Science Writing Online 2012

The Best Science Writing Online 2012

Bora Zivkovic, Jennifer Ouellette

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Contributors Brian Switek and Alex Reshanov talk about dino hands, blogs vs books, and inspiration

Alex Reshanov and Brian Switek—two of the contributors to The Best Science Writing Online 2012, edited by Bora Zivkovic—got together to talk about inspiration, the misconceptions about dinosaurs, and the process of starting out as a writer. Alex is an Austin-based freelance writer and founder of Blogus scientificus. Her anthologized essay, “Shakes on a Plane: Can Turbulence Kill You?”  is about some of the things we try not to think about when we fly. Brian is a science writer who blogs at Laelaps and Smithsonian.com’s Dinosaur Tracking, and whose book, My Beloved Brontosaurus, will be published by Scientific American/FSG in April. His essay “The Dodo is Dead, Long Live the Dodo!” is about how people have gotten the dodo wrong for years.

Alex Reshanov: Hi, Brian. I was initially drawn to your essay by its title (I’m always eager to read about obscure animals), but what I really enjoyed was that it seemed less about the species itself and more about how people—historians, naturalists, and illustrators, in this case—get things wrong and how these mistakes are perpetuated. What made you want to write about this topic: the bird or the sea of misinformation surrounding it?

Brian Switek: The weird thing was that I wrote the post backwards. I stumbled across the paper by Delphine Angst and colleagues about the dodo possibly being more svelte than naturalists had thought. I had never heard of this before. I had seen so many images of fat, ugly dodos. But an athletic, relatively slim dodo? That really sparked my imagination, and I ran a Google Scholar search to find out more. As it turned out, paleontologists and zoologists have been trying to revise and refine our understanding of the dodo for years. The new science just hasn’t trickled through to the public. I thought I’d try to change that by way of an essay. Plus, even though it’s sad, it’s fascinating how humans obliterated the dodo just a few centuries ago, yet we know more about the dodo now than the people who drove the bird into extinction!

Alex: It’s curious that scientists’ attempts to correct false notions about the dodo are so slow to catch on. It’s not as though we’re completely uninterested in the animal. I’ve been hearing about dodos since childhood, it’s just that I always got the impression they were doomed for extinction by their own biology. Their portrayal in popular culture is typically slow, portly and none too bright. It almost seems as though society prefers the comedic story of the dodo’s demise (too oafish to survive) to the more banal reality of its extinction.

Brian: Art imitates art. I mean, in the case of the dodo, artists who had never even seen an actual bird based their illustrations on others that they had seen, and so the image of the idiotic, portly dodo was entrenched. Scientific specialists know that the imagery is wrong, but, unless artists and filmmakers go sifting through the literature, how are they ever going to know about the change? It’s the same thing with dinosaur hands. This is a minor issue, but shows how memes stick. For a long time, artists illustrated dinosaurs like Velociraptor with their palms down—what many paleontologists now call the curse of the “bunny hands.” But as paleontologists re-examined and revised dinosaur skeletons, they found that dinosaurs like Velociraptor held their hands so that their palms faced each other in a more bird-like arrangement. Dinosaurs were clappers, not slappers. We’ve known this for years, yet artists working on movies and television shows, in particular, keep giving their predatory dinosaurs bunny hands. They don’t necessarily know they’re doing something wrong because they’re not looking at the literature—even with the simplest ideas or facts, there’s still a gulf between what scientists are discovering and what gets communicated to the public. That’s why I enjoy being a pedant when shows like Doctor Who don’t get their dinosaurs quite right. It’s a moment where I can grab people’s attention and say, “Hey! Put some feathers on that Tyrannosaurus! And fix those bunny hands, damn it!”

Alex: You’re generous to give artists the benefit of the doubt. I tend to suspect—especially in film, where lots of people are involved—that somewhere along the line, someone has an inkling that the design isn’t entirely accurate but just thinks, “Meh, who wants to see dinosaurs with feathers. Let’s stick with the old standard.” Though I’m sure there’s a lot of innocent replication of errors as well. And unfortunately this happens in science writing as well as illustration. The internet is great place to correct public misconceptions, but it’s an even better place to accidentally spread misinformation. I spend a lot of time fretting over fact-checking, but some fallacies are so pervasive that it doesn’t occur to me to question them. While I cringe every time I read the words “poisonous snake” (is it really so hard to keep poisonous and venomous straight?), I must confess that I’ve used the term “living fossil” in the past—a crime you wrote about in a recent post. It’s challenging to be a proper pedant on every subject.

Brian: Recreating dinosaurs is tough, especially with limited budgets and the fact that feathers are really hard to animate properly! Sometimes it’s impossible for television special effects artists to do justice to dinosaurs, although I still think being a pedant about dinosaur accuracy is worthwhile. There are practical reasons for sadly un-fuzzled dinosaurs, yet I think it’s important to point out where those representations depart from reality—especially since dinosaurs have such a cultural presence that it’s easy for mistakes to become established in the public consciousness!

And you’re right that this affects science writing as well as art. There are certain ideas and turns of phrase that we just take for granted, even if they’re not on the mark. When I wrote about squid that have really fantastic photophores on two of their arms, for example, I said that the flashing organs were on their “tentacles.” I think that’s from watching too many B-movies about giant cephalopods—“tentacles” is often used interchangeably with “arms.” But in technical terms, tentacles and arms are different things with distinct functions. I knew this, but I didn’t even think about the mistake until someone pointed it out to me later.

All of which makes me wonder, how do you find stories to write about? I confess that most of the time I simply flip through journals in search of interesting tidbits from paleontology and natural history. I look for ideas or studies that either make me go, “Really? That’s awesome!” or, alternatively, “What the fuck?” How do you approach this problem?

Alex: Yeah, journals are a great place to search for ideas. There are some general topics I know I want to write about someday, but I hold off until there’s a good tie-in to current research. I also keep an eye open for relevant newspaper headlines, something that might benefit from an explainer or that could serve as a launching point for a longer article. I did a piece this summer about high-fructose corn syrup—comparing it to other sugars and discussing how they differ (and don’t differ) structurally and metabolically—and the impetus for that was Bloomberg’s proposed ban on large sodas in New York City, which was getting a lot of attention that week.

But some story ideas just come out of conversations. “Shakes on a Plane” was one of those. The idea came out of a distressingly turbulent flight and an even more distressing claim about turbulence (which turned out to have some truth to it). I began doing the research for my own paranoid reasons before actually deciding to write it.

Brian: I was wondering about “Shakes on a Plane,” which, I admit, I read as “Snakes on a Plane” first and thought it was going to be about tests on vipers in free-fall, or some such. But, as you say in the essay, there actually doesn’t seem to be much information about how turbulence affects planes and people given the rarity of actual catastrophes. Even though, there’s a certain reproducibility problem with airline accidents... How did you cope with writing accurately about a subject when so little is known?

Alex: It’s true, there’s definitely a dearth of good experimental data on aviation hazards (for which I’m grateful, really, because it’s all fine and well if you get to board the control plane, but nobody wants to be on the experimental plane heading straight for a tornado). However when you’re trying to write a scientifically accurate article, peer-reviewed journals are certainly handy. In the absence of that option, you have to work with what is available: newspapers, accident reports, whatever details were gleaned from the “black box.” Pilot accounts of (non-disastrous) flights were also useful.

Of course, there’s the danger that everyone is just repeating someone else’s mistakes. So when using these, um, softer sources, I also do internet searches aimed at finding contradictions: something like “turbulence never causes plane crashes” or “turbulence plane crash myth.” Basically, I’m looking for someone out there waving their hands and saying, “No, people, you’ve got it all wrong! Dodos weren’t shaped like that at all.” Or whatever the equivalent would be for the topic at hand. If there’s solid debate surrounding a piece of information, I either omit it or note that it’s contended. I’ve also stumbled onto some great blogs while trying to figure out if a particular factoid is to be trusted, so it’s a useful practice in other ways.

What are the major research challenges you encounter in your writing?

Brian: My most frustrating challenge is a lack of information about exactly what I want to write about. Plesiorycteropus is a perfect example. The other day I was reading Peter Tyson’s book about Madagascar called The Eighth Continent when he mentioned a really weird, aardvark-like animal called Plesiorycteropus. No one knows what it was, but the mammal was among the creatures that had disappeared within the last 2,000 years on the island. It sounded like an exciting topic to write about, and I often use my writing as an excuse to research creatures that I haven’t heard of before—as a way to explore what’s known about them. I figured that since Tyson’s book was published a decade ago, there would have to be more information by now.

Only, there isn’t much that’s new. Paleontologist Ross MacPhee wrote a huge monograph on Plesiorycteropus in the ’90s, but the animal is as enigmatic as ever. It’s not the kind of sexy research subject—such as Tyrannosaurus rex—that lots of scientists have written about. That’s the most frustrating thing: when there’s an amazing, enigmatic animal but very little information to share. I’m still going to write about Plesiorycteropus, but I need to find another angle other than, “Hey, ain’t this cool?”

Alex: That is maddening. I’ve written about a number of (extant) animals and there’s so much variation in the research available on them. One species name turns up an overwhelming flood of papers while another may yield almost nothing. Some organisms get all the attention.

While we’re on the subject of subjects, I’m curious how you arrived at your particular area of science writing. Did you narrow it down after you began writing? Or did the interest in paleontology and zoology precede the writing? As someone who often finds their attention pulled in too many directions, I’m always interested in how writers select their beat.

Brian: I think the subject was always there. I started blogging in the fall of 2006, and at the time I was taking two paleontology courses at Rutgers University. I hated most of my other coursework, but those classes reinvigorated my persistent interest in prehistoric life and natural history. They made me want to learn more, and, thanks to the university’s journal access, I started gobbling up technical papers. Writing gave me an outlet for my enthusiasm.

Even within my subjects, though, there is so much to learn. Dinosaurs are my specialty—shocking, I know—but with the entire span of life on earth to choose from, it’s easy to follow lots of different paths. In fact, I try to remind people that I don’t write only about dinosaurs—I try to keep my blog Laelaps dinosaur-free, and focus on prehistoric mammals, weird Cambrian life forms, and other bizarre forms of ancient life that deserve more attention. I don’t want to be pigeonholed as the dinosaur guy!

With so much out there to write about, I’m wondering how you choose which stories to pursue. Is it that gut feeling of, “This is awesome”? Or questions that you want to know the answers to and therefore research them? Where does the process start for you?

Alex: Mercifully, I don’t cover all subjects. I avoid physics, for instance, because I have a grand total of one year of undergraduate course experience in that area. But that still leaves me with too many options. I mull over loads of story ideas but only end up writing a fraction of them. Why do some stories make the cut while others end up in the scrap bin? I wish it were more of gut feeling. There’s so much fascinating material out there, but I find it hard to predict how well any given idea will translate from something that’s interesting to me into something engaging to read. Some weeks I just choose a topic and hope for the best, but I won’t know how wisely I chose until I’m done writing it. It’s always a gamble, but at least the time investment is relatively low. It’s not like I’m directing a film or recording an album. I wonder when those people realize they’re working on a flop. Possibly when it’s too late to turn back. I’m lucky in that if I really feel a post is going nowhere, I can always toss it and start from scratch. Still, I’d prefer an epiphanous moment of, “This is it! The story I was born to write!” (And on a weekly basis, ideally.)

How about you? After six years of blogging, have you gotten to the point where you know how to pick a winner?

Brian: I wish I knew how to pick a winner! I’m always surprised by what works, and what doesn’t. Sometimes I work for hours and hours on a post that I feel is going to really grab readers, and no one cares. Other times, I dash a post that I’m not proud of in the least, and readers love it. Maybe I should just stop trying to hard!

I try to pick stories that make me go, “Really? Wow.” That can be a good thing or a bad thing—a new, fascinating fossil creature or a major revision in our scientific understanding. In other words, I try to write about subjects that really grab my attention rather than trying to force articles. Sometimes it works. Sometimes not. The biggest challenge is repetition. I write five posts a week for my Smithsonian Dinosaur Tracking blog, and usually about two or three a week for my Wired Science Laelaps blog. That’s a lot of writing, not to mention my books and freelancing! There are always new topics to discuss, but it’s easy to slip into the same turns of phrase or use the idea in introductions and conclusions. I never intentionally recycle sentences. I never go back to read old posts when I’m writing a new one. But I know that there are certain themes I’m attracted to, and so it’s a struggle to avoid treading the same ground. I wish I could space out my assignments a little more, but, if I want to keep the lights on, the beast has to be fed. Do you ever run into the same problem?

Alex: Oh, the mysterious predilections of readers. I’ve noticed that same pattern (i.e. a complete absence of any discernable pattern) as to which of my posts are more or less popular. I did a recent article comparing various dead body disposal methods (burial vs. cremation, etc.) that I feared would be too long and too morbid for most people, and it turned out to be one of my bigger hits. I’ve largely given up trying to guess which posts readers will be into. I just try to craft each one as well as time allows for, and then to not take it personally if nobody notices.

And, yes, I worry constantly about repeating myself, in writing and in conversation (stop me if you think you’ve heard this one before). Currently I only do about a post per week for my Blogus scientificus blog at EarthSky, so I’m not juggling nearly as many words as you are, but I do occasionally catch myself writing something that sounds too familiar and then realizing I penned a similar phrase in the past. It could just be a sentence fragment, something nobody would ever notice or care about, but it’s irritating nonetheless. Sometimes it feels as though there are a very finite number of sentences in the English language—or at least in one’s individual style—and that eventually I’ll have formed all of them and be permanently out of material. But I’ve heard other writers express this concern and yet continue producing good work, so hopefully it’s not the inevitable fate of prolific authors.

More than spacing out assignments, I just wish I could devote more time to each individual post, and yet somehow still have time left over to read all the interesting articles and books out there, and to work on my neglected non-science writing, and... the list goes on. Essentially, I want that time-bending hourglass necklace that Hermione has in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, which is probably not a realistic option.

Have you found that writing books provides any relief from the daily grind of blogging? Is it less taxing to work on something that’s not due the next day, or does the volume of material going into a book override the luxury of a longer deadline?

Brian: Books are a relief because there’s far more room for digressions. Writing a brief summary of research for a blog post is like taking a quick trip to the store: it’s a short trip, you know what you’re after, and you’re mostly concerned with getting from A to B and back to A again. Simple. But a book is like a road trip. There is much more time and opportunity to explore. You can make entertaining digressions along the way. The trick is to make sure those digressions have a purpose. You’re still trying to get to your destination, and you don’t want your passenger—the reader—to get tired of the journey before you even reach your goal.

Even though blogs are tools, and you can use a blog for any form of writing, I try to keep my posts relatively short—around 2,000 words or less. Longer than that and your writing has to be exceptionally tight in order to keep people engaged. (I can’t speak for anyone else, but I’m more comfortable reading long articles or essays on the page than on the screen.) But in a book, you can carefully arrange arguments and ideas. In some ways writing a book takes far more care—you have to keep the story moving from one sentence to the next—but the freedom 270-some-odd pages provide is refreshing. And books don’t always have to be something new. I feel like there’s an immense push with science news and science writing to stay at the bleeding edge. What stories come out on a given week are dictated by what’s coming off embargo. But books let writers go back to older stories and check up on what has happened. In a book, you can take something old and make it new again through exploration and argument, and connect something small to a wider idea. I find that refreshing, especially since so much of my day-to-day writing is wrapped up in keeping up with the latest discoveries.

And I wouldn’t say that having a longer deadline is a luxury. That just intensifies my anxiety when the book is due! I do my best to craft my blog posts, articles, and essays, but a book feels more permanent. If it’s something good, it may even outlast my lifetime! So when a book is due, I fret and fret and fret about producing the best writing that I’m able. My writing is never going to meet the expectations I have for myself, but I want to always do a little better than I did the last time.

Have you ever considered writing a science book? If so, I hope what I’ve just said hasn’t put you off the concept!

Alex: Ha! Most of what you said actually recommends book writing, but those last few sentences are a little daunting. I’m not eager to experience an amplified version of my blogging fret level (typically somewhere between yellow and orange, rarely red).

Another thing that sounds challenging about working on a book is committing to one topic for an extended period. One of the reasons I gravitated toward science blogging (I’d originally set my sights on grad school, but decided against it) was the ability to jump from topic to topic. Perpetual novelty. Sometimes it’s exhausting attempting to get comfortable with a new subject every week, though. It would be great to be able to dig into the details more. To run with your travel analogy, my experience with blogging is that I often feel like a tourist—I see a lot of cool stuff but then I have to hurry along to the next destination. It would be nice to live in a place/subject for long enough to feel more like a local.

I also have no idea how one goes from blogging to writing a book. How did that happen for you?

Brian: I may be overly nervous. Like any piece of writing, it’s strange to be stuck inside your head and then put your efforts out on show. Only, with a book, it’s on a much bigger scale and the expectations are higher.

But I asked for the anxiety. I knew I wanted to write a book a few months before I started blogging. When I started reading technical papers and digging into the history of paleontology, especially, I was shocked by how much I hadn’t been taught in high school and college. Actually, in a way, I was shocked at my own ignorance. Why didn’t I know exactly how natural selection worked? How come I had never heard about all the awesome discoveries of “fishapods,” feathered dinosaurs, and walking whales? And I was aggravated that evolution was often discussed from a genetic perspective, with the fossil record treated as an afterthought. Many authors, Richard Dawkins among them, have acted as if the fossil record is a nice demonstration that evolution happens, but that it can’t tell us anything meaningful about the way evolution works. Upstart that I was, I wanted to prove him wrong in print.

The book that became Written in Stone went through several iterations. But I couldn’t contain my drive to write it. So I just started writing it. I wrote three sample chapters and—after reading that authors must obtain agents to sell books, and must write proposals to acquire agents—I put together a book proposal. What happened next was pure luck. I sent the sample chapters to Ed Yong to see what he thought of them, and jokingly said, “If you know any agents, tell them about my book!” He told me that he didn’t know any, but he would read my chapter drafts. Not long after that, he said he had run into an agent during a science writing soiree and mentioned my book to him. That agent, Peter Tallack, contacted me immediately, and I’ve been working with Peter from that time on.

Of course, having an agent is just one step in selling a book. It took about nine months before Bellevue Literary Press accepted my proposal. I saw a lot of rejections. Some publishers said my book was too similar to others, and other publishers didn’t want to take a risk on an unknown author. Sad as it is, marketing considerations play an important role in selling a book. I found out first hand that a publisher can like your book and enjoy your writing style, but will pass on publishing if you’re not well-known enough for them to make a marketing campaign. And there were a handful of publishers who really liked me, but didn’t like the book idea. They wanted me to pitch them something different. It’s really an excruciating process. One moment you’re elated that a publisher wants to meet with you, and the next you need a stiff drink after three houses have decided to pass on your work.

The second book was much easier. I met my editor, Amanda Moon, at the Science Writers meeting in Connecticut in 2010. We discussed ideas, and the topic of why dinosaurs have changed so much really grabbed both of us. I worked up a proposal, and by the next spring we had a deal for what became My Beloved Brontosaurus. Mercifully, Amanda and I were in close enough agreement that I didn’t want to pitch to anyone else. I count myself as incredibly fortunate that selling my second book went so smoothly.

And while focusing on one topic for a long time is difficult, I think it depends on what you write and how you write. For me, all my blogging, freelance, and book work are closely related. I’m mostly blogging about prehistoric life and natural history. I can use what I’ve learned through blogging and apply that to other projects. What’s harder is shifting writing styles. The way I write for my blogs isn’t the way that I write articles, and I write books in a different mindset from either. On any given day, when several projects are calling for attention, it’s headache-inducing to try and balance everything!

Alex: I suspect nervousness is common among writers—or at least I hope it is. I vividly recall the first time I had to read my own writing in front of other people. The audience was just my ninth grade English class, but I felt fairly certain I would faint from panic (I didn’t). Obviously I’ve gotten more comfortable with sharing my work since then, but there is always a sense of exposing oneself when releasing a piece of writing into the world. It seems odd to think there should be anything personal about a non-fiction article or book—it’s not like you’re publishing your secret diaries—and yet there is. That said, I’ll gladly accept the brow furrowing and anxiety of writing over the safe numbness of doing something I don’t really care about. It’s worth the risk of rejection, even the rejection of multiple publishers.

I’m starting to get a sense of the importance of marketability. Being able to sell/promote one’s work is one of the hardest parts of science writing—well, it’s my weakest area anyway. Perhaps that too gets easier with practice.

Brian: Right. And it is satisfying when you succeed! I think blogs play a critical role here, too. There are so many stories out there, and even the most prolific magazines or newspapers can’t and won’t cover everything of interest. Blogs are great places to highlight those stories and experiment with them. I’ve been meaning to write an article about giant sloths that swam—how cool is that?!—for years, but I’ve never been able to sell it. Rather than let that story die for lack of interest, I’m going to write it for my blog.

There are plenty of outlets for excellent science writing now. The anthology is a testament to how much top-shelf science writing appears online. The trick for a freelancer like me is making enough money at it to keep the lights on!

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