Writing From the Right Side of the Stall

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Archive for the category “science”

My Brain Hurts

Like I needed more reality checks in my life.

In my continuing career-re-invention quest (horse writer, bad; health writer, good), I signed up yesterday for a one-day workshop on epigenetics for journalists, hosted in downtown Toronto by the CIHR (Canadian Institutes of Health Research).   I didn’t really have a clear plan as to where I was going to use the material from this seminar — but hey, they had assembled a crack team of speakers, the location was accessible enough, and it was free.  With lunch.

(See my previous post about feeding journalists, a can’t-miss strategy.  Seriously, you could live-trap and relocate the lot of us with a tray of sandwiches and some oversized cookies.)

Once upon a time, I was an undergrad biology major.  I spent eight to 10 hours a day in classes, scribbling reams of notes — I remember one botany class, in particular, which generated 15 to 20 pages of single-spaced foolscap per lecture — and it didn’t faze me in the least.  But admittedly, it has been a while.  (Shuddup.)

While I’m admitting things, I’ll also admit that genetics was never my strong suit.  Loved the microbiology, thought the invertebrate zoology was dandy, grooved on the afore-mentioned botany, liked doing the field studies in the ecology courses (there was some project which involved mapping out a square metre in an endangered grassland area and then counting the number of beetles, or seeds, or voles or something within that square), but found genetics a bit of a struggle, even though it was at a very, very basic, Mendelian level.  My usual luck prevailed:  My Drosophila tended to keel over before they could produce their F1 and F2 generations, and even when they didn’t, they didn’t really breed according to plan or produce the characteristics they were supposed to (big wings, vestigial wings, curly wings, red eyes, white eyes, googly eyes, and so forth).

Since those (ahem) hallowed university days, I have had to tackle the topic of genetics on a number of occasions in articles for horse magazines.  Lesson #1:  Very little in Real Life is Mendelian.  In other words, simple dominant, simple recessive, predictable percentages of traits in each generation:  hardly ever happens outside a lab full of fruitflies (and sometimes not even then).  Genetics is way complicated, with combos of genes all tag-teaming to cloud the picture and muck up your diagrams.  Which I guess explains why you can’t breed a palomino to a palomino and get little palominos, but doesn’t explain why anyone still maintains a breed registry for a colour which is not directly heritable.  Don’t get me started.

Still, the topic (genetics, in case I lost you somewhere there) has always been sort of heavy wading for me.  Okay, not as bad as organic chem, which I failed twice before I finally managed to squeak through  …  just never could wrap my head around the carbon-chain stuff (though, in looking back, I also have to credit a prof who would clearly have rather been disemboweling wombats than have been teaching this dreary second-year course in a windowless basement).  But something of a slog.

Nonetheless, the topic of epigenetics intrigues.  And that’s typical for me; lots of stuff I have no natural talent for, intrigues me anyway, contrary wench that I am.

For the uninitiated:  epigenetics is the study of how environmental factors influence the way genes do, or do not express themselves.  It’s fairly new stuff, though the term has been hanging around since the 1940s.  Maybe I should say its acceptance is fairly new stuff.

Epigenetics is a separate deal from mutation, which is an actual alteration/addition/deletion of base pairs on the DNA strand.  In epigenetics, the DNA sequence remains the same, but the environment influences whether the genes produce proteins which influence changes in the organism, or fail to produce them.  See?  I was paying attention.

But the workshop did prove to me one thing:  as far as paying attention goes, evidently I am not as good at it as I was when I was 20.  Okay, not exactly a fucking revelation.  But still, sobering.  Despite diligently caffeinating (something I am actually not in the habit of doing when I work at home), and despite finding the topic engaging, I really had to force my brain to focus on digesting this material.  It did not do it of its own accord.

And while my brain was wandering off down unexplored corridors for the umpteenth time, it occurred to me that attention spans, in general, may not be what they used to was.  It’s Facebook‘s fault, of course.

I started thinking about my work habits, when I’m working from home, and realized that I seem to function best when multi-tasking.  Which might just be putting a polite spin on saying I allow myself to be easily distracted.

I generally have a couple dozen tabs open on my web browser.  Some of them directly related to whatever article I am currently writing. Some not so much.   So I’ll write a couple of paragraphs, then go check my Twitter feed.  Look up a definition or flip through my notes to see how I’m going to cobble in a quote from the Authority Du Jour … then open up Photoshop and edit a couple of photos I’ve had in the queue.  Go back to the article.  Get stuck on a phrase for a minute, and go see how many hits the damn blog has gotten today (ugh, biggest time-suck of all).  Go back to the article, but then think of something I have to add to the grocery list. Go back to the article.  Write six or seven paragraphs in a row and then play a game of solitaire as a reward.  And wash, rinse, repeat.

All of this has evolved fairly organically along with the options available on my computer (as in, I’m pretty sure I didn’t have that many distractions on my Atari or my 486).  And the thing is, it works for me.  It’s entirely possible I’m severely deluded, of course, but I believe with a certain amount of religious fervour that I’m actually more productive working in this manner, than I am when I force myself to be single-minded and concentrate on one thing at once.

It is not lost on me that this style of working doesn’t go over particularly well in the corporate world, where there’s a firewall on Facebook and to spend 30 seconds mindlessly moving Scrabble tiles around while your brain tries to pick the tangles out of some work-related problem, is tantamount to treason.  Despite all the lip-service acknowledging learning styles and celebrating individuality, there always seems to be someone who’s deeply offended if you’re not exhibiting exemplary drone behaviour.

And it didn’t serve me all that well when I was thrust back into a concentrated, lecture-style learning environment, as I was at this workshop.  As I say, I really had to work to stay focused and wrap my head around the concepts … and I was pretty much knackered by the end of it.

Still, I had enough neural activity at the end of the day to ponder the wisdom of the cohort of behaviourists who maintain that women are hard-wired to multi-task.  One fairly famous experiment (this is not something that came up in the workshop — it’s just something that I read, years ago, which has always stuck with me) had test groups of women and men listen to an audio recording of voices reading two (or was it three?) different stories, with the voices all overlapping.  Afterwards they were asked to reiterate the content.  The men, almost invariably, had ended up zooming in on only one of the stories.  They could recount that storyline, but had registered nothing of the others.  The women, OTOH, had gotten the gist of all of the stories.  The explanation, I guess, is that we’re designed to be able to forage for berries and beat the laundry on a rock, while simultaneously keeping one ear open so that our F1 generation doesn’t get eaten by a sabre-toothed whateverthefuck.

Sounds kinda epigenetic, don’t it.  I wonder what the methylation profile is.

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Professional Development, Part Two

I’m still a professional guest at PWAC (Professional Writers’ Association of Canada) Toronto’s evening seminar series — I approach foxhunting the same way — but fortunately neither organization seems to mind as long as I cough up my cap fee outsider’s seminar fee.

Last Wednesday night, the topic was “Getting Started in Health and Science Writing”.  Which is something I’ve been trying to do, in fits and starts, for the past two or three years.  So colour me interested enough to drive an hour south on Hwy 400, park at an overcrowded mall, get on the subway, and haul my little rural hayseed tush downtown to Church and Bloor.

Speakers Carolyn Abraham, Mark Witten, and Stephen Strauss all have credentials up the wazoo, with dailies like the venerable Globe and Mail as well as mainstream mags such as Canadian Living, Today’s Parent, and Toronto Life.  (Full bios here.)  And all three emphasized that they fell into science and/or health writing quite by accident, having no educational background in science past high school.

In fact, they just about implied that it’s to your advantage not to have a science background if you write about it.  I guess this means I’m fucked, given that I have a B.Sc. in biology.  Bugger.

Still, I might persevere, if only because it does sound like there might be some decent mainstream markets for well-written science and health content.  There, I said it … a rare ray of sunshine in the deep, dark doldrums of freelance writing.

One insight I took away from the evening was that I really need to be marketing myself as a “health writer” rather than a “medical writer”.  Having done as much writing on veterinary topics as I have over the years, I figured it would be an easy segue into medical writing…. a mammal is a mammal, right?  But it turns out that “medical writer” is a very specific critter with its own specific industry.  It usually has either a Ph.D. or an MD, and it exists in a very structured and demanding little niche in the environment, where it is well-paid but probably bored out of its mind.

A “health writer”, on the other hand, is one of those people with no science background, who’s good at explaining the finer points of thrombosis and hip replacement surgery to the masses.  Fuckin’ A.

So.  A few key points from the seminar, for those living vicariously through me (you know who you are):

Carolyn Abraham:  A good science or health story distinguishes itself by five core elements — news (what’s the hook?), scope (how many people are affected?), impact (what does it mean?), context/history (what makes this important?), and edge (where is this gonna lead in the future?).  All of these elements need to be considered when you’re debating whether a story is worth pursuing.

But from the editor’s perspective, she said, it’s also important that the story is fresh and original, and satisfies at least one of these categories:  it’s a breakthrough (the biggest, the oldest, the weirdest), it’s a hazard (Seventeen Ways Air Can Kill You), or it titillates (not just in the obvious way, but also in the way a bizarre but compelling disease does  — think Elephant Man), or it is a how-to (How Raisins Changed My Life).  Stories concerning conflict or moral values (such as the now-mercifully-defunct debate over embryonic stem cells) also fall into the titillation category.

Abraham saw growth areas in the how-to neck of the woods, in particular, and in writing about ageing (naturally, since few of us are headed in the other direction).

“One great thing about science writing is that the topics are enormous and endlessly interesting,” she said.

Mark Witten:  “I think the most important thing about getting into health writing is that you have to love writing about things you know nothing about.  You have to find the research process more stimulating than intimidating.”

Witten also noted that for mainstream markets, one’s storytelling skills are at least as important as getting the facts straight.  Editors, he said, need to be shown how your story is going to be relevant to readers.  So don’t just talk about the heartbreak of psoriasis; get a first-hand account from someone who’s heartbroken.

“The best stories are the ones which combine strong science with a human interest angle,” said Witten.

Health and science writing are about knowledge translation, he added, and the possibilities extend beyond magazines.  “Think about corporate markets and non-profits, too.”

Stephen Strauss:  Referencing Ed Yong’s rather famous blog post about the origins of science writers, Strauss remarked that a large percentage of now-successful science writers “got into it after they had failed at something else”.  (Gosh, another checkmark for me!)

“The great thing about science is that you can write about it for more than a couple of years without getting bored.  It’s the rarest of work experiences:  one where you keep on learning.”  Try that with writing about RRSPs or insurance.

Strauss pointed out that one of the major changes in science journalism, since the advent of the Interwebz, is that all of the cool stories which were once hidden away in academic journals on the desolate top shelves of the third floor of the west wing of some university library (and which made you look like a total genius when you unearthed them as if from some archaeological dig), are now out there in plain sight and easily accessible.  That forces science writers to be that much more original (or at least fast off the mark).  In order to sell a story, you have to come up with an angle no-one else has thought of.

One painless place to experiment with that, and with the style and voice that will eventually have editors falling on their knees and begging you to consider taking $3 a word to grace their pages, is by launching a science blog.  Consider blogging a “loss leader”, sayeth Strauss.  (What?  It’s difficult to monetize a blog, you say?)  His theory:  if you can establish yourself as an authority in a niche area, you can demonstrate to editors that you can master a technical subject or two … and you also tend to produce some of your best writing when you’re scribbling about something you actually care about.

All sage advice, but can you good people stomach another blog from me?  Or might the universe’s intestines just leap up through its neck and prophylactically throttle its brain to keep it all from happening?  (With apologies to Douglas Adams, who phrased it ever so much better.)

Incidentally, if anyone has become frothingly keen on the science blog notion after reading this, the Canadian Science Writers Association (of which Strauss is, coincidentally, president) is launching a mentorship program which hooks up veteran bloggers with newbies looking for guidance and the afore-mentioned voice.  (No details on the website yet, but I’m sure it’s Coming Soon.)

Strauss and Witten both called science and health writing the business of “knowledge translation”.  And one of the best ways to get scientists and researchers — who, on the whole, are uncommonly cooperative interview sources — to express their findings and ideas in a way that a lay audience (not to mention a journalist) can grasp, is to ask for metaphors.  “Some researchers are really flummoxed by having to couch their work in plain language, but you can coax it out of them by paraphrasing the concept back to them and asking if you have it correct,” said Strauss.  (My own frame of reference:  listen to Bob McDonald interview researchers on the CBC radio show, Quirks and Quarks.  He’s the master of paraphrase.)

Take-home message from the evening:  a good fit for me, and a direction worth further exploration because there’s the actual prospect of paying markets out there.  Now I just have to find 30 seconds of down-time in which to ponder the perfect query.  Which might just be the most unrealistic thing I’ve said in this whole post.

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