How Science Journalist Ed Yong Helps Readers Make Sense of the World
“If you do it well, science writing trains you to grapple with uncertainty, to embrace nuance, to run toward complexity, to try hard to make sense of the world.”
New York Times An Immense World
EY: The ethos is always about trying to help people make sense of the world, and the other things that share that world. I think that can be achieved through a combination of lyrical writing and storytelling—which can get people interested in things they wouldn’t otherwise be interested in—and then the journalistic work of trying to dig deeper, provide context, point out things that don’t make sense, all of which works toward the same goal of showing people what the world is like. If you tell nuanced stories in a beautiful way, you can carry people along for the ride without it seeming like you’re trying too hard.
NC: 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!)
EY: 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.
NC: 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?
EY: 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?”
“I really feel that 99 percent of writing problems are actually structuring problems—or, in journalism, they may also be reporting problems.”
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.
NC: What advice do you have for hopeful science journalists and storytellers?
EY: 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.
NC: I also wonder if you have any advice for writers when it comes to attention, wide readership, and the pressures that can create—because you’ve gotten so much of it, especially in the last year with your award-winning pandemic coverage, and it’s so deserved, but I have to imagine at that scale it’s a little overwhelming at times. What has the response to your work meant to you, and how do you receive it and keep it all in perspective and continue focusing on the work you want to do?
EY: I’m glad you asked, because I’ve been thinking about this a lot. It’s a very nice thing, the attention—you know, we all want more people to read our work. It’s gratifying when more people respond to and engage with it. I do think it’s very easy to fall prey to extra attention. A lot of the systems around us are likely to push us toward unproductive habits.
So, let’s look at Twitter, a classic example: It would be very easy to set up a feedback loop where you write a thing, you get some attention online, and you try and seek out the attention rather than focusing on the work. I think that can be a difficult thing to resist. But I think we should resist it. When you get attention, people start judging your work for who they think you are, rather than the other way around—and if you get a lot of people kind of sycophantically telling you that your work is amazing because you’re a well-regarded person, you lose the feedback you actually need, which is praise when you do good work and being told you need to do better when you don’t. And then the work will suffer.
So I think my most important piece of advice is to guard and protect the integrity of the work above all else. Attention, prizes, acclaim cannot be the goal. And I know it’s hard to resist the social media vortex; I’ve scrolled with the best of them—of course you enjoy the positive emotions that come from people responding well to your work. But I think for me, as a journalist, I’m also just a little bit skeptical. The thing I find quite helpful is recognizing that, in the main, we in science and journalism are very bad at picking heroes.
“You can’t take what is already published in science literature as a given. You have to notice when things you’re reading don’t seem right, and try to find out why.”
I don’t think we live in a meritocracy. I have certainly seen my share of people who I don’t think are good people or producing good work getting lots of acclaim and attention, and I’ve also seen many people who are worthy and aren’t getting attention. And tons of factors go into that, including racism and sexism and a million other forms of discrimination and oppression and also randomness—there’s so much that has an impact on who breaks through and who doesn’t. Put all that together, and there’s no way to think that I got this attention because I’m personally so amazing. I’m proud of the work, but that’s because I think the work is good, not because of all the attention it’s gotten this year.
A lot of people get attention who don’t deserve it; a lot of people don’t get attention who do deserve it. I don’t know how you can acknowledge that fact without also recognizing that your responsibility is to try to boost everyone else who deserves it. If you happen to be the person who breaks through, part of your job is to help others do the same.
NC: Thank you for saying this, and being so committed to it—this is another reason I follow you and pay attention to whose work you recommend. Before we wrap up, will you talk a little about your next book? And how is the experience of working on it, compared to your first?
EY: The next book is An Immense World, and it’s about the sensory lives of other animals—dogs, birds, fish, rattlesnakes, manatees, ants and spiders, all of them experience the world in a very different way to us. They see things differently; they smell things differently; some of them have senses we don’t, like the ability to detect magnetic fields. This means that our human experience of the world is just a small sliver of the total experience that it is possible to have.
The book is about trying to get people to think about and appreciate what it is like to sense and experience the world in completely different ways, and I just find it immensely rewarding to work on. It’s been a delightful experience in stretching my writing muscles, synthesizing large amounts of information, using my imagination and my desire to write lyrically—at a time when it is clear that we so badly need to have more empathy with each other, it feels like a worthwhile thing to try to get people to empathize with all the other creatures around us. I think there’s something so wondrous and humbling about understanding that our subjective human experiences, which seem like the totality of our lives, are unique to us as a species and such a small part of the world around us. We can go on grand adventures just by thinking about how the puppy I’ve just got experiences the same walks that I go on.
NC: So getting a dog was research, not a distraction from your book at all!
EY: Typo is actually in the book! He gave me the perfect transition between two chapters, and I’d been struggling to find a good transition. So he has helped, in his own goofy way.