How to Diagram a Great Science Story
Consider this paragraph from “The Tree Coroners,” a story by Cally Carswell at High Country News — one that received awards from both the National Association of Science Writers and the Society of Environmental Journalists.
She’s writing about experiments on dead and dying conifers across the West:
On the mesa in mid-August, McDowell pried open an acrylic cylinder enclosing a diminutive, maybe 6-foot-tall juniper, and invited me to wedge myself inside. The tree was alive, but had the scrappy look of Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree. A fan roared on and off. The air was warm, the experience claustrophobic. After a minute or two, I showed myself out.
That comes mid-way through the piece — a sudden, unexpected jump to first person. It shouldn’t work, but it does.
“Because her personal exploration of the issue of tree mortality really is part of the overall story,” writes Tom Yulsman, a veteran environmental writer and associate professor at the University of Colorado School of Journalism and Mass Communication. “If Carswell had kept herself out, she would have been misleading us into thinking that her ideas, her perspectives, and her experiences speaking with these sources, and hiking these forests, were mostly not significant. Clearly they are, so first person seems right in this piece.”
For science writers looking for such thoughtful analysis, it permeates the inaugural Storygram at The Open Notebook, where Yulsman meticulously dissects — and admires — Carswell’s story, introducing what will be a series of “deeply annotated versions of award-winning science stories” intended for students, young journalists, and even those who know it all — or think they do.
In an email announcement last week, Siri Carpenter, The Open Notebook’s editor-in-chief, said Storygrams are a joint project of The Open Notebook and the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. They are supported in part by a grant to CASW from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.
The approach is reminiscent of the Nieman Storyboard, particularly its Annotation Tuesday feature, but Storygrams will be devoted exclusively to science stories that have won major awards.
“People are welcome to flag stories that they admire — they can email me (editors@theopennotebook),” Carpenter said in an email. And “Shannon Hall, the project manager for the CASW Showcase project, is assembling a list of candidate stories that we’ll draw from in considering possibilities.”
The CASW will also be displaying the annotated stories at its forthcoming Showcase site, which will also republish other award-winning stories. “There is no other centralized source for award-winning science journalism, and we think this will be particularly useful for early career journalists as well as scientists and other professionals trying to make the switch to science writing,” said Betsy Mason, a CASW board member involved in the project.
And here’s a pleasant surprise: This is not a pro-bono project. Rosalind Reid, executive director of CASW, said the organization has raised approximately $44,000 to enable publication of at least 18 professionally produced Storygrams over the next three years.
Michael, thank you for your comment. As you say, there are many good ways to tell any given story, and I hope looking behind the curtain of one successful way doesn’t suggest otherwise. It’s also vital (for anyone in any creative profession) to understand that great works don’t emerge fully formed, but are the result of endless revision, and of a willingness to start out with something bad. It’s a brave writer who shares early drafts of stories–though some writers have done so in interviews at The Open Notebook. They have my gratitude and admiration. I think you wouldn’t be the only one who would enjoy an annotation of a story-in-development. Maybe that’s something we can do sometime.
What would be even MORE useful are storygrams/annotations of drafts at each stage, so that writers can learn how the “winning” structure emerges. We wouldn’t indulge the fantasy that scientists know what they’re going to discover when they begin research, and we shouldn’t indulge it in science writing, either. So much of the discussion of structure in writing begins and ends with finished form, as if the effects on readers could be achieved by that structure and only that structure. Which is arguably not true: different structures can produce similar effects. Additionally, a published form is also not necessarily its final, best form. It’s sort of a Whig literary criticism.