“Relaying science to the public is important, but difficult,” said The New York Times senior opinion page Editor James Ryerson. “It’s not a question of learning to write better, it’s really more of a conceptual problem—trying to tell the story to an audience and explain why it’s interesting and important.”
With this in mind, Ryerson has teamed up with Northeastern University professors Lisa Feldman Barrett and David DeSteno to create a series of science writing workshops that are aimed at helping researchers better communicate their craft, and increase their chances of placing opinion pieces in high-level publications.
Through a grant from The John Templeton Foundation, Ryerson, Barrett, and DeSteno will hold three writing workshops for scholars. The first workshop will take place at Northeastern University this spring, followed by workshops at New York University and Northwestern University. Each session will help researchers perfect the pitch process—from idea generation, to the all important pitch, to developing the story, to the fine art of working with an editor. The ultimate goal of the workshop is to give researchers the tools they need to increase their chances of successfully placing pieces in major media outlets.
“Effective science writing of any sort requires theory of mind. A good writer must anticipate what readers know (and don’t know), and more importantly, what they will care about. Even if you are writing on a topic that is not inherently interesting, your job as a writer is to make the reader care, to cultivate their sentiment,” said Barrett, who has been writing pieces for Ryerson at The Times since 2014. “James is a master at unearthing your most effective, engaging narratives. His editorial guidance is always an education, and the results are immensely satisfying.”
Ryerson, who will lead the workshops, says these sessions will help scientists think about their research and communicate it in meaningful and impactful ways that will appeal to the general public. “It’s not so much the jargon and specialization that gets in the way, it’s more that people have been working on an issue for so long, they are not as in touch with what is going to be interesting to other people. Usually it’s something that they think is so obvious, they didn’t mention it.”
Researchers attending these workshops will not necessarily be shown how to simplify their science—a common misconception by researchers pitching to editors. They will be shown how to tease through the details of their scientific work to identify an angle that will resonate with the public. That angle will then be crafted into a meaningful and well constructed pitch for editors. “Getting an editor to buy in to your idea is the first, essential step,” said DeSteno, who has written several pieces for Ryerson at the Times, as well as for other major outlets like The Atlantic, and Mother Jones. “Working with James Ryerson helped me immensely in this regard.”
The idea for the workshop came up organically while Barrett was working on the manuscript for her latest book, How emotions are made: The secret life of the brain (Houghton-Mifflin-Harcourt, 2017). During the review process, Ryerson, who was editing part of the book as a side project, and Barrett found themselves in an interesting back and forth discussion about how to best communicate unintuitive neuroscience ideas in an engaging way that did not overwhelm the reader with details. Barrett found this process very useful and though others might feel the same. “James is extraordinary as an editor. He is able to hold an entire narrative in his head, and then make surgically precise edits that help to guide the reader to the exact spot where they can easily and effortlessly follow you along the path of your narrative. He is also able to explain the architecture of particular edits so that you become a better writer, simply because he has edited your work.”
Through this experience and Ryerson’s interactions with DeSteno, the three began to develop the workshop. “I never found myself in a situation of teaching academics to write for a popular audience,” said Ryerson, “I had done this with journalists, but never thought about going through this process with scientists and philosophers.”
“Spending time with a seasoned editor like Ryerson will allow the workshop participants to quickly hone their craft. We’ll be doing real-time pitching and real-time editing with someone who knows the process like few others do,” said DeSteno.
The workshops will focus on research that falls under two topics: The Nature of the Human Person, Individually and Collectively, and Human Flourishing; and The Fundamental Structures, Constituents, and Laws of the Natural World. These two topics tend to generate the highest interest among the general public, and are more frequently covered by major media outlets. “The stories that I tend to publish—whether they are by physicists, social psychologist, biologists, sociologist, or anthropologist—the reason I publish them is because they pitch it, or I reach out to them,” said Ryerson. “But if I look at what’s interesting about these stories, they either tell you something about yourself, about people and how they work, or they tell you something about the world. For stories about science to work journalistically, they have to tell you something about yourself or about the world we’re in.”
Ryerson, Barrett, and DeSteno hope participants will leave the workshop with the tools needed to better structure their writing for the public, effectively pitch and communicate with editors, and ultimately land an opinion piece. “Our goals, and those of our funders — which indirectly includes the taxpaying public – isn’t only to generate knowledge, but to help ensure that it can be used by others,” said DeSteno. “That means it’s incumbent on us not only to make our findings available, but also accessible to non-specialists.”