Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to attend the Writer to Writer event, so instead I listened to a recording from the Sweetland site. The speaker I chose is Dr. Howard Markel, a pediatrician, writer, and medical historian who teaches here at the University of Michigan. He’s written and co-authored several books about medicine, and has contributed articles and opinions to a variety of publications. Most recently, he published a book about the Kellogg brothers.
Markel’s description jumped out to me because science writing (and scientific writing) are important to me. Not only do I need to be able to write about science to pursue a PhD in a technical field, but I’m interested in learning how to better communicate science to the public. Also, many other STEM majors I know “hate” writing, so I love hearing from other scientists who value writing as much as I do.
I found Markel’s comments on audience particularly interesting. Markel mostly writes for NPR listeners and NYT readers, a generally well-educated crowd, so he said he can comfortably use a certain level of vocabulary. This made me wonder whether it’s “okay” for a writer, particularly someone writing about more niche, technical topics, to assume their writers have a certain level of education. Doesn’t that automatically make what the writer has to say inaccessible, or is the source (NPR, NYT) already inaccessible enough that the writer’s efforts won’t matter? Especially in the context of science writing, I think making information accessible is important, since scientific knowledge is often badly communicated to (or withheld from) the public.
Markel’s audience (I’ll just call them NPR listeners) was also present at the Moth showing. I remember feeling very inspired by the Moth show, but also sad that the crowd was so homogenous — I’m pretty confident that the majority of Moth listeners are white, liberal, and middle- to upper-class. After that event, I started wondering to what degree a writer, podcast host, storyteller, etc should tailor their work to a specific audience, particularly if that audience already receives criticism for being elitist and exclusive.
In addition to making me think about audience, Markel’s talk sparked some interesting dialogue about what makes science writing effective. He mentioned that to be a good narrator, a science writer should insert themselves into the story, but not so much that they become the main character. Markel said he feels that science writing is becoming too author-centic, although in his opinion, younger generations seem to prefer that type of science writing. I think inserting oneself into a science story can help to humanize the topic (as in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks), but actually, one of the best science articles I’ve ever read puts the spotlight on people affected by the topic, not on the author.