Once a digger, always a digger: Or, how I learned to stop researching and love deadlines

by Timothy Oleson
Friday, November 15, 2013

┬ęCallan Bentley, 2013

Editor's Note: Traditionally, EARTH has published a "highlights" or "year in review" issue at the end of the year. This year, we decided to try a new approach: We asked our staff and some frequent contributors to write a short commentary on something that grabbed their attention in 2013. We gave everyone carte blanche. What follows is a collection of extremely varied, often very personal insights into how the planet impacted each individual. You can find some online this month, but for the full grouping, you'll have to buy the issue here or subscribe.

The balance between breadth and depth strongly influenced my transition from science to science writing, as I’m sure it has for many researchers who have taken up writing, whether full- or part-time. For most, a research career naturally tips the balance toward a depth of knowledge in given disciplines and subdisciplines. Science writers, on the other hand, though they often cultivate specializations and nuanced understandings in their own right, tend to be generalists on some level. They cover a broad range of topics and, with a little luck, are able to pursue a variety of intellectual curiosities.

After more than six years in the lab studying interactions between mineral surfaces and biological membranes, it was this opportunity to expand my horizons, as I saw it, that drew me to writing and journalism. And, indeed, even in my brief science writing career (I’ve been at EARTH for going on two years), I’ve had the pleasure of researching and writing about an array of topics in the geosciences involving recent research, scientific history and issues at the intersection of science and society.

But with every story I write, and particularly with feature-length stories that demand a greater degree of depth and synthesis, I’m reminded that the urge to dig ever deeper into a fascinating subject or question never really goes away. The four features I wrote this past year brought me into touch with researchers uncovering historical records to illuminate modern science (June); scientists finding innovative uses for drones (July); field camp directors espousing the continued importance of the experience for young geoscientists in a time of fiscal cutbacks (August); and engineers applying game theory — formerly the domain only of economists and sociologists — to offer new perspectives on the longstanding conflict over the Caspian Sea’s natural resources (November).

In each case, my own research into these captivating topics could have gone on almost without end. Questions invariably beget additional questions, each of which begs its own further inquiry. Studies lead you to seek out those they cite or upon which they were based. Data, statistics and values of uncertain origin direct you to track down their sources. And so on.

In science writing, the information and viewpoints gathered may come mostly from print and online sources already in the ether, or from the minds of scientists, instead of directly from rocks, test tubes, instruments or models, but the process of researching a story parallels that of basic scientific research (albeit on an accelerated timescale). And, as in science, where far more data are collected than can ever be presented, researching a story usually results in collecting far more information than can be incorporated into the final product.

Limitations of space — features in EARTH are typically about 2,500 to 3,500 words (though our generous editors will sometimes forgive a few more) — mean that every relevant example, anecdote and illustrative detail simply cannot be included. Sorting through and culling information from a story is challenging and occasionally frustrating for a writer who wants to share every morsel unearthed in his or her research. For example, I unfortunately couldn’t relay many of the colorful stories I heard while researching my August feature on geology field camps, and, of course, the few camps detailed represent only a fraction of the dozens that operate. Similarly, the cases of drones being used for research highlighted in the July issue are but a few among many. And that story overlooks other interesting, if slightly tangential, examples of drones' development and usefulness, in science journalism, for example.

Also challenging (yet helpful) for the digger-cum-science writer is the limitation of time: Deadlines await and the next assignment always lies ahead, meaning one’s own research must be cut off at some point in order to write, edit and finalize a story. Putting down the shovel and picking up the pen (or, rather, the keyboard) always proves difficult. It leaves me wanting more, as well as wondering what details I’ve missed and whether I’ve grasped a subject well enough myself to relay it coherently and compellingly to our audience.

In the end, it’s best to keep in mind that no one article or book can tell a truly complete story. Certain details will be left out and questions unanswered, and it’s up to readers to judge the successes and failures of each piece. As a writer, I just hope that my articles, and all of those appearing in EARTH, pique your interest enough to learn more about the topics covered. And for me, each time I stop delving into one subject, I’m quickly reminded of why I got into science writing in the first place: I get to pick up my shovel and start digging all over again into the next fascinating topic.\

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