The Line Between Science and Writing

The freelance science writer on balancing fact and science with humor and creativity; the importance of persistence; and tapping into readers’ sense of wonder.

Jason Bittel is a freelance science writer whose articles have been published by Earth Touch, The Dodo, and Pittsburgh’s Maniac Magazine. A former recipient of National Geographic’s Young Explorer grant, he writes the Species Watch column for Earthwire and contributes to National Geographic, The Week, and Slate. Jason also serves up science for picky eaters on his website, Bittel Me This.

At the upcoming 2015 Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference, Jason will speak on several panels, including “How to Get Published” and “Platform Building & Self-promotion.” In anticipation of the conference, Creative Nonfiction’s Shannon Swearingen spoke with Jason about balancing fact and science with humor and creativity; the importance of persistence; and tapping into readers’ sense of wonder.

CNF: Most of your current writing for Slate and for Earthwire’s Species Watch column is science focused. Do you consider yourself a science journalist, a creative nonfiction writer, or both?

BITTEL: Let’s go with both! The fun thing about writing for a bunch of different outlets is that I get to do different takes and voices, exercise different muscles. On Slate and often at onEarth, I really focus on taking the science and packaging it in a way that is surprising—whether that’s the context, a dirty joke, or a pop culture reference. Forty other websites may have covered this topic by the time I get to it, so the creative part of creative nonfiction is crucial.

Why should someone take ten minutes to read about sturgeons? How do I make scale insects more worthy of your time than politics, sports, and celebrities? Every article is a battle against the reflex to click away to a million other things—fantasy football, Facebook, Game of Thrones fan theories—and the packaging is one weapon I use to (hopefully) win the battle.

At National Geographic, my role is a little more straight journalism—though this isn’t to say there are no opportunities for creativity. There’s a lot less I can get away with voice-wise over there, however, so I tend to try to find a way to report the story in a way other outlets haven’t thought of yet. That can mean bringing in a different kind of expert or finding some sort of context that’s off the beaten path. So again, the answer is both, but the ratio varies depending on the organization for which I’m writing that day.

CNF: What are the dividing lines between the two fields? How do the worlds of science and writing come together for you?

BITTEL: This is an important question right now. Our country is increasingly skeptical of science and scientists, even though we rely on scientific advances for literally every aspect of our lives. This makes good science writing all the more valuable. We need to persuade, but you can’t persuade if you don’t inform. And, I would argue, we stand the best chance of informing and persuading if we first entertain. I think it’s fine to pull out all the stops—pop culture references, puns, and even some sensationalizing—so long as it’s grounded in scientific evidence.

I’ve been criticized in the past for letting humor get in the way of meaning. Just give us the science, said the critic, keep the cleverness. But that’s a bunch of bullspit. If you want straight information, there are plenty of newspapers left to read. Or better yet, pick up a scientific journal. I read scientific papers every day; they’re the foundation upon which my craft is built, but I can tell you right now that you will not like the way they taste. They’re thick, they’re dry, and they’re full of words you will have to Google. That’s why I see it as my job to take all of those raw ingredients—facts, figures, and interviews—and turn them into something palatable. A spoonful of creative writing helps the science go down.

I’ve been criticized in the past for letting humor get in the way of meaning. Just give us the science, said the critic, keep the cleverness. But that’s a bunch of bullspit.

CNF: Your background is in the humanities. What sparked your interest in science? How did you come to write for publications such as National Geographic?

BITTEL: On the first day of my creative nonfiction MFA program at the University of Pittsburgh, Lee Gutkind told us we had to have a book idea, and we had to have it by next week. I had just gotten done with a season spent trapping and shooting wild boars for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and Lee seemed to think that was curious enough, so I started writing my MFA manuscript about it. At the time, I saw the project as a narrative about all the interesting things I did. But the more I wrote, and the more good nonfiction I read, I realized that the boars and bears were a lot more compelling than, well, me and my thoughts. I dove into research, both scientific and historical. I learned about trophic cascades, invasive species, and conservation ethics. And somewhere deep in those 200 pages, I crossed over. All I wanted to do was keep researching lichen and azalea blooms and cannibalistic fireflies.

Of course, most of us don’t walk out of an MFA and into a successful writing career. So I first took a job in advertising, and after I became thoroughly disgusted with my daily toil, I started a blog. (Nothing helps you hone in on what you really want to do like doing what you really don’t like to do.) As any good romantic would, I stayed up late into the night writing my masterpieces. And like any burgeoning writer, I caught a lot of flack for spending time on things that had seemingly no value. However, unlike most writers we learn about in school, I wasn’t interested in writing the great American novel. I was up at 4 a.m. writing about the two prongs of an opossum penis.

Nat Geo happened because of a little bit of luck and a lot of persistence. When I went to this very conference in 2008, Virginia Morell was one of the writers on a panel. Somewhere back in the Q&A session, she mentioned that young writers could (and should) apply for grants from the National Geographic Society. I took her advice, got a grant for my pig and bear research, and have been hassling them ever since. I appeared on one of their radio shows, and then followed the yarn for a few years just trying to find a way to get my foot in the door. Eventually, I pitched the right editor a story. He didn’t assign it—I had no national magazine experience, and Nat Geo is basically the science writer’s holy grail, after all—but he liked what he saw enough to pass me (and my blog and other online clips) along to the online editors. It was that simple: just six years of pestering!

CNF: How do you determine whether a piece you’re working on will be in the first or third person?

BITTEL: Usually the outlet determines that. For Nat Geo News, it’s always going to be third person. But for Slate, I could go either way. It really depends on what the story is and if I need to be in it. If I don’t, I try to resist the urge to insert myself, though I don’t think it’s necessary to remain absent at all costs. Readers are people, and I think they like their writers to be people, too. So long as they aren’t people they wouldn’t want to have a beer with.

CNF: What do you find appealing about writing in the first person?

BITTEL: As I write, I like putting in some of the reporting. Stories don’t just happen. Information doesn’t just fall out of the sky. So if you have to hike 20 miles to get a quote or stick a thermometer into an elk’s butt to get its temperature, I think it’s ok to admit that it’s you there doing those things. I hope to be writing in the first person more some day soon. 

CNF: Do you gravitate toward first-person narratives as a reader?

BITTEL: My wife and I had our first child almost a year ago, so my reading time has been severely limited, but I think the overall answer is yes. The book I’ve come closest to finishing since then is Octopus! by Katherine Harmon Courage. It’s an extremely in-depth story about everything we know and don’t know about the octopus, and Courage is very present in it. Could she have written it without being there at all? Sure. But I personally like knowing that she was actually puking over the rails of a fishing boat in Spain or the way octopus suckers felt in her mouth when eating them for the first time. I don’t think there’s anything journalistically lost because she allows herself to be a character in the story.

CNF: Are there elements of your articles that are universal, or do you write primarily for the science community? How do you make hard science palatable for a general readership?

BITTEL: Obviously, there’s an audience that will gravitate to my articles, but I really try with most of what I do to write for the universal. The hope is that something I write might get someone who’s not otherwise interested in science to spend fifteen minutes reading about bat sex and then think, hey, I’d like to read more of this kind of stuff. Think about a five-year-old—all of us start life being universally curious about the world around us. I think we lose that somewhere around seventh grade chemistry, when we’re tested on the ability to remember formulas and the names of old, dead white guys that will have no bearing on our daily life. I hope to tap into the reader’s inherent wonder, even if it’s been coaxed into dormancy since junior high.

All of us start life as being universally curious about the world around us… I hope to tap into the readers’ inherent wonder.

CNF: How do you make the personal universal? In other words, how do you get readers to care about your stories when they’re written in the first person?

BITTEL: Whether it’s first or third [person], getting readers to care is always the name of the game. I think the best way to do that is to help them access the material, and sometimes a first person point of view can really aid that process. Science can be touchy. You don’t want people to think they’re dumb for not knowing something. I read and write about animals every day, but I’m still learning every day, too, so I try to bring readers into that process. You didn’t know that a male dog’s penis inflates like a balloon once inside the female, locking the two together for upwards of an hour? Yeah. Me, neither. Until now!

CNF: To what extent do you incorporate research into your first-person narratives? What kinds of research do you tend to use?

BITTEL: Always! I don’t have a background in science, just curiosity, so I rely on experts and the literature to fill in those gaps. Field studies, scientific journals, and anecdotes from scientists and other experts.

CNF: Which process do you enjoy more: the research or the writing?

BITTEL: The research, hands down. I love research, and would gladly spend three times as long researching if it was financially feasible. For one, everything’s just so interesting, and there are so many rabbit holes to go down. And two, I hate writing. Though, as Dorothy Parker said, I love having written.

CNF: How do you finally make yourself sit down and write when you would rather be researching?

BITTEL: Ha. Well. Deadlines help. And there is a point where you can reach critical mass. That is, you find so much good stuff that you start to forget/lose track of other good stuff. Not to mention, researching while I write is one of the best forms of procrastination.

CNF: Your articles have a humorous bent. How do you balance fact and fun in your writing?

BITTEL: Be as funny or lighthearted or sarcastic as you can get away with, but not a touch more. If it gets in the way of the information, then you have a problem. I’ve written paragraphs a hundred ways trying to arrive at a particular joke, reference, or turn of phrase. Sometimes, you have to accept that it just doesn’t work and move on. The gimmick or technique or whatever you want to call it should be in service to the information. The second it starts to obfuscate the story, you’ve got to give it up.

Be as funny or lighthearted or sarcastic as you can get away with, but not a touch more.

CNF: What role does social media play in your career as a writer?

BITTEL: More every day. Aside from it being an excellent way to find information, learn about news, and share your own work, social media is the ultimate networking tool. I’ve found scientists for stories on Twitter, pitched and been pitched stories on Twitter, learned about editors looking for writers on Twitter. It’s also where our tribe congregates—which is nice since I work from home and my only co-worker is a one-year-old. It’s funny how you get to know people online that you don’t really know. But then you meet them at a conference or a press trip and it’s like you’re old friends. The internet is weird and wonderful.

CNF: How do you handle rejection?

BITTEL: Daily, and with intermittent teenager rage and zen-like whateverness. Ha. I mean, there are some stories or projects I’m really excited about and I get frustrated when other [people] aren’t [as excited]. But freelance writing is like fishing. When you go fishing, do you catch all the fish? If you take every rejection personally, you’ll have no one to write for and nothing to write about. Writing is a business. If you want it to be your business, just accept that rejection is part of it, and do your best to learn from it. What sorts of stories does an editor say yes to? Could you have presented the idea better? Are you pitching the wrong outlet? Oh, and personal relationships—such as they are on the internet—go a long way. Be nice to people. Don’t be a snot. Don’t waste people’s time. Turn in clean copy, and turn it in on time. Make an editor’s job easy for them and they’ll remember you for it.

CNF: What’s the biggest mistake you made as a writer? If you could go back to the start of your career, what advice would you give yourself?

BITTEL: I feel like the answer to these is the same. “Start sooner.” I waited a long time before trying to pitch stories because I felt like I wasn’t ready, and ok, maybe I wasn’t. But what I wish I’d known then is that it’s perfectly ok to pitch and get rejected. In fact, it’s the best way to get accepted. Get a good idea and hone it, but don’t sit on it for too long. Zero in on the right publication and then the right editor within that publication and make contact. The worst that can happen is they don’t like your idea, but at least you’ll start building rapport and probably start learning about what kinds of stories they do want. Stop looking at everything with such finality. The journey doesn’t end with a no, or even a yes. Because there’s always another story.

About the Author

Shannon Swearingen

Shannon Swearingen is a former editorial assistant at Creative Nonfiction. While studying creative writing at the University of Evansville, she spent a semester abroad at Harlaxton College near London, England; after graduating, she spent five weeks traveling the United States in a Jeep Liberty.

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