By Martin Wall, STC Carolina member
Cat Warren is a professor at North Carolina State University, where she teaches a graduate course in science writing, and undergraduate courses in creative nonfiction, reporting, and editing in the Department of English. She is the author of The New York Times bestseller, What the Dog Knows: Scent, Science, and the Amazing Ways Dogs Perceive the World, which was long listed for the 2014 PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award. She is currently working on a young readers’ version of What the Dog Knows for Simon & Schuster Children’s division.
MW: How do you feel that your background in newspaper reporting has shaped you and your writing style?
CW: I spent 8 years working as a reporter, and this did a few things for me. Working as a reporter is a very good way to keep your mind on who your audience is. You cannot assume that your audience is only the general public; you need to become very aware of who they are. You also learn to write on a deadline, which has been a big advantage to me. Writing can be painful sometimes, but working as a daily journalist benefitted me because it made me non-defensive about my prose. It made me get acclimated to being edited. Reporting also made me realize that you have to ask: How can I write this so that someone who is not familiar with the science behind the story can learn something from it, and hopefully enjoy it! You want to make sure that they are picking up something new in a non-painful way. It is also important to not be condescending, even if the person reading your story does not know some of the information that you do. Remember to speak to them from one intelligent adult to another! We as human beings can be isolated from people outside of our organization or career sometimes and often build specialty “silos” that make it hard to understand the other perspectives that different people offer. In the words of David Quammen at The New Science Journalists, “You’re always adjusting the dials to be accurate without being too precise. If you leave all the qualifications in, you can kill the writing.”
MW: You gave a workshop entitled, “How to publish nonfiction targeted to a broad audience.” What wisdom can you offer to writers who want to get their nonfiction published and/or widely read?
CW: Writing non-fiction for a general audience poses the challenge of having a consistent story. Academics sometimes underestimate how difficult that can be! You must take the reader and move them through an ongoing story of some kind. I’m slowly working on a new book project that details the challenges of urban farming and there is not a central character or a “wow” factor there yet. I need to find the people out there who can make it personal. The reader needs be taken on an odyssey if you want them to stay interested. There’s nothing wrong with having a “Big Idea” in your books, but they cannot be a collection of essays. Your writing must have “narrative thrust” in a way that will make the readers want to keep turning the page. It isn’t as if we are delivering medicine to them; they don’t have to read it if they don’t want to!
MW: What is your experience with Technical Communication at NC State?
CW: It was a little bit of serendipity. The reason that I was hired in 1995 was because I had a mash-up of journalism experience and experience about health and medicine (my dissertation was on medical institutions), as well as writing about the environment. I did not have a science background at the time. One of the first things that I did upon starting at NC State was to create a science writing class. We’re at a point today where science writing is more important than ever due to the challenges that our world faces. I feel that NC State is developing communication across the disciplines on this, with the creation of a Public Science cluster.
MW: We live in a time where fact-checking has become an industry all on its own. How should students verify the sources that they are interviewing or the data that they are collecting in science writing?
CW: This is a perennial problem. For the most part, it’s a self-correcting problem, as long as students or science writers have the time to broadly educate themselves on what they are writing about. The way to avoid being fooled is to take time to read about the topic and to talk with various sources. We are teaching critical thinking, not skepticism. Most of the bigger problems come from being rushed or indifferent. If you have enough time, you will be able to translate what you are getting across. Are you seeing something that undermines what you are taking for granted? The world is mostly shades of gray, but if you are seeing something as black and white, then you may have missed something!