Writing Without a Net. Or a Wordcount. Or an Audience.

If you’re writing a freelance piece without a wordcount, how do you know when to stop?

(Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Cynthia Graber, an award-winning print and radio reporter, current Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT and author of “Electric Shock,” the December 2012 feature on Matter, the new online outlet for long-form science journalism.)

Matt Shipman, the regular writer here, asked me to recount what’s involved in writing a long, narrative story that has no definite word count. When I began my most recent article, I not only had no word count, I didn’t even have an audience.

Last year, I decided to do something unusual – some would even say crazy. (Author David Dobbs teasingly made a “you’re nuts” gesture at me from the podium at a National Association for Science Writers meeting upon hearing this tale.) I decided to undertake what I called “giving myself a mini fellowship” – and write a story that wouldn’t let me go.

In 2009, I’d covered regenerative medicine in Boston for the Boston Globe Sunday magazine. One of my sources pointed me to Michael Levin, head of the Tufts Center for Regenerative and Developmental Biology. I immediately knew his work merited more than the two paragraphs that it would claim in my story.

Every so often I touched base with editors, but I found it difficult to convince them that his work was as impressive/significant as I knew it was. Finally, I decided that I had to head out and report and write the piece. Without knowing if it would ever find a home.

Cynthia Graber

Somehow Levin trusted me when I said that I knew I’d be able to sell it, and he let me claim hours upon hours of his packed and excruciatingly-planned schedule. He gave me nearly unfettered access to the lab, his post-docs and researchers, and his collaborators.

I had already done plenty of research, interviewing many other scientists in his field to ensure that his approach and findings were as significant as I suspected. Any time Levin mentioned a book, I had the local library order it for me. This story also stretches back in history to the 1700s and involves science that inspired the creation of “Frankenstein,” so I conducted extensive historical research as well. (This was one of the most difficult aspects for me, as I’d never tried to corral the details of history before.)

And then I set about trying to make sense of hours upon hours of interviews with scads of sources, books strewn about my apartment, scientific papers. I didn’t have the benefit of knowing the tone of the intended magazine. I was determined to create a personal, compelling, exciting story about basic research. And I knew I was setting myself quite a challenge.

While working, I frequently leapt up, muttering, “I can’t do this.” Then I would force myself to return to the chair, to the computer, and press on. It was intimidating and, frankly, at times overwhelming. I needed to weave together the narrative of the history, of his life, of the research. I needed to nail the science. I needed to make it understandable to a general audience and compelling enough that they’d keep reading.

I organized it into what I saw as chapters or mini sections. I played with what should go into each section, and I moved things around. (These chapters underwent dramatic reorganization during the editing process.) I felt like I could write forever, and I knew there was always more I wanted to include. The items that were left out will, I hope, turn into one or more additional stories. But it became clear to me that, while I wasn’t limited by a specific word count, the piece still wasn’t a book. It had to have a narrower focus.

Ultimately, I submitted a 9,000-word version of the story to the new online science magazine Matter, which produces one narrative e-single each month for $.99. They eventually accepted it and assigned Seth Mnookin to work on the piece as my editor. The piece at one point ballooned to 10,000 words, but through Seth’s fantastically expert editing and the final cuts from the Matter editors/publishers, the story came out at around 6,000 words. (Some of the history I’d love to include got cut, as did some of the science and stories of other researchers, but I hope and expect these may end up in other articles.)

The process was intense – and rewarding. Seth wrote a blog-post about working with Matter (and with me) and about his hopes for Matter’s success.

Overall, in tackling something of this scope (I haven’t yet tackled a book and so can only compare it to shorter magazine stories), I needed exponentially more information than I would for a story half its length. It was even more difficult to shape. But I appreciated not having to cram it into a format that would potentially have eliminated much of the history, the personal angles, the science. Much of what (I hope) makes this piece compelling.

(Editor’s note: An excerpt of “Electric Shock” was featured on TheAtlantic.com. The full article is available on Matter or at Amazon.)

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