Reporters and bloggers write in a variety of styles for a variety of audiences, but one of the things that every blog post or news item needs to do is explain to readers why the writer is telling this story now. What’s the news hook?
Science stories are often reactive, meaning that the story was written in response to some external event that the writer had no control over – such as the publication of a journal article or a large-scale disaster (e.g., think of all the science-related stories that stemmed from the Fukushima Daiichi disaster).
But there is one tool that writers can use to be proactive about developing stories: the calendar.
Every season has its own topics of interest (hurricanes in late summer, leaf color in autumn, etc.), as do holidays (e.g., I think many of us have seen, or written, pieces about tryptophan and turkey around U.S. Thanksgiving).
Seasonal science stories can be mostly for fun or they can be mostly serious, but they all share one thing in common: they use the time of year as a news hook for sharing scientific information with people.
But how can you do this effectively?
I’ve done a few seasonal science posts over the years, so thought I’d pass on what I’ve learned. But I’m also still figuring this out myself, so would welcome input from anyone with ideas on how to do this better.
One of the keys to pulling together a good seasonal science story is to plan ahead. It’s one thing to know that winter is coming, and another to think about whether winter gives you an opportunity to write about specific scientific subjects, such as hibernation or how insects survive freezing temperatures. The same is true for holidays.
There are some holidays that almost everyone is aware of (e.g., Halloween), but there are a bunch that we often forget about until they are upon us (e.g., Arbor Day). It makes sense to go over a calendar every so often and see what holidays will be coming up in two or three months.
This gives you the opportunity to think about what science stories you could tell that are relevant to the upcoming season or holidays, and the time to do your homework on those stories before writing them. It’s possible to pull something together at the last moment, but slapdash stories will rarely be your best work.
Make It Relevant
The biggest challenge in writing seasonal science stories (in my opinion) is writing something in which the season and the science are both relevant. The science angle should seem natural, not forced.
I’m not going to use an actual example of a bad seasonal science story, so I’ll make one up. Here’s the premise of a forced seasonal science story: people often put stars on top of Christmas trees, so let’s talk about stars! Here’s another: at Hanukkah we remember the miracle of the oil not running out, so let’s talk about fossil fuels! (Yes, I know it was olive oil – it’s supposed to be a bad example.)
For example, science writer Dr. Rubidium (also known as analytical chemist Raychelle Burks) used the winter holiday season to write about the difference between “true” and “fake” cinnamon, as well as some of the chemistry involved. That’s not an obvious connection, but it makes sense. It doesn’t seem like someone trying to shoehorn science into a holiday story.
You also need to remember to lead your story with the season, not the science. The season is the news hook, you don’t have to jump straight into the science.
Sometimes the science is front and center, as with Eryn Brown’s 2012 story on engineering a “better” Christmas tree. But sometimes it takes a few paragraphs to get into the “science-y” part. And that’s okay. I think Melinda Wenner-Moyer did a nice job easing into the science in this 2013 story on kids and Halloween candy.
Again: don’t force it.
I know that timing the release of a blog post or news story is important, but it’s something I’m still trying to figure out. Is it better to put out that Christmas tree story a month before Christmas, in hopes that it will get picked up? Or is it better to wait until just before Christmas, when holiday hysteria has reached a fever pitch?
I usually fall into the “earlier is better” camp, but I don’t have any data to support that position. And this year I have a couple holiday posts that I’ll be rolling out on my “work” blog only a couple weeks before Christmas (and peak holiday hysteria). [Update, Dec. 5: the first holiday post just went up, answering the age-old question – “Will fruitcakes last forever?”]
I welcome your thoughts on the timing of seasonal science stories, as well as any examples of great blog posts or news articles that used a season or holiday as a news hook. So, please weigh in on the comments section!