Chemistry sucked, frankly, so I became a writer,” Jason Bittel stated at his presentation “Science Writing that Doesn’t Suck” at the Bowers Writers House on Thursday, Nov. 13.
Bittel currently writes for “Slate” magazine and “OnEarth” magazine. He earned a master’s in creative nonfiction from the University of Pittsburgh. Bittel began his presentation by asking how many people had heard of science writing. After very few audience members raised their hands, Bittel shared that, until he studied creative nonfiction, he also knew very little about science writing. He also said that he became interested in science at a young age. “Maybe you weren’t like me,” he explained. “Maybe you weren’t poking dead things with a stick when you were little.”
The true goal of the science writer is to act as a liaison between scientists and individuals whose understanding of science is limited. Bittel added that science writing is more available than ever thanks to the Internet. He used Twitter as an example of how much science information can be found on a site originally designed for social networking. Bittel added that Bill Nye and many other scientists use Twitter. One way he gets his information out to the public is through his weekly complaints via social media about the television show “The Walking Dead”. Bittel slipped out information about some of his writing through this.
Bittel diligently researches a topic in order to find relevant information. Recently, he conducted a one and an half-hour interview with a scientist who studies starfish. In preparing the interview, the advice Bittel gave on this point was: “you need to ask stupid questions.” He stressed the importance of making the interviewee aware of your interest in the topic. By asking many “stupid” questions, a writer will be able to get the information readers with little prior knowledge will want. People will often leave comments under blogs or articles, in particular on points they did not understand. Bittel stated that commenting can tear and article apart and can show where more research needs to be done.
Bittel encouraged the students in the audience to say “yes” to different jobs and opportunities, no matter how unenjoyable or uncommon they may seem. This idea was inspired when Bittel was told, “if you’re going to be a writer, you should be able to write about anything.” From this statement he decided to begin writing for a fashion magazine. He later became the editor of the magazine. This job, although not Bittel’s favorite, led him to working in advertising for three years and finally to writing for “Slate.” Bittel believed that if he had not taken the other two jobs he did not want, he would not have been able to secure the ability to work as a freelancer successfully, which he now loves.
“You need to market yourself … I’m in here because I was willing to put myself out there,” Bittel said. He pointed this out as the key to succeeding not only in writing but also in most other professions. Bittel explained that he approached many editors, met them at conferences and made himself stand out. In one instance of standing out, Bittel paid a designer to make him a poster for an editor coming to discuss her website. The poster included the name of Bittel’s website and an invitation to get tacos with him afterwards. Although the editor did not take him up on the tacos, she did feature Bittel’s website multiple times. “I’ve done this a couple times. It doesn’t always work out,” Bittel stated.
One fact Bittel shared was that many great science writers have degrees in science rather than writing. He also touched on his transition from writing factual information for science papers to writing articles that would appeal to the masses. Bittel admitted that he researches too much and he always shares less information than he found. “You have to be able to know when you should stop,” he said. Bittel told the audience to picture the moment they see someone’s eyes glaze over. If the writer can see that happening, it is time to funnel out from the in-depth information.
Bittel will hold a reading from his “Slate” article on Thursday, Nov. 14 at 8 p.m. at Bowers Writers House. He will be the last featured speaker at Bowers for this semester. Readers can also check out more of his writing at his website bittelmethis.com.