Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Q&A with writer Thomas Hayden

Thomas Hayden
Thomas Hayden, who has worked for Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report, is the co-editor of the new book The Science Writers' Handbook: Everything You Need to Pitch, Publish, and Prosper in the Digital Age. He is also the co-author of On Call in Hell: A Doctor's Iraq  War Story, and Sex and War: How Biology Explains Warfare and Terrorism and Offers a Path to a Safer World. He teaches at Stanford University.

Q: What's the story behind The Science Writers' Handbook, and how is it especially helpful in today's market?

A: The Science Writers’ Handbook grew out of the longest, most circuitous, most fascinating conversation I’ve ever been part of. For nearly eight years, an informal online group of 30-plus freelance science writers have been sharing strategies, celebrating successes and commiserating about frustrations in the field. 

We call ourselves SciLance (science freelancer – get it?), and a few years ago we realized that we’d confronted most every problem a science writer could run into, and solved a fair number of them – not least by finding mutual support within the group. 

Sharing our collective insights seemed like the natural next step, and that’s what The Science Writers’ Handbook is, essentially – a collected and codified version of our tribal wisdom. It’s a “how to” guide for writing about science for the public, but also a “why to,” and even a “how not to go broke or crazy while trying to” guide, too.

We focused in the title on our shared passion for writing about science. But the book could just as honestly been called “The Freelance Writers’ Handbook.” We all have been, or currently are freelance writers. And the lessons we’ve learned – about the craft of nonfiction writing, certainly, but also about the business side of freelancing, and even the social and emotional effects of working for oneself in an often-solitary craft – apply to freelancers in any field.

More people are working as freelancers than ever before, and interest in science writing is absolutely exploding. We wrote the book to help current and future colleagues, writing students, scientists with a passion for communicating with the public and anyone else interested in science writing to achieve their goals without having to go through quite as much heartache and angst on the way as we all did.

Q: What is your advice when it comes to pitching a science story to an editor?

A: Be firm in your pitch, but flexible in the follow up. With the exception of the hardcore science press – the news sections of academic journals, for example – most publications think of science stories as optional coverage. That means you’ll often do better with a feature pitch than a news pitch. 

When you first approach an editor with a science story idea, you’re really showing her how you think, and how well you can refine a broad area of research into a specific story, with characters, plot, some sort of narrative arc and crucially, a sense of how the science will be relevant to the publication’s readers. You need to have a well-defined, well-developed idea to do that. 

Sometimes, success means getting to do the story you pitch. But for first-timers especially, success just as often means coming up with a new take, or entirely new story idea, in collaboration with an editor who simply likes the way you think, but wants you to think about something else entirely.

Q: You're also the co-author of On Call In Hell. How did you end up working with Cdr. Richard Jadick on the book?

A: That was a project of opportunity, though one that I was very passionate about. I had recently gone freelance, after working as a staffer first at Newsweek, then at US News & World Report. A former colleague from Newsweek had unearthed the story at the heart of the book – the heroic efforts of Navy medical personnel to keep Marines alive during the second battle of Fallujah, in 2004 – and encouraged my eventual co-author to share his experiences as their leader. She introduced me to Jadick, and he enlisted my help to report and write the book.

It isn’t science writing per se, but like many science journalists I’m a writer first – I just happen to be passionate about science, too. The human drama of the story is front and center, though the science of battlefield medicine plays an important role, too.

Q: In your book Sex and War, you and your co-author, Malcolm Potts, write that "empowering women reduces the risk of violent conflict." What led you to that conclusion, and what steps should be taken, in your opinion, to move in that direction?

A: It’s a conclusion I resisted at first -- until I’d spent several years excavating and examining the evidence from history, biology, anthropology and more. Simply put, human males are responsible for the great majority of violent conflict through time and across cultures and developmental stages. 

There are very good evolutionary reasons why this would be so, but at the same time, we live in what is probably the least violent era of human history. It’s hard to get your head around that fact, but it’s true – despite our wars and crime, despite our technology of destruction, an individual’s chance of dying through violent conflict today is almost certainly lower than at any previous time in human history. 

There are several mechanisms that explain this, including the development of ethical and moral codes against killing civilians, and the expansion of “in groups” to include larger and larger swaths of humanity. For every mechanism we examined though, the relative political power of women was directly linked to lower rates of violent conflict and violent deaths.

This is very obviously, very brutally, still not the prevailing situation in many areas of the world, including such central African countries as The Democratic Republic of Congo, and in Afghanistan, the tribal regions of Pakistan, and elsewhere.   

The two key steps to encourage more empowerment of women are protection first, and education second. Simultaneously, really. These same regions of the world are desperate for human capital, and women very often posses the courage and vision to become agents of peaceful development, against great odds. But that can’t be achieved without a baseline level of education and security.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: The topic is still under wraps, but my next book will be a collaboration with my father [Michael Hayden], a historian and author. We share a passion for understanding human nature, from distinct perspectives. We’re working on blending our historical, scientific and experiential perspectives to, you know, solve all the world’s problems. Or at least tell some engaging yarns.

In the meantime, most of my writing passion is focused on The Last Word on Nothing, a group science blog I contribute to with a dozen other writers, including my wife, Erika Check Hayden.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: The conversations that started The Science Writers’ Handbook are still going strong. Only they’re not just for SciLancers anymore. We’ve started a webpage, at pitchpublishprosper.com, where we’re discussing the craft, commerce and community of science writing every day. Come on and join the conversation!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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