Writing Tips And Cadaver Stories With Mary Roach

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that sounds like a great job
that sounds like a great job

You, too, can write about PubMed articles for money!

Intrepid Bwogger Ross Chapman ventured to writer Mary Roach’s lecture at CU for a night of debauchery, drinking, and dirty secrets about the Department of Defense. Read on for the less-dramatized details.

“Turns out, diarrhea can be a threat to national security.”

Dodge 501 was filled to the brim with (mostly wine-drinking) students last night for another round of the School of Arts’ Nonfiction Dialogues as pop science writer Mary Roach came onto campus. Roach, whose titles include Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers and Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, writes with a “hybrid form” of scientific exploration and personal humor. A psych major who graduated with no discernible skills, she worked her way up from copy editing to pursuing her own interests for books. She talked about her experiences writing and working on her new book (about soldiers and warfare) and took questions from aspiring authors and scientists, packing plenty of writing tips into the hour.

Roach focuses on human interest, humor, and a bit of an ick factor. The quote at the top of the article comes from her research into military solutions to diarrhea, because the Department of Defense has a ton of money to spend. In her talk, she stressed writing about the relationships between figures in science. Far from a sterile narrator, she writes in the first person and considers herself a character, especially when it comes to the grosser science. The first person allows her to level with the reader. This is weird for me too,” she would say, peering along with the reader at disembodied heads. “Let’s go through this together.” She was as funny in person as she seems to be in her books, and accommodated every question, even the ones she couldn’t very expertly answer, until every audience member had their say.

Here are some writing tips gleaned from Roach’s talk and students’ questions:

  • You might not be an expert on the subject you’re writing about, especially in the field of journalism. Your job is not to know everything – it’s to know enough about the science (or other source material) to tell your story.
  • Don’t worry too hard about going into uncomfortable or gross situations in your journalism. (For Stiff, Roach saw a lot of dead bodies). People underestimate their ability to handle things they don’t know, and their fear can be easily replaced by curiosity.
  • Book proposals are sales pitches. Your company might not care if you totally diverge from your book proposal as long as what you hand in is good.
  • When trying to get a hand on a difficult interview subject, Roach suggests being persistent. An initial “no,” she said, might not be an absolute no, but instead a “maybe,” and “I don’t know,” or an “I’m uncomfortable.” To achieve the subject’s comfortable and honest consent, you can send examples of previous work or offer to withhold direct quotes. When it comes down to it, most people like talking about their passions.
  • When writing about an informative topic (i.e. science), wrap the knowledge in narrative and humor. People like to learn on the inside, but might spurn it initially externally. Also, have people who aren’t experts read your material to make sure that it’s coherent and interesting to non-experts.
  • Take a day to soak in your notes before you start to write your piece. Your vast quantity of notes can be overwhelming, and leaving yourself an extra day to pore over them and just think can let your ideas develop a lot further.

Professional photo via Mary Roach’s website

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