Welcome to the final installment of my interview with author and scientist Caroline Hatton, where we’ll learn more secrets about her sources and explore personal aspects of her life as well.
Let’s revisit that somewhat hair-raising interview you did with Steve Elliott, the scientist who invented NESP, a blood-boosting drug for kidney patients and for cancer patient undergoing chemotherapy. Elliott is also a Scientific Executive Director at Amgen therapeutics company.
Q: For your Night Olympic Team article and book, how did you ultimately manage to weave Steve’s human-interest story with the science side of things for your Night Olympic Team article and book?
A: Steve served the opening image to me on a silver platter. He told me about himself as a third-grader, a budding scientist who didn’t covet model airplanes but vials of chemicals from the hobby shop window, wondering how to make something blow up.
• After getting that fortunate lead, I was able to unfold Steve’s story in chronological order, including personal and scientific milestones. While re-reading it, I highlighted the science words (e.g., DNA) or concepts as they arose, then inserted explanations nearby in the text.
Note to readers: read more about this at Caroline Hatton’s own blog http://www.stemcareers.blogspot.com; the permalink to that particular post is http://stemcareers.blogspot.com/2011/01/guess-who-this-kid-grew-up-to-be-in-my.html.
Q: Caroline, can you expand on how to work with important research resources, such as experts?
A: Experts are a precious source that can help take your writing, your message, your contribution to this world, over the top. Don’t waste your opportunity by asking basic questions. Instead, study the subject as deeply as possible before making your first contact. The more advanced you are, the more advancement you stand to gain. And the more impressed and helpful the expert will likely be.
• On the other hand, if you are asking an expert to read your entire manuscript, it’s a good idea to phrase the request along these lines: “if you or a colleague would be kind enough to do so…” Just because a scientist is a university professor is no guarantee that he or she would do the best job catching errors in fact or logic. Perhaps one of the team’s researchers, post-doctoral scholars, or graduate students could do it better.
Q: I’d like to add that regardless of the field of expertise, it is important for us as researcher-writers to be as thoughtful and professional as possible when making such requests. That means giving experts ample time to fit in your request, and showing your gratitude for their time.
Q: Caroline, what is the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
A: I read it in the book by William Zinsser, On Writing Well, the Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction. In Chapter 15, “Science and Technology,” he explains the principle of all nonfiction writing as “leading readers who know nothing, step by step, to a grasp of subjects.” This is done by writing sentences that form a linear sequence, starting with one fact readers know, and using the next sentence to build upon the previous one and broaden what it stated.
• I think of it as taking the reader by the hand and never letting go. As a children’s science writer, I’m a scout leading younger, greener hikers. I go up the path of discovery and understanding first. If the slope up the mountain is too steep, I go back and look for an easier way for people who take smaller steps.
Q: That’s a lovely and eloquent way to put it! Do you have a favorite writing tip also?
A: Make your writing as long as necessary and as short as possible.
Q: What other career or careers have you fantasized about doing?
A: In my day job as a scientist, I help test athletes for performance-enhancing drugs that are prohibited in sports. Using them can provide an unfair advantage and be dangerous to health, and it is contrary to the spirit of sport. But I’ve also fantasized about being a translator—and I am that as well! Between French and English, I’ve translated science books and umpteen professional documents. And my biggest fantasy—being a children’s writer—has also come true. I’ve published five books and lots of magazine articles, stories, and craft activities.
• There are other jobs I daydream about: working at a horse stable, for instance. Doing so would also help me research horse stories for children. But that’s for another interview.
Q: What keeps you excited about your particular field or specialty?
A: As a writer? Growth. Honing my craft. I keep getting better at it—I hope! That makes me feel acutely alive.
Q: What book are you most proud of, and why?
A: The Night Olympic Team—Fighting to Keep Drugs out of the Games. It’s about my work as a scientist, catching athletes who used prohibited drugs to win Olympic medals. My entire life went into it: first, some 20 years of demanding, consuming, often thankless but always meaningful science work, plus everything I’ve ever learned about writing, especially for younger readers. With this book, I’m passing the torch—some of the facts and wisdom I’ve acquired—to the youngest readers capable of receiving it (roughly age 10).
Q: What are the most critical things you want to write about before you die?
A: Intellectually speaking: population control, sustainability, and orders of magnitude. Emotionally: love, loss, and finding inner peace.
Q: And finally, what eccentricities do you have in your working life?
A: How much are you willing to pay for this info?
Q: Les mots justes—well said! Caroline, thank you for your generous time, and for letting us in on your insights about research, methodology, and writerly secrets.