Thanks for joining us for Part 2 of my intriguing interview with author and scientist Caroline Hatton, whose nonfiction book, The Night Olympic Team: Fighting to Keep Drugs out of the Games, is a real page-turner for kids (and adults!).
• I’m confident that writers everywhere, novice as well as established, will also find much of value in Caroline’s suggestions and research tips.
Let’s get started—welcome back, Caroline!
Q: Earlier, we talked about the human-interest side of research. What can you tell us about the scientific side of fact-finding and research?
A: First, I draft the piece by stringing together key points to take readers from what they know, to what they can learn from reading my writing.
• The sources I use are:
• Any source at all to get ideas and to get my bearings in the ocean of new knowledge surrounding my subject. I note any facts that seem interesting; however, I do not mention them later unless I have verified them using multiple, credible sources.
• Then I go deeper by examining non-peer-reviewed sources, such as newspapers, Scientific American magazine, etc, to learn more about current developments at the layperson level.
• Next, I make sure I have a good grasp of basic concepts by studying college or high school textbooks.
• For my final stage, I tackle peer-reviewed publications such as Nature magazine. These are research reports deemed scientifically valid and worthy of publication by the peers of the authors, typically researchers in the same or closely-related specialty. I use peer-reviewed items for ultimate verification before asking an expert or two to read and check my writing.
Q: Wow, that’s quite an exacting search from the general to the particular. How do other writers (who aren’t scientists) find and obtain peer-reviewed materials?
A: They can be obtained through libraries. It’s faster and cheaper, however, to email the “corresponding author” identified on the title page of the peer-reviewed publication—and request a pdf for your personal use.
Q: By the way, why should writers bother to tackle the peer-reviewed materials as you do?
A: As a science writer, I consider it imperative to read the relevant peer-reviewed articles—or at least, to try. I need to dig deeper than I will ever take my readers. Why? So that I can write from
a position of relevative authority, out of sheer respect for the audience. And for science. The time it takes, and my struggle is rewarded by learning a few more juicy morsels of jargon, and maybe even a couple of concepts new to me. Doing this deep research also helps me formulate questions to ask the experts. That in turn helps me make sure that lay readers won’t miss anything crucial.
Q: Caroline, how do you check scientific accuracy? And with whom?
A: In general, not only by showing my final version to relevant scientists, but also by pressing them to answer detailed questions. I might ask someone, “Is the first half of my sentence, blah-blah-blah, strictly correct?” Or I might phrase it like this, by asking, “Is my understanding correct that [it’s like this] and [not like that, or like that]?” Sometimes I ask which of several phrases is preferable.
Q: Do you show your final drafts to the scientists and others you’ve interviewed?
A: Generally speaking, journalists don’t show final drafts to interviewees, because it opens the door for the interviewees to change the words. But I’m not a journalist, and what I write for children is not opinion. It is about science facts and it must be accurate. So I show interviewees my writing—not to allow them to take control, but to invite their feedback. Besides having the facts corrects, I want my rendition to be true to the scientists’ emotions. I want to tell the story from the scientists’ minds and hearts.
• Another facet as important as accuracy is clarity—making sure that written words cannot be interpreted so as to mislead or confuse readers. My way to check for clarity is to ask readers totally unfamiliar with the subject to put question marks in my draft whenever they come to something that puzzles them.
Q: This is a good place for us to pause, I think—but please join us next week for more research secrets and insights in the conclusion of my interview with remarkable author-scientist Caroline Hatton. Her children’s books also include Vero and Philippe; and Surprise Moon.