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Writing about Science

For my article in Wisconsin People and Ideas on the human microbiome (adapted from an article I wrote for FASEB's Breakthroughs in Bioscience series), I was asked to write a sidebar about my process.

Here it is.

In the last decade, more than 10,000 scientific papers have been published about the human microbiome. Somewhere in those 10,000 papers, I have to find a story.

I start with research. I read scientific articles, interviews, and biographies. I stream videos, podcasts, and webcasts. I talk to experts. I find sources that will help me provide historical or scientific context. I find quotes and anecdotes that will give the reader insights in to the lives of scientists. I fill my virtual and real-life desktops with everything I can learn about the subject. Somewhere in those stacks of paper and pixels, there is a story.

A story, whether fiction or nonfiction, is not just a series of events or facts strung together. Each element relates to the others in a cause-and-effect way to pull the reader along. I first find the heart of the story—the truth that needs to be conveyed. I build an outline based on the main points of that truth arranged in a logical order. Each paragraph builds on the information that precedes it, just as each scientific discovery builds on earlier work.

Once I have found the story and outlined the narrative, I fill it in.

Scientific papers have structure: Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion. In writing for a general audience, the same elements need to be included, without that strict structure. Each part of the story needs to have a motivation, a brief description of the methods the researchers used and what they found, as well as some idea of what it means and how it fits into the story. If I know of conflicts or obstacles, I add them for a more compelling read. Metaphors and analogies can help with comprehension.

Throughout the piece, I try to emphasize that science is a collaborative process. Headline-grabbing discoveries are made possible by years of basic research. Many scientists contribute their own findings, insights and techniques to the body of work.

I want the article to be engaging rather than exhaustive. I resist the urge to add material that is not related to the main narrative. All that research I do? The vast majority of it does not end up in the finished piece. But that’s OK. I like to think of a quote from a letter written to Laura Ingalls Wilder by her daughter, Rose. “Facts are infinite in number. The truth is a meaning underlying them; you tell the truth by selecting the facts which illustrate it.”

The Invisible Activist Authors' Tour

Tomorrow I fly out to Boston for the beginning of The Invisible Book Tour with coauthor Walter Naegle. Unfortunately, Michael G. Long, our other coauthor, has teaching responsibilities and couldn't join us. We will be accompanied (and driven around) by Jonathan Vogel-Borne as a representative of our publisher Quaker Press. To find out more about the book, go to my website.

For the most up-to-date information on the tour, please go to our Facebook page. As of May 1, here is the schedule:

I hope to see you there!

Goodreads Giveaway!

In recognition of Black History Month,
I'm giving away a copy of
Bayard Rustin: The Invisible Activist
on Goodreads.

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Bayard Rustin by Jacqueline  Houtman

Bayard Rustin

by Jacqueline Houtman

Giveaway ends February 28, 2015.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter to win

Sciency Comics

Here's a great post by Gene Luen Yang about science in comics.

Peek:  ". . . our society puts up a wall between activities it deems “left brain” and those it deems “right brain.” Math and science inhabit one world, art and story (and comics) another. But this division is artificial."

The list:

Primates by Jim Ottaviani and Maris Wicks

Clan Apis by Jay Hosler

Super Scratch Programming Adventure by Mitch Resnick and the Lead Project

Secret Coders by Gene Luen Yang and Mike Holmes

Howtoons by Saul Griffith and Nick Dragotta

Lego Instructions (This isn’t a book, so don’t go looking for it at your local bookstore.)

Meanwhile by Jason Shiga

Fleep by Jason Shiga

Goodreads Giveaway!

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Bayard Rustin by Jacqueline  Houtman

Bayard Rustin

by Jacqueline Houtman

Giveaway ends December 15, 2014.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter to win

Available for preorder

Revised bayard cover smaller

Reduced price for advance orders at

Upcoming release

Bayard Rustin: The Invisible Activist will be released this fall from Quaker Press. It was co-written by Michael G. Long (an academic who edited a book of Bayard's letters), Walter Naegle (Bayard's partner for the last ten years of his life and the archivist of the estate) and me. Here's the cover:
Revised bayard cover smaller (427x640)

Labor Day

Over at From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle-Grade Authors, I wrote a post about the true meaning of Labor Day. Books about the labor movement and the people who worked hard to give us weekends and safer workplaces. Books about the children (like my grandmother) who worked hard in mills and mines before we had laws about child labor. 

A biography panel

On May 8, I'll be participating on a panel about writing for children about real people. Join Ann Bausum, Don Tate, Jan Pinborough and me for what promises to be an interesting evening.

Children"s book panel poster

Interview with Crystal Chan and Book Giveaway

Check out my interview with Crystal Chan over at From The Mixed-Up Files of Middle-Grade Authors.

Comment and enter to win a UK version of her wonderful debut novel, Bird.


Head shot
Jacqueline Houtman
I'm a freelance science writer based in Madison, WI. I also write sciency fiction for kids. My award-winning debut novel, THE REINVENTION OF EDISON THOMAS, was published by Front Street/Boyds Mills Press in March 2010.

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November 2015


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