Building environmental stories from pre-made parts
It was about eight years ago at a conference for advising improvements to science writing curriculum in Germany. A professor suggested creating the equivalent of parts depots holding vetted facts, quotes, other information. Writers could repeatedly pick and choose which ones to assemble into stories under various configurations. Recycling was encouraged.
It struck me then as reducing writing to a dispassionate exercise, robbing it of the same creativity that attracts writers to science or any writing.
Perhaps worse yet are the more recent attempts to reduce writing to production by algorithm. The idea is to use computers to turn raw data into news stories, at least as a supplement to human-created stories.
As distasteful as I find such strategies, I’ve begun to think more along these lines. And I wonder if there is a hybrid approach allowing the re-use of “story parts” in a way that augments the creative process of traditional reporting and writing.
Here’s an example:
One of the challenges of writing about climate change is that readers can confuse climate and weather. One of my favorite ways I’ve seen the difference explained is this short animation:
Not only does it explain weather and climate, it’s useful for explaining the way any measurement that varies can still illustrate a trend. I’ve now put this animation into at least my mental story-parts depot. I’ll use it, perhaps multiple times, to help make the point when warranted.
But…I’m a words guy. And I’ve begun to think of simile, metaphor and analogy along the same lines. Recently Great Lakes Echo ran a climate change story that included this explanation of weather and climate from Deke Arndt, chief of the climate monitoring branch at the National Climatic Data Center:
He compared the relationship between climate and weather to the relationship between a parent and a child.
“If you’re a parent, you have this long-term influence on your child, but you don’t drive their decisions every day,” said Arndt. “If the kid makes a good or bad decision, it’s based on different factors.”
In the same way, long-term climate patterns influence day-to-day weather, but don’t have complete control over it.
It strikes me that Arndt had this analogy already prepared and has likely used it many times. What’s the matter with a writer doing something similar across multiple stories – particularly with analogies with proven communication value?
Here’s another idea. People don’t particularly like to admit what they don’t know or that confuses them. In this Echo video we show at least some people confused by climate and weather.
Showing it in the context of other climate change stories may assure others that they are not alone in their confusion. That makes it a little easier to clear it up. I can see where this short video might be reused to augment several stories.
I’m still less than excited by the thought of turning writing into an activity similar to bolting bumpers onto multiple Chevys. But I daresay their remains creativity in this process.
There are worse things than recycling strategies of communicating science that have proven effective in the past.