From research to story: advice for writers

by Lesley Evans Ogden

At the recent Canadian Science Writers Association Meeting in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, two gurus of science journalism, Tom Hayden and Peter Calamai shared their sage advice on the art of turning research into a story. While their advice was given to and intended for science writers, many of their tips will be useful and germane to nonfiction writing generally, so I thought I would share it here.

Peter Calamai’s 10 maxims:

  1. There are no subjects that good communications can’t make interesting and intelligible to a thinking audience.

Granted, says Calamai, there are tricky subjects like chemistry and math that are more difficult to turn into interesting stories. “They are harder to pick,” says Calamai, “but you just have to pick ‘em.”

  1. Know as much as possible about the intended audience for your writing. Have a clear picture in your mind of who you are addressing, if possible an actual individual.
  1. Never underestimate the intelligence of your thinking reader. They are not ignorant, simply uninformed.

Good writing makes your reader feel smart, adds Hayden.

    1. Never overestimate your reader’s interest in a particular subject matter.

Just because you’re fascinated with poisonous cone snails in Australia doesn’t mean your reader is, explains Calamai. So keep your story to the point, and don’t overindulge by making your reader the unwilling recipient of all you know about the subject.

  1. To engage the thinking reader, the writer must actually care about the subject.

“You can’t [effectively] write about something you have no emotional attachment to,” says Calamai. “You only have to care for that moment,” says Calamai, which brings audience laughter. “You don’t have to care for your whole life about it, but whatever it is you’re working on, you really have to care about it at that time.” If you don’t, that comes across to your reader, listener, or viewer.

  1. Gaining an advanced academic degree and writing academic papers are probably the worst possible preparation for communicating with a thinking audience, if that audience are outside the field of expertise of the academic.

Why is this written in strike-through text? It’s because this point generated a lot of audience discussion and considerable disagreement. Ivan Semeniuk, science writer at the Globe and Mail, made the point that “things have changed,” and “credentialism is on the rise.”

To be a top level science journalist or science communicator, “being a PhD level scientist is neither necessary… or sufficient,” says Hayden. It’s one perfectly viable pathway of many, he suggests.

Calamai’s response? “See this? This is a red pen. Number six… gone.”

  1. One of the best ways to improve your own nonfiction writing is to read the best writing with a rigorously analytical eye.

“Look at the structure. Look at the scaffolding,” says Calamai.

Personally, reading more good writing is something wish I had more time to do. When I do have time, I have found the “Best American…” compendium series, which exists for genres including short stories, essays, mystery stories, travel writing, sports, and science and nature writing, to be excellent inspiration for high quality work. It’s produced annually, and incidentally, it’s too bad there is (as yet) no Canadian equivalent.

  1. Tell a story. Narrative, narrative, narrative is the glue that binds the best writing for the thinking public.
  1. Always read out loud and piece of writing intended for the thinking public.

Preferably, says Calamai, read it to someone else. And when they say “ ‘I don’t understand that,’ do not get angry,” says Calamai. Learn from this valuable feedback.

10. Sweat the small stuff.

Make sure names are spelled correctly. Double check what people tell you. Never trust a source on a number [or fact]. Always check it. “Triple check,” says Calamai.

“The maxims, the pointers, the tips — watching the work that an expert has done, that all has its value, but I think the greatest value for getting better, and almost certainly for getting started, comes in working with real words on real pages,” says Hayden.

To Calamai’s tips, Hayden added a few more (and my summary here doesn’t do justice to capturing them all):

  1. Know your audience.
  1. In your writing, answer the questions:
    1. What is this about?
    2. Why does this matter?
    3. How will the world be changed?

“A story is a journey,” says Hayden. There has to be a problem that is resolved, and you need to tell us “how is the world changed?”

  1. Facts are essential, but not enough.
  1. Clarity is key.

“Long paragraphs are exhausting,” says Hayden, and so are long sentences. “The longer your paragraph is, the more likely you are to lose a significant number of readers before they even start reading,” he adds. Try to keep to one thought per sentence, and one unified theme per paragraph. “If you can limit yourself to one idea per sentence and order them in a fashion that logically leads from one, to the next, to the next, to the next, what you’ve done is create a train of ideas where each car is discrete, but each is connected to the next in a logical order.”

Each paragraph should start with one very clear statement of what it’s about. The occasional longer or more complex sentence is okay, suggests Hayden, but you first need to “earn your stripes” from your reader. Returning to the train analogy, he says “you can get people to follow you along on a very complex train” so long as you keep one idea per sentence and “link, link, link.” The “mental Sudoku” you have to do is to get them in the right order, he adds.

As a parting thought he adds, “find the most interesting thing that your story is about, and lead with that.”




Peter Calamai has been an adjunct research professor at Carleton University since 2001. He worked for over four decades in Canadian daily newspapers as a news correspondent at home and overseas with the Southam newspapers and The Ottawa Citizen. From 1998 to 2008 he was the national science reporter for The Toronto Star. He now is a communications consultant, freelance writer and editor based in Ottawa. In 2014, he was reportedly “gobsmacked” to receive the Order of Canada for his work.


Thomas Hayden directs the Environmental Communication Master of Arts program at Stanford University. He has been an oceanographer, staffer at Newsweek, and senior editor at US News & World Report. He also works as a freelance science journalist and author, and is coeditor of The Science Writer’s Handbook: Everything You Need to Know to Pitch, Publish, and Prosper in the Digital Age. He originally hails from Saskatoon.




Lesley Evans Ogden is a former scientist turned journalist-producer based in Port Moody, BC. The columnist of Deception at BBC Earth, she is also a regular contributor at New Scientist, Earth Touch, and Natural History, and recently began dipping her toes into documentary work for radio and TV. She has just completed a two year term as a Board Member of the Canadian Science Writer’s Association. Say hi on Twitter @ljevanso



Posted on July 8, 2015 at 9:00 am by editor · · Tagged with: ,

6 Responses

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  1. Written by Jay Ingram
    on July 8, 2015 at 9:33 am
    Reply · Permalink

    Re; point #10: Ivan’s last name is spelled Semeniuk.

    Re: the controversial point 6. reinstate it. If indeed ‘credentialism’ is on the rise doesn’t make it right. I’d like someone to show me exactly how an advanced degree can somehow replace good and deep research.

  2. Written by T Hayden
    on July 8, 2015 at 10:39 pm
    Reply · Permalink

    Nicely captured, Lesley! Always a pleasure to be associated with Peter–and you.

  3. Written by Lesley Evans Ogden
    on July 10, 2015 at 8:01 am
    Reply · Permalink

    Thanks for pointing that out, Jay. Clearly I need to pay closer attention to Peter’s point number 10! Noted, and will make sure the spelling is fixed ASAP.

    Also, I think that controversial point number 6 could occupy a whole discussion session. Clearly there are more points to be made on that, and there are pros and cons of graduate training as the jumping off point into journalism. From my point of view, like Tom said, it’s just one possible path — not necessarily better or worse than any other path into science communication or journalism. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  4. Written by Lesley Evans Ogden
    on July 10, 2015 at 8:02 am
    Reply · Permalink

    And thanks Tom for the very interesting and well articulated points at that session!

  5. Written by Rebecca Hass
    on July 10, 2015 at 9:33 am
    Reply · Permalink

    Very good reminders for all writing. Much appreciated. My favourite is number one. A story well told will always be readable. I love it when a topic i never considered before leaps off a page and captures me.

  6. Written by Lesley Evans Ogden
    on July 10, 2015 at 2:15 pm
    Reply · Permalink

    Thanks Rebecca!

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