Deconstructing Good Scicomm

Illustration of a COVID-19 virus.

In my workshops, I often recommend that when you find a piece of scicomm that you like, take a little time to deconstruct it. See how the authors put it together and what lessons you can learn from that. But, for many scientists, that’s an unfamiliar exercise, so here I’ll take a little time to demonstrate.

Last week I came across this Wired article that digs into the efforts of physicists and engineers to track down and overturn a decades-old mistake that fed into the deadliness of the COVID pandemic. It’s, admittedly, a story that resonates with my own feelings about the pandemic, but I think it’s an excellent read, even for those with no scientific dog in the fight. I went back through the article and annotated the full text with my thoughts on the narrative structure. You can read that here.*

An Analysis

Overall, the article is what’s known as an explanatory narrative. It mixes narrative sections — which follow the actions, feelings, and experiences of specific characters — with digressions, where explanations of the science, history, and politics involved are given. This is a classic technique for science journalism because it marries telling a human story with teaching about science (or history or economics or whatever other subject the writer has). Having specific human characters to follow helps readers along, and the digressions are timed and spaced to provide information just-as-needed while the narrative carries on.

In this article, many scientists and public health officials appear, but there are only three real characters (in a narrative sense). The first and foremost is Linsey Marr, a physicist and engineer who spent years trying to convince public health officials that their physics of droplet versus airborne disease transmission was off. Marr grounds the narrative throughout the article; wherever the story takes us, it always comes back to Marr. She’s the connective tissue between every person in the story, and she acts as the readers’ touchstone — to the science, the action, and the emotions of the narrative. It’s Marr who introduces both the problem of the narrative — public health officials won’t listen to physicists that say their rules between droplet-borne and airborne disease transmission don’t match reality — and the big mystery of the article: where did this archaic 5-micron rule distinguishing droplets and aerosols come from?

Tracking down the solution to that mystery falls to the narrative’s second character, Katie Randall, a historian who searched decades of medical research to uncover the origins of this 5-micron rule that the CDC and WHO were so committed to. Compared to Marr, Randall is a much smaller character; as readers, we spend less time with her in the narrative, and we get less detail of her daily life and experiences. But she (deservedly) carries the narrative through the mystery. That section of the article consistently ties every digression back to her.

The final character, Yuguo Li, is (narratively) even more minor than Randall. His actions are important in both the beginning and end of the article, but, as readers, we’re afforded relatively little insight into Li as a person. Nevertheless, he provides international connection and big-picture implications at key moments in the article.

Once the mystery of the 5-micron rule is resolved and the big-picture implications of the science on public health are considered, the narrative has one final hurdle to address: the acceptance of this science by public health officials. That thread of the narrative returns once more to Marr, whose journey this has been all along. The final result is bittersweet: Marr succeeds in getting public guidance changed, but it’s nearly a year into the pandemic and the changes are made with no fanfare, no press conferences, no significant attention drawn. Is that vindication?

The article ends with a quiet moment in which Marr is overcome with emotions while sitting at a stoplight on her way to pick up her kid. At first glance, this may seem like a strange choice for the writer; why end with this weirdly mundane moment?

Because the tiny moments are sometimes the most impactful. As described in Jack Hart’s Storycraft (which I’ll review one of these weeks):

“You really need to have faith in the power and importance of tiny, tiny moments,” Tom French says. “Newspaper reporters are trained so that we are really good at big moments. But the longer I do this, the more I learn to have faith that in those times when it looks like nothing is happening.”

Marr sitting at a light and tearing up is certainly a moment where nothing seems to be happening. Except that it’s a moment of emotional catharsis — for both Marr and, thanks to her place as our protagonist, readers. This is the moment where it all hits her: years of effort, both in physics and politics, have resulted in the changes she fought for. As readers, we can’t have the same depth of emotion Marr has — we’ve only been with this story for several thousand words — but this is still an emotional culmination for us. We know what it’s like to be overcome in a quiet, everyday moment; it’s intimately relatable, even if we haven’t overturned decades of public health guidance. That’s the beauty of this ending scene. It’s humanizing, it’s relatable, it’s emotional. It’s a fitting ending to the readers’ journey alongside Marr.

Bottom Line

Even as someone who often thinks about the techniques and tools of narrative nonfiction, this was a great exercise for me. I got to really explore the author’s choices: Which characters did she choose for different sections? How did she balance and interweave narrative and digression? When did her narrative zoom in and when did it pan out? How did switching between narrative and digression build, maintain, and ultimately resolve the tension of the story?

Simply reading through an article once can’t provide this level of insight into its construction. But returning to the article and examining it in depth can. And that kind of insight helps us, as storytellers and science communicators, see how we can do this in our own work.

What do you think? Was seeing how I examine an article useful for you? Do you think you’ll try your hand at this yourself? Let me know in the comments below.

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* I’ve used Readwise Reader to share both the article and my annotations of it, for educational purposes. With long articles like this, I like to use Reader as my read-it-later app so that I can come back when I have time to kill — like when I’m standing in line somewhere. Reader also allows me to highlight and annotate texts and then import those notes automatically into my note-keeping app of choice. If you’d like to give Reader a try, it’s currently in public beta, and you can get a 30-day trial using my Readwise referral link. If you choose to sign up, we both get a free month.

(Image credit: CDC)

2 thoughts on “Deconstructing Good Scicomm

  1. Maybe I’m not the target audience for this, but I couldn’t finish the article, because the answers to my questions (so, /is/ COVID airborn? where does the 5 micron rule come from? which WHO measures are effective?) were buried under the emotional journey of a person I frankly don’t care about that much. Might’ve been better if there were text insets with just the data, making it skimmable and less like a recipe blog.

    1. Thanks for sharing your perspective! It’s a good reminder that the storytelling techniques that work for some audiences don’t work for everyone. Here are some of the answers to those questions you had:

      – Yes, COVID is airborne and not transmitted just by large droplets.
      – The 5-micron rule seems to come from a conflation of multiple studies by one researcher in the 1960s. He showed that tuberculosis spreads when droplets are smaller than 5 microns and not when they’re larger. The key, though, is that tuberculosis has to make its way to the smallest air sacs in one’s lungs to actually infect someone. Because COVID and other diseases don’t have to get so far into the lungs to infect someone, sticking to a 5-micron rule doesn’t make sense for them.
      – Masking and better ventilation in public spaces are far more effective than measures like washing hands, sanitizing surfaces, or standing 6 feet away.

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