A well-known archaeologist complained bitterly about a recent feature on his excavations. It was more than just eye-rolling that the reporter had gotten the facts wrong; this was a sad disappointment that his work had been mischaracterized. While I did not write the offending story, I could not help but empathize with both the archaeologist and the journalist. The archaeologist was genuinely hurt and depressed. The writer was no hack; he is competent and prides himself on fairness. Yet, both wound up miserable about this story.
I resolved to turn this unfortunate situation into a learning experience. With the help of a generous grant from the Colorado Authors’ League, I embarked on a project to improve both my own science writing as well as help other writers produce work that enlightens the public and does justice to exciting and complex material. I set a goal for myself. I could benefit two fields that I love—archaeology and writing—by developing some guidelines for better feature writing in general interest magazines, specifically in a field that I love – archaeology. My first step would be to interview archaeologists about their experiences with the popular press.
Choose the Right Conference
I created a list of archaeologists I wanted to interview, but found that most would not be at the August Pecos Conference in Flagstaff that I originally had proposed. Instead, my target archaeologists were planning to attend the 71st Annual Plains Anthropological Conference. With Vickie Bane’s approval, I changed my plans. Instead of bonding by firelight under the Arizona sky, I chatted with the leaders in Western archaeology in a nondescript hotel conference center during a surprisingly chilly and windy week in early October. While it was hardly an exciting setting, I did enjoy the best buffalo burger I’ve ever eaten!
The Results of My First Step
Spoiler alert! Writers don’t come off well. Here are a few quotes from my conversations:
* “Writers don’t understand the subject at all. Not the language let alone the jargon, not the science behind it. They can’t get from point A to B or draw intelligent conclusions.”
* “Reporters don’t want to take time to learn and they don’t have the patience they need to understand.”
* “They don’t listen. They look. They describe clothing, body language, smell of the lab, beauty or dustiness of the dig, but they don’t listen to what you’re saying.”
Something I learned and advice I have for archaeologists:
* Archaeologists—like most passionate professionals—have egos and thin skins.
* Know thy audience – state simply and succinctly what is important and why.
* Lose the jargon.
* Make it interesting.
Tips for writers:
* Know the experts in the field. Pay attention to what they say and don’t say.
* Know who has an ax to grind and whose ox is being gored. (And stay away from clichés!)
* Fact check – and by that I mean share your story in advance and be prepared to rewrite.
* Don’t be seduced by the sexy story. It may be true, but…
* Avoid headlines such as “Neanderthals – Just Like Us!” and “Digging the Garbageof Dead Indians” even though that’s what your editor might want.
* Relish those off the record tales you’ll never be able to write.
I came home from this conference with several tangible benefits including a CD compiled for me by a recognized expert in the field containing all the research I need for a story I may do in 2014. I also nabbed a much-coveted writing assignment that should be published in early 2014. I am also close to two of my “holy grail” interviews, including one that I’m too star-struck to even contemplate right now.
Most important are the relationships that I am building. Conference attendance further established me as someone who is truly interested in my subject, someone who invests the time and effort to learn and understand the science. Simply by showing up at the after-lunch sessions and not falling asleep in the dim light of the Powerpoint presentations on Paleoprocurement and stable isotope analysis of bone collagen, I built a level of trust with the archaeologists who help me in my work.
I love archaeology. I find it endlessly fascinating. In the hands of a talented writer, it comes alive. But some of the smartest archaeologists are very poor writers and storytellers. They manage to make this incredibly interesting subject as dry as the dirt in which they dig. I am grateful for CAL’s help in my quest to become a better interpreter of archaeology for a general audience and will continue to share my insights with its membership. Thank you very much for your support.