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Reflections on a failed (?) writing sample

January 28, 2013

As some of you know, I recently applied for the AAAS Mass Media Fellowship (okay, technically called the “AAAS Mass Media Science & Engineering Fellows Program”, but that’s a mouthful). The application required two writing samples. The first was allowed to be on any topic and in any style appropriate for the general public; I submitted a revised version of this post.

The second writing sample was required to be a “news article” on a recent paper from the scientific literature. Unfortunately, most of my articles for the Daily Cardinal weren’t recent enough, but while browsing through journal abstracts I found a neat paper recently published by a couple of research groups here at UW-Madison and decided to write on that instead.

But… it turns out that UW-Madison doesn’t actually have a subscription to the journal this paper was published in(*).

So, I ended up writing my story off a proof borrowed from one of the authors. But as I pulled all my application materials together a few days the deadline, I realized that I needed an official copy of the paper to submit with the application (the proof I was using didn’t have the publication date on it), and I panicked a bit because I wasn’t sure that interlibrary loan would come through in time.

Which meant that I ended up hurriedly sifting through my feed of recent UW-Madison research, found an interesting article, and wrote a backup story.

In the end, the library did come through (as did a friend at a school with access to the paper ;-), so I was able to submit my original writing sample. And I’m glad I did, because I really wasn’t happy with the backup piece.

I’m not entirely sure why I wasn’t happy with the alternate story, because it was on something that I think is really neat research. A group of scientists in my department found that they could use nanowires to make a new material for lithium ion batteries, which was cheaper than the conventional materials, and can potentially store more energy, too.

But unfortunately, I think I got bogged down in describing how batteries work, and explaining the chemistry involved took way too many technical terms – the piece turned into a sea of jargon. Here are a couple of paragraphs from the middle of the article to illustrate what I mean:

In conventional lithium ion batteries, the cathode is made of a material containing lithium, cobalt, and oxygen. Lithium ions moving to the cathode intercalate, or insert themselves, into this material.

But there’s only so much lithium that can insert itself into the lithium/cobalt material. And this limit fundamentally limits how much energy the battery can store.

The UW-Madison researchers, led by professor Song Jin, attempted to get around this problem by instead using a “conversion” electrode. In a conversion electrode, the lithium ions actually react with the electrode material to form new compounds rather than just inserting themselves into it.

Jin’s team chose a material called ferric fluoride, which contains one atom of iron for every three atoms of fluorine. Lithium ions react with this material to form lithium fluoride and solid iron, pulling electrons into the cathode in the process…

This is taken a bit out of context (in the original, I’d already explained what the cathode is, etc.), but perhaps you can see why I wasn’t happy with it. The last paragraph, in particular, feels really terrible – it contains way too many chemical species (“ferric fluoride”, “iron”, “fluorine”, “lithium ions”, “lithium fluoride”, “solid iron”, and “electrons”), so many that I get confused, even though I’m the one who wrote it!

I’m not sure how to fix this, short of really, really simplifying the chemistry and focusing more on e.g. why we need better lithium ion batteries, but at that point I feel like the piece wouldn’t really be about the researchers’ work any more. I do think, though, that it’s one of those topics where an interview with one of the authors might have yielded some useful “big picture” quotes to guide the story. Had I not been writing it at the last minute, over a weekend, I probably would have trekked down to Song’s office to see if he’d be game to answer a few questions.

But for those of you who have more training or more experience writing about science than I do, how would you have handled this? What’s the best way to give an accurate picture of the chemistry without getting bogged down in the details?

I did end up writing a second version of this research highlight in a completely different format, by the way, which I like much better but which didn’t fit the requirements for the AAAS application. I’ll try to revise it a little bit and post it here in a few days, though, and perhaps you all can tell me whether you think it’s more successful.

(*) Don’t get me started on how frustrating it is to not be able to access a paper written by people at your own university. Made me even more of a fan of open-access scientific publishing than I already am…

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