May 23, 2013


How to Talk Minnesotan. By Howard Mohr. Penguin. $15.

The Science Writers’ Handbook: Everything You Need to Know to Pitch, Publish, and Prosper in the Digital Age. By the Writers of SciLance. Edited by Thomas Hayden and Michelle Nijhuis. Da Capo. $17.50.

     Instruction manuals can be lighthearted, even frivolous, or super-serious. Here we have one of each. Howard Mohr’s 1987 book, How to Talk Minnesotan, has now been “revised for the 21st century,” which seems a bit odd in light of the fact that the book finds Minnesota largely living in the 19th. Updated or not, the book is filled with the kind of humor usually described as “homespun,” not in the Mark Twain sense but in the Prairie Home Companion sense – no surprise, since Mohr used to write for the show. “If winning is your main goal in Minnesota games of chance, you may win, but you certainly will not be taken as a Minnesotan if you make too big a deal out of it.” “Being too direct in Minnesota is a common mistake made by visitors.” “One natural response to a controversial statement in Minnesota is to end the discussion by saying that’s different.” “Nearly 50 percent of Minnesota conversations are conducted through the side window of a car or pickup while leaning on the fender or hood, 30 percent are conducted over a little lunch at the kitchen table, 15 percent in a rowboat, and the remaining 5 percent take place in movie theaters during the movie. According to a recent study.” The whole book is full of talk like this, except for the portions explaining how to talk like this. The writing is too good-humored to be insulting, too mild to get anyone’s back up (much less the back of anyone from Minnesota), and too low-key to be much fun for anyone who is not a fan of Prairie Home Companion and similar fare. There are chapters on “Lutefisk,” “Oh, for and Heckuva Deal,” “What to Say When Someone Shows You His Smartphone,” “Wyoming, Golf, and the Law, Minnesota-Style,” “Though, Groves, Seniors, and Poker Parties,” and so on. The chapter titles are pithier (the middle letters there are th) than the chapters themselves, which is to say that Mohr tends to take a while getting to the point, which is to say that there is a lot of Mohr-ian Minnesotan in the writing about Minnesota here. Updates on the 1987 edition of the book are scattered throughout, for example regarding romance and marriage: “In 2012 courting in Minnesota by e-mail, by Facebook, and even (though rather rare) by Twitter has a particular fascination for Minnesota men especially, because not one of these media has direct physical contact as a factor in finding a potential love of one’s life, and heck, that sure saves a lot trouble of the kind you can imagine if you had to be there right in person and think of something to say, or be expected to hug or something, or go to a fancy restaurant.” Clearly neither Mohr nor Minnesota has progressed significantly, except in superficial ways, since 1987, and clearly that will make not one whit of difference to anyone wishing to connect with his or her roots, real or imagined, in the Gopher State.

     On the other side of the seriousness scale, the 35 members of an online science writers’ group called SciLance offer information on how to work effectively within their field in The Science Writers’ Handbook, which is about as soberly written a book as anyone could want. That leads to an issue not addressed in the book: one reason much science writing is nearly unreadable is that it pays far more attention to accuracy than to comprehensibility. Many other matters, though, are addressed here. The book is divided into three parts called “The Skilled Science Writer,” “The Sane Science Writer” and “The Solvent Science Writer,” the idea being to help readers learn the basic skills of the field, figure out how to be productive in balancing work and the rest of life, and then actually make a living on a freelance science writer’s income. Probably most people considering science writing should check out the final section first to find out about contracts, health insurance, fellowships, social networks and other elements of solvency with which would-be science writers need to be comfortable if they are going to try to make a living in the field. Since each chapter within the three sections is written by a different person, the tone of the book varies quite a bit; and to the extent that the experiences discussed are personal ones, those vary a lot, too. Thus, Emma Marris discusses creating a book about science and offers the subhead, “Writing  the Damn Thing,” under which she says, “After the Sturm und Drang of seeking a book contract, it can come as rather a shock that once one is secured you actually have to write the book.” And the reader must decide whether that statement is applicable to him or her – along with such followup remarks as one about the “distraction from book writing [of] the social media and self-branding that seems to take an increasingly large share of writers’ time these days.” Marris also warns that, with a first book, “Your fear-generating apparatus is not yet tuned to the scale of a book, so The Fear may arrive just a little late.” Nor is this the only appearance of capital-F Fear. Andreas von Bubnoff, for instance, brings it up at the very start of a chapter called “Getting the Story, and Getting It Right,” with the comment, “Once you have landed that assignment and have a deadline, you may start to feel what we call ‘The Fear’: That this time, you won’t make it.”  If issues of taxes and retirement savings – also covered in the book, albeit in brief – are not scary enough to turn readers away from science writing, perhaps The Fear will be. It is actually a bit difficult to be sure whether the SciLance writers want to bring new people into the science-writing fold or intimidate potential competitors. A good way to decide whether the whole science-writing area appeals to you is to look at the “SciLance says” bullet points at the end of chapters and see whether they make you want to read a chapter in detail or run the other way. “Don’t expect the same level of productivity that you had pre-kids,” says a bullet point at the end of “Children and Deadlines.” “Use envy to show what you want. If you envy a friend’s book, for example, get to work on your stalled book proposal” – this, at the end of the chapter called “Beyond Compare.” “There is no one set of ethical guidelines for science writing or journalism. Each must find his or her own path,” is a comment at the conclusion of “The Ethical Science Writer.” “Figure out how much human interaction you need and want, and plan your work schedule accordingly,” is a bullet point at the end of “The Loneliness of the Science Writer.” If these and similar remarks make you feel that science writing is dismal, dull and frustrating, then The Science Writers’ Handbook will at least have shown that the field is not for you – and indeed, freelance writing in general may be unappealing, since much that this book discusses is equally applicable to other forms of freelancing. If, on the other hand, reading the bullet points makes you feel enthusiastic about plunging headlong into the chapters themselves and getting details on what the everyday lives of science writers (at least the ones contributing to this book) are like, then you will find The Science Writers’ Handbook a useful and even uplifting guide to creating and selling journalistic reports on the many scientific advances of modern times and their impact on people’s everyday lives.

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