Collaborating with another writer is something I’ve done only once. It was for a Washington Post Magazine cover article about the stock car racing legend Richard Petty, who was making his first run for political office in the fall of 1978. At the time I was working as a newspaper reporter in Greensboro, N.C., and after work I would drive the 22 miles to Petty’s home with one of the paper’s editorial writers, and we would spend the late afternoons talking with Petty as he drove his customized van along the back roads of Randolph County. Petty was always dressed in his trademark cowboy hat, cowboy boots and wraparound shades as he knocked on doors, flashed his famous thousand-watt smile and urged people to help elect him to the board of county commissioners. Naturally, Petty lapped the field.
When it came time to write the article, my collaborator gave me his notes and disappeared. This delighted me. I was free to sit alone in my room using his notes and my own to write a draft of the article as I thought it should be written. My collaborator then made suggestions, some of which I heeded, most of which I ignored. The article appeared under both of our bylines, with mine before his, an arrangement that struck me as more than a little unfair. We also split the $750 paycheck down the middle, which struck me as enormously unfair. Afterwards I felt like the character Nelson Head in the Flannery O’Connor short story, “The Artificial Nigger,” a young yokel who survives a harrowing visit to the big city of Atlanta and vows never to return. To paraphrase Nelson, my feelings about collaborating with another writer were I’m glad I did it once, but I’ll never do it again.
My vow has remained intact for more than 30 years, but I recently learned about a group called NeuWrite that has forced me to reconsider my abiding disdain for the art of collaborative writing. The group began to take shape back in 2007 because a Columbia University neuroscience grad student named Carl Schoonover had arrived at a blunt realization. “Lots of interesting neuroscience research gets reported badly,” he says. “And most scientists can’t write for shit, myself included, because they don’t teach you how to write in science grad school. The trick was to find writers.”
So after discussing the idea with his colleagues, Schoonover persuaded Stuart Firestein, the chairman of Columbia’s biology deparment, to introduce him to Ben Marcus, who heads the university’s Master of Fine Arts program in non-fiction writing. Marcus offered the names of half a dozen of his students who might be interested in collaborating with neuroscience grad students, and Schoonover took each of them to The Hungarian Pastry Shop near campus to pitch his idea. In early 2008, the group came together for the first time at an informal salon in the home of Firestein and his wife Diana Reiss, a psychology professor at Hunter College.
“I think you need to develop trust for it work,” Schoonover says. “We scientists are accustomed to collaboration. It’s built into the scientific process. But the writers were very reticent, especially at first.”
As the members became more familiar and comfortable with each other, scientists started pairing up with writers and working together. Eventually the salon atmosphere of the meetings gave way to a classic MFA workshop format – members would bring in a piece of their own writing for the group to discuss; established science writers would be invited to speak; the group would read and discuss examples of high quality science writing.
Schoonover wound up pairing with Abigail Rabinowitz, 32, who has since gotten her MFA and gone to India on a Fulbright grant to study surrogate motherhood in Mumbai. Rabinowitz had wanted to be a scientist when she was growing up, and the announcement that NeuWrite was forming in early 2008 caught her eye. “I wanted to find my way back to science through writing,” she says, “and I thought this would be a great way to look at writing from a different perspective and possibly find new stories.”
Schoonover and Rabinowitz’s first collaboration was on an article for Science magazine about a show at the American Museum of Natural History called “Brain: The Inside Story”. “First, we heard the museum’s directors speak about how they’d planned the show,” Rabinowitz recalls. “Then Carl and I walked through the show together and shared impressions. If I wasn’t sure about something, he explained it to me. Our impressions were very similar, even though we were coming from different backgrounds. We both felt the show wasn’t organized visually as well as it could have been.”
Next came the hard part. “So we sat down together with a computer,” Rabinowitz continues. “We both had a lot of notes, and we outlined the piece together. I had a vision for the introduction when you walk into a kind of spaghetti forest that represents the brain. Carl also thought it was a good way into the piece. Then we moved through the show, and that became the article’s structure. I typed while we were both speaking – not trying to hone language, just trying to get basic ideas in order. Then I wrote the first draft until the halfway point and e-mailed the draft to Carl, who then edited what I’d written – not structure, but word choice and one factual error and some added information. Then he wrote the second half. He sent it back to me and I edited what he’d written. We both killed the other’s darlings.”
More and more refined drafts went back and forth a half dozen times. Changes were tracked on each draft, and the collaborators spoke frequently by phone. The finished product possesses two things you don’t always find in science writing: accurate, easily comprehensible information related in a style that’s brisk and clear.
The pair’s next collaboration was an article for the New York Times about the emerging field of optogenetics, which uses flashes of light to control electrical activity in specially engineered neurons. The technique is beginning to yield insight into such human disorders as Parkinson’s disease and anxiety.
Rabinowitz now feels that collaboration, though painful, is worth the trouble. “Ultimately I think it produced better writing than I could have done myself,” she says. “Carl knows what he’s talking about. If he liked something I wrote, I got the joy of recognition. But it can be frustrating too. I wouldn’t want to write this way with most people I know, because it’s hard and there has to be a good reason to do it. If you’re writing with somebody else, you need to communicate very well.”
For Greg Wayne, a grad student in theoretical neuroscience and a member of NeuWrite, this hasn’t been his first exposure to collaborative writing. Wayne and his brother, a novelist, had worked together on humor sketches, a form that’s “incredibly amenable” to collaboration, he says. “With humor, there’s a joke every line, and that can be edited immediately. Is this funny? Does that work? But if you have long, discursive writing, sitting at the same keyboard is much more difficult. I think novel writing would be just about impossible.”
Wayne collaborated with the writer Alex Pasternack on an article for Science magazine about a panel on artificial intelligence at the World Science Festival – replete with robot demonstrations, including Watson, the “Jeopardy!” champion. The experience left Wayne convinced that there are times when two minds can produce better science writing than one. “For the article we divided up responsibility based on what we know best,” Wayne says. “Alex, as a writer, was going to look at social issues, how the public views artificial intelligence, how people think about a Stanley Kubrick sci-fi movie. As a scientist I would focus on the nuts and bolts of how the robots work. In the end, neither one of us alone would have been capable of writing what we wrote together.”
Tim Requarth studied Spanish literature as an undergrad and wrote a book about his father’s dementia before entering Columbia’s neuroscience program. Requarth, who recently wrote a review here at The Millions of the neuroscientist David Eagleman’s best-seller, Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, teamed up with Schoonover to help run NeuWrite. “I was a logical person to step in because I’ve had a foot in both words – science and writing,” says Requarth, who has collaborated on articles for Science and Scientific American with Meehan Crist, who has just finished writing a book called Everything After, about traumatic brain injury. “One thing we’ve all discovered is that it works better if one person writes the first draft. Meehan and I discuss the ideas and arrive at a sketch, details to include, how to start. Then I sit down and write. Then Meehan does a first-pass edit, and we pass it back and forth until we’re both happy with it. When someone reads your rough draft, it’s like letting them see you half-dressed. It’s about arriving at a level of intellectual comfort – or having faith in the process. In a successful collaboration, both people feel like they did less than half the work.”
Requarth is now working to start a second NeuWrite group that will branch beyond the neuroscience field and beyond the Columbia campus. He’s recruiting students from other science disciplines at NYU and CUNY, as well as journalists. Another group is beginning to form in Boston.
Schoonover is optimistic that the group’s tenets will spread. “We’re trying to make the argument to science editors that the best way to guarantee accuracy and avoid hype is by having a scientist involved in every step of the crafting of articles,” he says. “Once we show that this collaboration between writers and scientists works with NeuWrite, we’d love to see it become routine. We’re sowing the seeds for expansion.”
(Image: Christmas DNA from pagedooley’s photostream)