Mnookin: how to make the complex into compelling journalism

Seth Mnookin Photo

You may not think of science or historical non-fiction as gripping writing genres, but even subjects evocative of dry, expository textbooks can be thrilling page-turners, author Seth Mnookin says.

Mnookin, author of The Panic Virus: The True Story Behind the Vaccine-Autism Controversy, and Katy Butler, author of Knocking on Heaven’s Door: A Daughter’s Journey through Old Age and New Medicine, discussed strategies for turning dry-but-important health and health policy topics into accessible, even riveting, narratives for a lay audience on Thursday at the 2013 American Healthcare Journalism conference in Boston.


Look for the narrative


“I start with the story of a family who deliberately did not vaccinate her young son” who almost died of infectious disease, Mnookin said, but he didn’t contact experts with the types of questions reporters covering this issue normally ask. “Instead of [asking] ‘How much of a problem is this?’ [or] ‘Do you see this happening more often?’ or ‘Do you have numbers of victims nationwide?’ I asked, ‘Can you put me in touch with any families who are willing to talk about this?’” Mnookin recalled.

Since he was working on a book rather than an article, Mnookin’s extended deadline allowed him the luxury of compiling stories without necessarily using each one of them. He told his sources that he just wanted to hear their story, but would contact them for permission at a later time if he decided he wanted to use it. This made them more comfortable with being open, giving him richer material from which to draw.


Make difficult topics accessible


Mnookin also cited the award-winning book Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks as a great example of taking the complex and making it fun to read. Author Rebecca Skloot, Mnookin pointed out, used a rhetorical technique to broach the scientific subjects that form the book’s backbone: she pointed out to the reader early on that she herself didn’t understand the subject matter at first. After putting the reader at ease, Skloot delved into details. Mnookin said he used a similar approach in Panic Virus, toeing the fine line between talking down to readers (a no-no) and letting them know you, the writer, understand that these are difficult concepts.


Don’t use characters as props


“Don’t think of your characters as little objects you pull out to use in terms of an example and then put back,” Butler added. Instead, use plot and character as a way to draw a bigger picture. This is particularly important when covering death and disease. “People in hospital gowns are not attractive…We’re afraid of this. It’s very repelling,” Butler said. “Unless you draw the bridges between the island of healthcare and the experience of everyday life, you lose people.” Make sure the focus of your story is not entirely tragic.


Embed a fundamental issue


In the New Yorker article “Letting Go,” writer and doctor Atul Gawande interspersed the story of terminally ill patient Sara Thomas Monopoli with a parallel story: the issue of what medicin’s role should be when a patient’s days are numbered. By addressing the actual issue but not shying away from the narrative, Gawande crafted a story that was both general and specific.

Too much hard science or factual information can bore the reader, the speakers said, but interweaving it with narrative can increase suspense. Finding a balance by zipping back and forth between the two creates a compelling, engaging story.


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About Yael Grauer

Yael Grauer is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer and editor. Find her online at Yael Writes.