SciCommer Interview: Siri Carpenter, PhD

By Fancy Comma, LLC Team

“I was working on my Ph.D. in Psychology when I discovered that science writing existed, and I immediately knew that it was what I wanted to do,” says @SiriCarpenter.

Fancy Comma recently had the chance to interview Siri Carpenter about her experiences and advice as a freelance SciCommer. Siri is a Madison, Wisconsin-based freelance SciCommer and co-founder of the nonprofit organization The Open Notebook, which provides free resources to help science writers succeed, including blog articles, workshops, mentoring programs, and courses.

photo of siri carpenter
Siri Carpenter is co-founder of science writing resource The Open Notebook. Image Credit: Christie Aschwanden.

Keep reading for our interview with Siri!

Fancy Comma: Where are you based? What do you do as a SciCommer?

Siri Carpenter: I live in Madison, WI. I run The Open Notebook, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to help journalists around the world sharpen their skills in covering science. We publish articles on the science writing craft as well as other online resources, and we run a number of mentoring programs and offer workshops and free online courses.

FC: How did you break into SciComm? How are you finding your journey so far?

Siri: I was working on my Ph.D. in Psychology when I discovered that science writing existed, and I immediately knew that it was what I wanted to do. I was fortunate to learn about the National Association of Science Writers (which has been my professional home ever since) and about the American Association for the Advancement of Science fellowship program, through which I got my first experience writing about science for the public as an intern for Richmond Times-Dispatch, with the great A.J. Hostetler as my mentor. Later I became a freelancer and then an editor and co-founded The Open Notebook with my friend Jeanne Erdmann. It’s been a fantastic voyage!

FC: Why do you think The Open Notebook is important for science communicators?

Siri: It’s never been clearer that high-quality science journalism is essential to society. Practicing the craft well requires a number of complex skills, and these can be difficult to learn (ask me how I know!), especially for freelancers who may not have the mentoring support of a traditional newsroom, and for people who don’t have access to formal training opportunities. We try to help science journalists cultivate the full range of skills they need by providing free, in-depth resources for learning that are accessible to anyone, anywhere in the world.

FC: What advice would you give to an aspiring science journalist on finding the story angles for writing a press release?

Siri: Finding story angles, regardless of whether it’s for a story or for a press release, can be so challenging. It’s what editors always ask of freelancers: “Pitch me a story, not a topic!” and that can be easier said than done. When I think about finding story angles, I often think of it in one of two ways: 1) an angle is a narrow slice of a topic … a piece of a larger pie or 2) an angle is the central driving idea — a question or an argument — that is the story’s reason for being. When you can express your story’s central driving idea in one concise, active sentence, and that idea is interesting, original, timely, and backed by evidence, then you have found your angle. (But don’t forget, any given topic can have many possible angles.) Finding good angles is a matter of reading “widely and weirdly” (as Emily Laber-Warren puts it in our Science Journalism Master Class on finding angles) and of listening to people — experts, friends, family, strangers you meet, always with an ear for a good story.

.@SiriCarpenter on finding an angle for a story: it’s “a matter of reading “widely and weirdly”…and of listening to people — experts, friends, family, strangers you meet, always with an ear for a good story.”

About Siri Carpenter

Siri received her PhD in Psychology from Yale in 2000 and currently runs the nonprofit organization The Open Notebook, providing resources such as workshops, courses, and mentoring for science writers. She is the co-founder and editor of the The Open Notebook’s book The Craft of Science Writing. Siri was president of the National Association of Science Writers from 2018 to 2020. Siri’s work focuses on bringing science news and science writing resources to SciCommers and the public. Learn more about Siri by following her on Twitter @SiriCarpenter.

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