Storygrams in the Classroom

Editor’s note: Since Showcase and The Open Notebook launched Storygrams, we have thought a lot about how they can be used in the classroom. We asked Robin Lloyd, who teaches science journalism at NYU, to explain how she attempted the task during a course in fall 2016.     

Last year, several science journalism students and I took a close look at one in a clever new series of annotated feature stories, called Storygrams. Our discussion, held near the end of my introductory class last fall at New York University’s Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program, proved educational, inspiring and thought-provoking for all of us. Students are hungry for opportunities for close study of outstanding work in our field. I plan to repeat the experiment in just a few weeks, and I recommend Storygrams as an educational tool.

The Storygram series, created last year by Siri Carpenter, The Open Notebook (TON) co-founder and editor-in-chief, is a joint project of TON and the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing (CASW). In each Storygram, a professional writer or editor annotates an award-winning piece of science journalism and interviews the story’s writer. TON has produced six Storygrams so far. Each annotation is cross-published on CASW’s Showcase pages. The series is supported by a grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

The 12 graduate students and I studied Joanne Silberner’s Storygram of George Johnson’s “Why everyone seems to have cancer,” which I selected for its concise, masterful writing and accessible topic. Also, its shorter length came closer to our 400- to 1,000-word class assignments than did other Storygrams.

We spent 10 or so minutes silently reading the piece on CASW’s Storygram page. Students chose among the reading options, that is, whether to start with hidden markup or with the highlighted or fully annotated format. Students were enthusiastic about the instructive elements and craft tips in the Storygram. They found the annotation careful, helpful, and instructive. They appreciated, for example, notations of strong writing, such as Johnson’s use of the phrase “death’s final resort.” One student appreciated the personal tone and humor in the introduction to this Storygram.

Students also had a few suggestions for ways to elaborate and enhance Storygrams as learning tools. For instance, a student suggested including more notes on the overall structure of the piece, in addition to the kinds of sentence-level notes that Silberner included (e.g., Note how Johnson uses familiar, everyday language to welcome the reader to continue with the story.). This student wanted to learn more about how the lines added up to form a cohesive, colorful narrative.

Students also wished they had the opportunity to see earlier drafts of the award-winning story, and the editor’s mark-up of those earlier drafts. In other words, they would like deeper insight into the process behind the final version, including any dialogue between the writer and editor.

Carpenter, who commissions and edits all the Storygrams, agrees that seeing early drafts of stories can be helpful for early-career and experienced writers alike. A few writers who have been interviewed as part of TON’s longstanding Q&A series have provided early or edited drafts, or portions of drafts, and readers have found those further glimpses behind the scenes valuable. Check out Robin Marantz Henig’s Q&A, as an example.

Storygram annotations are displayed within the text of a story. One student yearned for old-school marginalia like those marked on assignments printed on paper. Carpenter shares this fondness, and says the possibility came up when she was planning the series with CASW Executive Director Rosalind Reid. “We talked at some length, in the planning phases, about doing annotations this way,” she says. “The challenge, from a display perspective, comes in with long annotations—and we don’t want to discourage annotators from going long where it’s merited.”

Over on the TON site, a Q&A with the writer is stacked below the annotated story. In the case of “Why everyone seems to have cancer,” the interview provided post-publication insights from Johnson about some of his writing choices, such as why he skipped using an anecdotal lede and how he described numbers in visual terms.

Because the primary purpose of the Storygrams series is to showcase what makes outstanding stories so successful, the annotations focus mostly on the positive. But no story is perfect, of course. Silberner’s annotation included some minor critiques, but some students wanted even more. Carpenter says she encourages annotators to mention pluses and minuses within the stories they’re annotating, and urges them to offer writers an opportunity to discuss any substantive criticism in the accompanying Q&As.

I have another suggestion. Students in my class are asked to write primarily news stories, rather than feature-length pieces. A Storygram on a short-format piece might also serve students as well as experienced news writers. Science journalism awards go almost exclusively to long features, not to shorter stories of 1,000 words or fewer. So CASW Showcase editor Shannon Hall, Carpenter and some CASW board members are considering criteria for selecting suitable short-format stories for Storygrams.

All these modifications and enhancements are possibilities going forward, Carpenter says. Some might require more dollars for development costs and compensation of annotators and editors.

I plan to make use of the same Storygram again this fall in my class, because the length and focus are suitable for my class. I might develop an in-class or homework assignment in which students are asked to read the George Johnson piece on the site where it was originally published (so they are initially unaware of annotations), to identify the lede and nut graf, to find and assess transitions, to think about the way quotes are used, and to identify other elements that contribute to the strength and quality of the story. After this independent work, I would ask them to read the annotated version of the Storygram in the classroom and we could have a group discussion on the insights it provides along with those of the students.

Storygrams are a rare resource for reporting and writing instructors as well as for science journalists and non-fiction writers. I’m excited to watch the series evolve and to continue to use Storygrams in the classroom. And I encourage other teachers and educators to make use of this tool that allows students to not only read a story but to learn how to critique it and enter the mind of a writer and an editor on the road to creating an excellent story about science.

Robin Lloyd is a journalist, editor and adjunct faculty at New York University’s Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She is also vice president of CASW.