Society of Environmental Journalists conference 2010: what children’s writers can learn from SEJ

photo (2)I just finished my time at the 2010 SEJ (Society of Environmental Journalists) conference. My head is spinning with information and ideas—a good sign, since I wasn’t sure whether to come to this conference. I mean, look at the title: Society of Environmental JOURNALISTS? I don’t think of myself as a journalist: I’m a writer. A children’s writer, a medical writer, a science writer, a nature writer—but not a journalist.

This conference made me question that assessment of myself. I write for magazines (journals); I do interviews and research; I fact check and look for bias. My first day here, a fellow attendee quizzed me on what kind of writing I do. When I finished, she said “I think you are a journalist. You just don’t know it.”

It’s an interesting question, because in the past few days I learned that journalists receive different training than “writers” do—and I think we writers (yes, even children’s writers) can learn a thing or three from them. Here are a few for starters:

  • Journalists don’t let sources review their articles after writing. Okay, I’m not completely convinced this is the way for children’s writers to go, since we generally don’t write controversial pieces; but it’s worth giving some thought. As writers, we don’t want our sources to change their quotes to make themselves sound better or to backpedal and say something less opinionated (and possibly inflammatory). On the flip side, I always give my science pieces to the researcher I’m covering so he or she can check it for accuracy. The magazines I write for want to know that the articles have been fact-checked and would prefer not to have to do the footwork to get that done.
  • Journalists have access to a vast network of resources for when they have to write a piece quickly. The SEJ listserve is a treasure trove of experts—other writers—who can point fellow members in the right direction when they need help or connections. I’ve been impressed with the openness and warmth of this group, too. They remind me of children’s writers…<grin>
  • Journalists expect people to talk to them. Maybe it’s because they write so many different things and often need to turn a piece around quite quickly. I noticed this before when journalist-turned-children’s writer Liz Rusch spoke at my local SCBWI conference, and noticed it again at this conference. Many children’s writers seem to be shy about bothering people, asking for expert opinions, asking for interview time—and we need to get over it. It’s not just that
    “most people are willing to talk to children’s writers” (the usual advice I’ve heard, at least) but that we’re doing important work. Scientists and researchers, especially those receiving public funding, should be willing to communicate with writers about their work.

I’ve learned so much over the past few days that it will take me a while to process everything. I’ll share more as I do. But to sum up: am I glad I came to this conference? You bet! Not only that, but I’d highly recommend this organization and its annual conference to anyone who writes nonfiction for young people. I’m planning to see you all there in Miami in 2011!


PS: Above is a picture of me with my friend and freelance writer extraordinaire Wendee, who encouraged me to check out SEJ and come to this year’s conference.

The Infrequent Flyer

I’’m writing to you from the Missoula, Montana airport (note the cool mosaic), where I am very very very happy to be and I’m very very happy to be here with all my various bags and devices. Why so happy, you ask?
Because apparently I’m one of those people who shouldn’t fly by herself. I don’t fly all that often—not what you’d call the Experienced Traveler—and In the past four hours, I’ve already managed to:
  • Leave my suitcase at security
  • Backtrack through “Do Not Enter” sign to retrieve said suitcase(and yes, the TSA guy at the top of the stairs actually let me re-enter security, although he did roll his eyes
  • Take a trip the wrong way down the sliding walkway AWAY from my gate (at the far end of terminal B) after stopping for coffee—and when I saw signs saying “this way to terminals A and C” I actually thought, wow, they’ve installed a new way to get from terminal to terminal, maybe in response to the fact that so many people got stranded here during Oct snowstorm five or so years ago. Seriously. But they hadn’t. I’d just gone the wrong way.
  • I next traveled BACK the way I’d come, farther and farther down the B terminal. When I could see windows at the end of the terminal and still didn’t see signs for gate B94, I started to worry. Turns out there’s another whole section of the B terminal never before discovered by yours truly: the whole thing is more the size of the entire terminal back in my hometown PA airport, a funny section of terminal with lots of twists and turns, no moving walkway, and you’d better not plan to run here because the walkways are skinny and crowded even at 6:45 in the morning. On the plus side, I finally found Starbucks here. Two of them. I’d been looking for one because I have a gift card compliments of my older son—but I’d already given up and bought coffee elsewhere (see bullet #3).
The next humorous turn to this adventure is that 20 minutes after I finally reached the gate, it changed to B65, back in the better-travelled regions of the airport. I reached the *new* gate just in time to board…which seemed odd, because the plane wasn’t supposed to board for another ten minutes. It turns out that they begin boarding earlier than advertised, because passengers must venture down a flight of stairs and down another lengthy stretch of hallway into the bowels of the terminal, where another string of heretofore secret gates lead directly out onto the tarmac, where people have to venture if they’re flying on one of those little planes that you board via stairs instead of the more usual moveable breezeway.
Did I mention it was a smallish plane? Not a puddle-jumper, like those that fly into the Corning-Elmira airport near where my family lives in PA, but smaller than I expected.
Since it was a smallish plane, we had to gate check bags–and since I’m in a losing-things mood today, I dropped my little green claim stub before I even reached the gate. (I noticed, backtracked, and actually found it—can you believe it?—and then, of course, didn’t actually need it to reclaim my bag!) On board the plane, I immediately managed to lose my cell phone. In my seat.
I’m just wondering: can adults fly as unaccompanied minors? Because I could really use someone to hold my hand when I travel!
photo (1)We had a smooth flight with the nicest flight attendant I’ve ever met and a clear view of the (very cool) landscape below.
What’s next? Now I get to wait in this lovely airport for the bus to take me to downtown Missoula, where I have a few hours to locate my lodgings, register for the conference (Society of Environmental Journalists Conference—more on that later), find lunch, and other such exciting tasks. And I probably won’t spend that time working on my computer, as planned, because my power cord seems to be on the fritz. Again. Sigh. Luckily I have a very sweet husband who’s already bought a new cord and had it shipped to me here in Missoula.
Nothing’s ever simple…but if it were, life would be dull. Right?
Smile  Cheryl

The Most Influential Tweeters

chipmunk_creativecommons If you Tweet, you might be interested in recent research from the laboratory of Alok Choudhary at Northwestern University, where grad student Ramanathan Narayanan and colleagues created a website that "uses a specialized algorithm to rank the most influential people tweeting on trending topics".

The result? While celebrities like Britney Spears and Lady Gaga gather huge numbers of Twitter followers, people are paying more attention to tweets from those with greater knowledge.

The website,, is an interesting resource for those of us trying to figure out what’s going on in the Twitterverse. Although I haven’t quite figured out how to apply it to what I tweet…which has nothing to do with Britney Spears, Desperate Housewives, or #welcometoChicago :P.

:) Cheryl

* Photo courtesy of Giles Gunthier, Flickr Commons

Music and Mood: Emotion Classification in Contemporary Music

Music is a recurring theme in my writing, so it was with great interest that I read recent news from the Glasgow Caledonian University on how music can impact mood, stress, and even the experience of pain:


In a study titled “Emotion Classification in Contemporary Music”, researchers had volunteers listen to a variety of contemporary music that isn’t available to the public, then rank the music in terms of its emotional impact. Project leader Dr Don Knox says, "We look at parameters such as rhythm patterns, melodic range, musical intervals, length of phrases, musical pitch and so on. For example, music falling into a positive category might have a regular rhythm, bright timbre and a fairly steady pitch contour over time. If tempo and loudness increase, for instance, this would place the piece in a more ‘exuberant’ or ‘excited’ region of the graph."

I think of music as a language* that we humans don’t fully understand, but one that speaks to all of us. It’s a language birds use to fight, defend territory, boast and brag…a language we humans use to inspire, soothe, comfort, trigger memories, rile up a crowd…I find it fascinating that particular arrangements of sound waves, performed in particular rhythms, volumes, and pitches can influence so many different people in so many different ways.

Music is magical.

At least, it is if you’re writing fantasy :).


*NYC’s Radio Lab produced a fascinating radio show titled “Musical Language,” in which they discuss topics such as research showing that people from multiple different cultures use the same “song” in their words when speaking to infants and “musical illusions”. Check it out!