Annotated by the Author: ‘Tiny Tyrannosaur Hints at How T. Rex Became King’

Annotated by the Author: ‘Tiny Tyrannosaur Hints at How T. Rex Became King’

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Nicholas St. Fleur: I love having fun with my leads. Tyrannosaurs are known as “tyrant lizards,” so I thought it would be whimsical to flip that on its head in the opening to this story.

T. rex is the king of the dinosaurs. So I wanted to continue with this Mesozoic monarchy theme I had going. I try to be clever with my wordplay, so I used “regal” and “relegated” because they play well with the “rex” in T. rex. I took that idea further by saying the tyrannosaurs were once “second-class predators” as a sort of nod to the term “second-class citizen,” which you might find under a monarchy. Then we deliver the reason tyrannosaurs weren’t always the big baddies: there were even more ferocious dinosaurs roaming around.

I’ll admit that my opening paragraphs are usually my most colorful because I typically spend the most amount of time on them. You really have to grab a reader’s attention with your first few sentences if you want to have them read the entire story. It’s for that reason that my first few paragraphs are often the last part that I write. I’m constantly tinkering with the wordplay.

“Seize the throne”: another monarchy reference.

In journalism, we call this portion the “nut” because it tells readers why the information the article imparts is important. You can find a “nut” paragraph or two in nearly every news article you read. This nut is helping readers understand the point of this finding, which is in that last sentence — it lets scientists “narrow down the window when tyrannosaurs became huge.”

Another thing to notice: I made the “big as a deer” comparison because when we write about sizes, we try to make real-world comparisons that will give our readers a better idea of the scale we’re talking about.

I try to always place a quote from one of the main scientists involved high up in my story. The more fun and eye-catching the quote, the higher up it typically tends to appear.

Also, we always mention the day and the journal where the new paper was published, and provide links so readers can see the information for themselves. Unfortunately, these papers are often behind paywalls.

I’m a big fan of retelling the moments of discovery. Depending on the word count that I’m allotted, I try to make this part of my story as descriptive as possible. My goal is to pick up the reader and place them right there, as if they were at the field site with the researcher.

Looking back at this part of the story, I would have liked to have been more descriptive of what it was that Dr. Zanno saw. I often get some of my best quotes when I ask a scientist, “What was going through your head at that exact moment when you found that dinosaur bone?”

To me, a story really sings when it shows the scientists’ emotions. In this particular case, I could have done a better job of capturing that moment.

Science takes time. Often a lot of time. It can be brutal, tedious work. I try my best not to romanticize it, but rather to describe it as a process that often involves a lot of people working together. And oftentimes their jobs may not be the most exciting.

In this case, Aaron Giterman wasn’t a scientist mentioned on the paper. Dr. Zanno had mentioned to me that they worked with a technician who pieced the leg back together, and I thought it would be important to the story to highlight his work alongside that of the paper’s authors.

Science is very collaborative but not everyone gets to be an author on the paper, so I often ask for the names of people who were involved but not mentioned. Typically this includes citizen scientists or grade school students who stumble upon fossils while walking around the beach or digging in a park. I think stories like these show the readers that people just like them are contributing to science and that they could, too.

Meanwhile, at the end of these paragraphs you’ll see the nitty-gritty numbers that give the reader an idea of how big this dinosaur was. By comparing it to T. rex we see that it was actually pretty minuscule. A “tiny rex” if you will!

I also try my best to interview researchers beyond just the first author and the senior scientists. It provides you with a bigger look into what the story really is. Sometimes these conversations give you little anecdotes that you would never get out of the main researchers.

I once spoke with a student who told me that because his work with fossilized butterflies was so delicate, he needed to use the finest brush possible. That meant using a brush tipped with a human nose hair! That became the headline to our story: Finding the Oldest Fossils of Butterflies Using a Human Nose Hair.

I had a longer description of what Dr. Canoville did, but my editor rightfully condensed it to the previous sentence. Sometimes we writers get so excited about the methods that scientists use that we forget that we’re probably going to lose the reader if we talk about things like grounding down epoxy resins. This is why a good editor is so important!

Finally, the comparison to tree rings helps the reader better understand why the scientist had to study the growth marks on the bone.

Here, the researcher says what the ultimate goal of measuring the growth marks was: determining that the tyrannosaur was an adult and a new species. That’s what helped them to make their overall finding.

When we report on new research we always try to reach out to experts to provide context for our readers. That way we aren’t overhyping or underselling a new finding.

Sometimes the outside experts disagree with a finding, at which point we take their concerns to the paper’s authors and ask them for their responses to the criticism. That wasn’t the case for this paper.

I’ve interviewed both Thomas Carr and Stephen Brusatte in the past and I knew they’d be excellent sources to weigh in on this new finding.

Typically, I try to reach out to outside sources early in my reporting process. Often when I sit down to write I distill my interviews with them into a few short paragraphs that capture their overall thoughts on the paper. Even though they usually appear at the bottom of my story, these paragraphs are usually the first ones that I write. It helps me to get “something on the paper” because for many of us writers there is no bigger hurdle to overcome than looking at a blank word document.

Dr. Brusatte in particular is a terrific science communicator who always delivers elegant, yet adrenaline-inducing quotes. You see his name pop up a lot in popular dinosaur articles. And his quote here was just what I needed to end my story.

If you’d like to hear more from Mr. St. Fleur, and from fellow science writer James Gorman, you might be interested in our on-demand webinar, Teaching With The Science Times.