Reading The Science Writers’ Handbook: Everything You Need to Know to Pitch, Publish and Prosper in the Digital Age gave me a glimpse into the world of full-time magazine writing – a world which I may never enter but still view with enthusiasm and curiosity. 

Science journalists spend their lives digging through the mud of news content, research articles, conversations and experiences for gems – ideas that, when polished into queries, will capture the attention of editors. Some journalists even spend their vacations building the background structures of local stories.

Science journalists look for ideas and polish them. Photo Credit: bored-now via Compfight cc

A science article may start with a very rough idea that needs extensive polishing. Sometimes, just a sparkle or flash indicates the value of the query within. A query e-mail cannot be simply a discussion of a topic – it needs a newsworthy angle and some exploration of the potential arc of the story.

As journalists explore their subject matter, they use audio and visual tools to record their surroundings. These tools may include tape recorders, cameras and note-taking equipment. Part of their work during interviews is to capture the context of the stories – personal details, local color, and other highlights that give stories personality and depth.

When science journalists are ready to build their story lines, they use a range of newswriting structures. One of the structures is called a “layer cake” because it alternates between scenes and their context. Putting together a story is an intuitive and experimental process similar to assembling an artistic or architectural model.

Architectural model
Putting together a story is like constructing a 3-D model or artwork. Photo Credit: Al_HikesAZ via Compfight cc

On reading the handbook, I resolved to include more concrete details in the stories I produce. My experiments with visual descriptions have turned out well in the past. Both with print stories and multimedia, I see the process of journalism as being like creating a three-dimensional piece of art – adding some elements, removing others, and seeing how the structure hangs together.

As of today, I plan to rebrand this blog. Branding and marketing fascinate me partly because they are challenging. At the intersection of one’s enthusiasm, one’s skills, one’s circle of contacts, and the interests of one’s audiences lies a spot where one can sync with the market and create an impact. Finding this spot is like hitting a moving target. Which Facebook posts will generate responses? Which tweets will people pass on? What do readers find most captivating?

Like many people in my field, I want to learn about a variety of subjects. Over the years, my ideas have become more and more interdisciplinary, just like this image from Science Club for Girls shows. I began blending genres and mixing ideas in graduate school and have not stopped since then. Often, I find that the most exciting intersections happen where very different types of thought connect or collide.

Image showing interdisciplinarity as mixed paint

What does this have to do with personal branding? Everything. When one attempts to create a brand for someone who has interdisciplinary interests, that effort is like taking the mixed cans of paint at the bottom of the photo and trying to make one of the cans monochromatic. And, in my experience, once I developed a taste for making mashups out of ideas, there was no route back. I couldn’t get back to that single-colored monotony again. It’s hard to reverse entropy.

But, at the same time, focus matters. One can’t have the whole enchilada. My current plans – both with this blog and with my Twitter account – are to focus on science communication at academic and nonprofit organizations. Since I have a web specialty, I will also be writing about online technology. I completed a web design certificate a few years ago and am planning to brush up my skills with the latest software.

This means I’ll write about how people communicate about science. And just in case you think that sounds abstract, my post about poetry in an auto shop does fit in with that theme. I can’t think of a better example of science communication in the community than a bunch of poets talking about the inner workings of cars. Same goes for my post about electronics recycling; the art in that post is a striking visual demonstration of what is inside our computers. I also plan to write about messaging, framing, and other communications topics.

Where can you see a poet reading her work underneath a gray sedan? Tonight, Wayne’s World of Automotive Services in Beverly, Massachusetts hosted a reading where poets stood at a podium underneath an auto lift, surrounded by tools and fluorescent lights.

Colleen Michaels
When she isn’t standing underneath cars, Colleen Michaels teaches writing at the Montserrat College of Art.

The event was part of the Improbable Places Poetry Tour, a rotating performance night which has also visited a bike shop, a tattoo parlor, a swimming pool, a roller skating rink, and other locations. In each setting, the poets set up shop for one night, surrounded by a cheerful audience and a cameraman from Beverly Community Access Media.

Poetry reading at Wayne's World of Automotive Services
A red light from a passing emergency van illuminated the poetry reading.

What’s poetic about cars? One might ask. In the red light of passing tow trucks and emergency vehicles, the audience heard how cars become part of one’s family and one’s life story. One poet even said her dress matched her father’s car. It was clear that cars are objects of affection to which we ascribe personalities. We also associate cars with being teenagers. Each generation remembers different cars and knows what it feels like to drive them.

The language of cars – “revved up,” “full throttle,” “shifting gears” – permeates American vocabulary the same way sports metaphors echo down the halls of Midwestern businesses. Like sports, cars are one of our central metaphors. When we play the game of life, cars are always by our side.

Wayne's World of Automotive Services
The poetry reading took place next to mechanics’ uniforms, toolboxes and an American flag.

Every day, we are surrounded by cars. Some of us evaluate strangers based on their car choices. When we meet a new person on the highway, we see the car he or she is driving, not the person at the wheel. Many of us depend on cars continually, driving for even short errands.

So it’s not surprising that we feel symbiotic with our cars. Hearing poets describe their relationships to cars tonight cemented that awareness for me.

An audio clip I recorded while listening to a poet named J.D. expresses this sentiment in one concise line:

“We were baptized in grease.”

Electronic waste often ends up in places where it isn’t appreciated. Sometimes, it ends its life cycle in fiery pits in China and other countries. MIT students have tracked urban trash and found that e-waste ends up in all kinds of unexpected spots.

Today, Electronics Takeback Coalition posted photos of another possible destination for our computer chips: an art exhibit in Berlin, Germany. At the Electronics Goes Green 2012+ conference, artists Muharrem Batman, Ayse Batman and Judith Brun displayed these gorgeous compositions of resistors, plugs, circuit boards, connectors, wires and other electronic fragments.

Electronic Sculpture 1

Electronic Sculpture 2

Electronic Sculpture 3

I paid for part of my college education by building electronics. During my first year working at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s physics department, I thought the colors of resistors were attractive. I brought some of the discarded resistors home to add to art projects, but never figured out what I wanted to do with them.

Since then, I’ve seen electronics recycled in many ways – as jewelry, business card holders, bookmarks, coasters and clipboards. But the artwork above is the most inventive reuse of electronics I’ve found yet.

Cuff links made out of circuit boards

Have you seen any interesting reuses of electronic scraps? If so, what were they?

It takes an artistic eye to look at an ordinary wall and see potential spaces for art in the fissures between the bricks. Some artists see the blank spaces between objects as zones where new ideas can emerge. M.C. Escher used white space as a central part of his artwork.

Now, in cities around the world, artists are using plastic bricks to fill in empty spaces and “patch” broken walls and monuments. These “dispatchers” have collected their handiwork on a website which includes their manifesto:

I don’t enjoy living in dull and grey cities. Do you? Have you noticed that toys for kids are generally very shiny and colorful? I wonder why that is, given that they are to be brought up to live in mostly dull and gray cities as adults. Since I lived in many of such cities, I am seeking to improve the appearance of public spaces in different ways, in terms of what I consider improvement. Dispatchwork aims to seal fissures in broken walls worldwide, completing the material compilation in urban constructing and adding color to the urban greyscales.

Like Buddhist sand mandalas, the repairs are intended to be temporary. Because the plastic will end up in our water systems eventually, I’d like to see this group experiment with biodegradable LEGOs. Unfortunately, the only biodegradable LEGO-style bricks that exist are a dull shade of brown. Only their scent is attractive; apparently, they smell like green tea.

Since living in Chicago, I have been interested in art projects that reclaim damaged parts of city landscapes. There are many ways to introduce art into cities, including turning vacant lots into parks and yarn bombing.

I participated in a Dispatchers project in Beverly, Massachusetts this weekend. We decorated the entrance of a graffiti-covered building with LEGO-shaped stickers.

A Dispatchers event in Beverly, MA.
Dispatchers standing next to an entrance covered with LEGO-style stickers.

We also inserted LEGOs into the foundation of a building at the Montserrat College of Art, as well as some other buildings including the Unitarian church on Cabot Street. We used friction and a small amount of silicone caulk to hold the LEGOs in place.

Inserting Lego bricks into the foundation of the Montserrat art school's Hardie Building
Inserting LEGO bricks into the foundation of the Montserrat College of Art’s Hardie Building.

Curious about whether Dispatchers have been at work in your city? Explore the Dispatchwork website for more details and photos of the installations. Many of the installations are in Europe, but some are in Asia, the Middle East, and North America.

When I was a college student, I felt free to explore different interests and groups without worrying about how that would affect my personal brand. Now, recent graduates sit through workshops like “Careers, Beers and the Brand Called You.” Although I promoted this workshop via NetSquared Boston, I didn’t attend it – for a reason.

Although I understand the value of personal branding from a business standpoint, I believe business values have infiltrated the personal and creative spheres of people who are seeking to market themselves. In some ways, this is a good thing; in other ways, it can be destructive.

Vintage mirror and jewelryYou are not your image. (Source: stock.xchng)

You Are Not Your Career

Recent evidence from the recession shows that economic downturns can lead to suicides. The people most likely to commit suicide in Europe seem to be those with strong career aspirations – the upwardly mobile and entrepreneurial people who are most likely to engage in personal branding.

Think about it. If you are your brand and you suffer economic hardship, what does that say about your worth as a human being? What does that say about your marketability? It’s not a surprise that people who overidentify with their careers become hopeless in these situations.

I’m a fan of the Seven Habits series and believe that having a strong source of internal purpose and mission is important to career survival and happiness. This means that one’s purpose is not the same as one’s brand.

One’s purpose is like a compass; one’s brand is like a vehicle that gets one to the next destination. Building a brand is useful, but it is no substitute for having a source of self-worth that is independent from how one makes a living.

You Have the Right to Experiment

I had a long e-mail conversation with Bill Lascher last year about how branding one’s writing can limit one’s creative freedom. For example, if a woman who’s been writing chick lit for 10 years decides to produce a novel about the Vietnam War, her web presence will need a makeover.

It took me a long time to develop the brand for this blog. The urban environmental version of this blog did a great job of encapsulating my journalism interests. But it didn’t convey most of what I do for a living. There are two halves to my work – the freelance journalism and the work I do for established environmental, science and/or technology organizations. I updated my website to include both of these sides of my writing.

My interests are multifaceted and do not distill down into a sound bite easily. Luckily, environmental issues and technology are such broad topics that I have no shortage of ideas to explore. I have a genre, but it’s not a very limiting genre.

Still, even with this relatively flexible definition, I still am not my brand. In my free time, I do a lot of dancing. The type of dance I do combines martial arts, yoga, jazz dance and modern dance. There are many other things I do that don’t fit into my brand neatly either.

You Don’t Owe the Internet an Explanation

If you’re trying to maintain a consistent brand, you may police your online presence. This is an overrated activity. It is not fun; also, it can limit your participation in activities you enjoy because you are too busy watching your paper trail.

Idealistically speaking, as long as whatever you are doing is legal and reasonably ethical, it shouldn’t matter if it comes up on the first page of a search. However, there may be some types of material – for example, your memoir about your years as a bartender – that fall into a gray area. Employers exclude applicants based on evidence of alcohol consumption and may not appreciate the candid nature and literary quality of your writing. Appearance discrimination is also alive and well online, so simple hairstyle changes can become stressful choices.

The advice “to thine own self be true” is difficult to follow if you are a writer engaging in personal branding. If you’re a real estate agent who has never written a controversial blog post in her life, then personal branding is easy – get a headshot and you’re done. I suspect most writers find this process difficult.

Ironically, although writers are encouraged to focus on marketing and branding, authenticity is what fuels good writing. Being able to sit with a pen or computer and face exactly what one wants to say is part of the creative process. Personal branding can short-circuit that experience, substituting image maintenance for real self-expression.

You Aren’t in Charge of Your Image

Personal branding requires writers and other creative content producers to take a hard look in the mirror. Now, more than ever, we are subjected to the whims of search engines and online conversations. Most of this is completely outside our control.

Personal brand advocates seem to downplay the following point: as marketers of our own work, we are not in charge of how other people respond to us. We are only responsible for what we say. We are not responsible for whether or not people like us. If people photograph us in an unflattering way, that is outside our control.

In the world of branding and social media, it’s important to recognize that we do not control our images. We can create them and shape them. We can alter them. But they are a collaborative creation – and some of that creation is done by our audience. Studies show that people will misread much of what we post online.

We can’t hold ourselves responsible for how people see us; we are only responsible for what we say and do. In a world where people may not judge us by our actions, we can continue to hold that standard for ourselves and others. We can keep our self-images separate from our personal brands. And we can recognize image evaluation is a weak substitute for assessment of character.

I just returned from the Mass Poetry Festival with many ideas about how poetic skills can enrich science writing.

Poetry isn’t very popular in the United States, although the slam movement has opened it to a broader audience. As a former spoken word performer, I use poetic techniques regularly in my other writing.

New Scientist magazine did a series of interviews with poets who were interested in the relationship between poetry and science. Here is one of them – with Lavinia Greenlaw. Greenlaw describes how poets use metaphors to explain the unknown.

Below are a few other poetic skills which can add clarity and interest to science writing.

Write Concisely

Trimming unnecessary words out of lines of poetry requires the same attention to detail as shortening technical explanations does. In both cases, your goal should be to distill and refine your content for maximum effect. While a poem may be intentionally vague, science writing should be clear and easy to follow.

If you’re writing about science, don’t make the mistake of falling in love with the sound of your own keyboard – keep your content straightforward and to the point.

Pick Words that Work

In science writing, it’s best not to leave concepts fuzzy. Choose words that will make your points clear. Similarly, when writing poetry, clean the fuzz out of your language. This may mean removing repetitive words, choosing original language, or picking words that will hone the effect you want to create.

Sharpening a poem is like sharpening a pencil. In science writing, you should pay attention to the emotional tone and messages your words evoke. Word choice can change the impact of an article by evoking fear, trust, inspiration, respect, neutrality or other emotions. In science writing, as in poetry, your choice of emotions may change your readers’ minds.

Frame Your Story

Poets use structure, rhyme and imagery to frame their work. Opening a poem by describing grinding machinery can create a specific atmosphere for that poem. Similarly, journalists and science communicators can frame stories by opening them with human interest anecdotes. A technical writer may frame a manual by organizing the content logically and beginning with an explanation that sets the scene.

Are there any other similarities you see between poetry and science writing? If so, what are they?

How do these styles of writing differ?

This post is inspired by Lee Worden’s article “Counterculture, Cyberculture, and the Third Culture: Reinventing Civilization, Then and Now”. Worden says the counterculture of the 1970s gave rise to the movements that have since spawned Google, WikiLeaks and Wired Magazine. Worden describes these movements as both idealist and libertarian.

What do these technology movements believe? Worden identified four central threads.

  1. Belief that access to tools is empowering on its own
  2. Rejection of bureaucratic systems in favor of new options
  3. Creation of flexible social structures to accomplish goals
  4. Idealization of individual freedom
Lava lamp
Like futuristic technology, lava lamps were also idealized in the 1970s.

Peter Taylor, a professor at University of Massachusetts-Boston, has diagrammed the trends in the article.

I’m somewhat critical of the four assumptions above, even though I can see their value.

Does Access to Technology Solve Problems?

Access to tools alone doesn’t create the social outcomes communities may desire. I’ve seen examples of this in the nonprofit world and in K-12 education. If technology isn’t seen as relevant, practical and useful, a community may not respond positively to it.

Sometimes, poorly designed or misapplied technology can be confusing or even destructive. When I was in engineering school, there was a joke circulating which said the Ph.D. exam for mechanical engineers involved being locked in a room with a saber-toothed tiger, a disassembled gun, and a user’s manual written in Swahili. Not every technological solution is a useful one.

Should Crowd-Sourcing Replace Paid Work?

Creating flexible social structures can have both advantages and disadvantages. Many of these organizations rely on volunteer labor. Their volunteers work within structured institutions during the day and then spend their free time on these other projects. One could argue that citizen journalists are not being paid adequately for their time.

To what extent should these modern, flexible technology organizations rely on crowd-sourced, unpaid or underpaid labor? As the worldwide market becomes more competitive, people in technical and creative occupations may find that volunteers are making their jobs obsolete. Fact-checking, a traditional staple of journalism, could be replaced by community-sourced editing.

Should Individual Voices Replace Experts and Organizations?

Technology projects find ways to reward and encourage problem solving and innovation. They reach beyond bureaucracies into the community. Some of these projects are housed within universities. There are many crowd-sourced projects going on today – from gathering science data to fact-checking news articles. The organizers of these projects are often enthusiastic about the value of individual voices.

The shortcomings of overvaluing individual voices already show among bloggers, where a chorus of individual voices can sometimes drown out sources that are more reliable. On the other hand, sometimes projects like Wikipedia can eclipse encyclopedias.

Despite the disadvantages of the idealized, crowd-sourced, egalitarian model of creating technology and content, this approach can be very productive if used skillfully. Google uses this model for much of its work.

What Matters More – Innovation or Community?

As Worden says, this popular online business model “blurs the line between the company and its customers, essentially encouraging customers to create the product, and then selling the customers and their work to each other and keeping the profits.” This model benefits businesses, but doesn’t necessarily support the best interests of the communities around them.

Worden worries about the potential of giving inventors infinite freedom to create products which may be dangerous or poorly designed. He believes community values should come first.

The story of the gun and the saber-toothed tiger shows that sometimes relationships should matter more than technology. If the engineering student focuses on assembling the gun, it’s too late. It’s the student’s ability to calm the tiger that may save the day.

A wave of infographics has hit the Internet. In this sea of visual information, how can one decide what differentiates a good infographic from a bad one? How can you decide whether or not to make an infographic of your own?

Surprise Your Readers

I believe the best infographics change readers’ perspectives. The infographic below – about the relationship between fitness and intelligence – shifted my perspective when I read it.

Stereotypically, many people in the United States think exercise has little to do with being an “A” student. For people who have demanding jobs, there can even be social pressure not to exercise.

This infographic from Classes and Careers shows that exercise improves mental performance throughout one’s life.

Exercise Makes You Smart - Infographic

Think in Terms of Graphics, Not Words

Here’s an infographic which is too text-heavy. The organization which created it, FitnessHealthZone, has put lengthy explanations in the infographic rather than pulling out key statistics and diagramming them.

Vegetables and Physical Activity - Infographic

Use Design to Make Your Points Clear

Present information in ways that make sense to readers and lead them through your thought process.

Would you start a PowerPoint presentation with your last slide? Probably not. Expect your reader’s eye to travel through the infographic in sequence. Treat the infographic as a presentation that starts at the top of the page. Use design to draw readers’ attention to the sequence of ideas you want them to see.

The following infographic from Health Science should begin with images about the health impacts of sugar. Because it omits them, it is much less persuasive than it would be otherwise. Also, one of the diagrams implies that 44 percent of an individual fruit drink contains juice rather than showing that 44 percent of all fruit drinks contain juice.

Motivate Action by Focusing on Impacts

If you’re going to use an infographic to encourage readers to take political action, it’s especially important that you motivate them to do so. The fruit drink infographic focuses on documenting advertising dollars while omitting most of the health concerns. The advertising dollars aren’t the main problem – the health consequences are.

Make Recommended Actions Easy to Do

Asking a relatively passive online audience to push legislators for regulation of fruit drinks may not be realistic. A link to a petition might be a better option.

The personal actions shown below – drinking water and reading ingredient lists – are likely to appeal to parents and shoppers.

The infographic about vegetables and exercise suggests many easy actions but doesn’t present them in a graphic format.

Use Contrast and Humor

The exercise and intelligence infographic uses contrasts to show the effects of different types of exercise.

The fruit drink infographic is the best example of contrast and humor in this post. Its use of mustaches to represent misbehaving beverages is catchy. The calorie comparison between fruit drinks and chicken legs is also well done.

Soda's Evil Twin - Fruit Drinks

Find Online Design Tools

Are you interested in making your own infographics? Try visiting Makeuseof has reviewed a few other tools. .Net Magazine has a tutorial which outlines some of the ideas I’ve included above but doesn’t focus on motivation, logical flow and action as much as I did in this post.