Wheat harvest

Reaping a Harvest of Advice from Six Journalism Conferences

When you can’t traipse around the United States to travel to two months of journalism conferences, what do you do? This fall, I listened in via Twitter and collected the advice that I found. I attended one of these conferences in person as well.

Here are some of the best morsels of information that I gleaned from this fall’s harvest of journalism conference tweets. Enjoy!

Wheat harvestThese tweets are from the following conferences:

#editors3D – American Society of Newspaper Editors

#SEJ2015 – Society of Environmental Journalists

#SciWri15 – National Association of Science Writers

#ONA15 – Online News Association

#LION15 – Local Independent Online News

#NENPA2015 – New England Newspaper and Press Association


Surround yourself with friends in the industry. It can really help you. #ONA15failfest #ONA15
.@cephillips‘s @StanfordJourn class, along w/ @BallState & @SJSU, produced a site covering #Editors3d this weekend: http://bit.ly/1M27zB1

The (very unofficial) blog of ONA15. Blog: bit.ly/ONA15_LA #ONA15

Takeaways from the Reshaping Social Newsgathering panel w @acarvin, @mjenkins, and @Niketa Blog: bit.ly/ONA15_LA #ona15

#ONA15 Said it before and will say again, @ONAConf‘s commitment to represent women, LGBT and people of colour is exemplary. Thank you.


MT @tomlevenson: RT @swannoelle: It is editors’ perception of who you are as a writer that determines the assignments you get.

RT @cbquist: “How writers see themselves may not be the way that the rest of the world sees them. “ @scicurious #Bwordsciwri #sciwri15

RT @swannoelle: Your narrative style can be a brand that is applied to a variety of beats. #Bwordsciwri #sciwri15

Newsroom Management

MT @wearehearken: Resources galore for community engagement strategies! From my #ONAcomm session http://bit.ly/ona-engage

Here’s @pewresearch‘s report about online harassment: pewrsr.ch/1rfpq7 http://ow.ly/TB0F5V #ONA15

RT @rosybattaglia: RT @ONA: .@Poynter on our new Build Your Own Ethics tool: http://bit.ly/1G5Auw5  #ONAethics #ONA15

Think about email newsletter as a product. Who is your audience? What problem are you trying to solve? –@millie @gregory #ONA15

Praise your writers. That’s a parenting technique and an editing technique. And pay ’em well. @robinlloyd99 #sciwri15 #editing2015

RT @itsren: Finding funders is like dating — you just need to find the right people who will sit down and connect with you. #LION15

RT @itsren: If you can’t beat your competitors to the punch, try to be more comprehensive and credible. There’s no value to the same junk.

Accuracy and truth suffers when [your] media relies on freelancers and inexperienced journalists and competes with viral news. #editors3D

Media startup founders listen up: “Do just one thing really well” says @farano #editors3D

RT @lionpubs: Partner to get your journalism spread to a bigger audience, improve branding and reach funders, says @LyleMuller #lion15

RT @palewire: ICYMI: Today we released this new free and open source @WordPress tool for news archiving at #ONA15. Talk: http://bit.ly/wordpress-memento-talk … Code: http://pastpages.github.io/wordpress-memento-plugin/ …

Love this insight from @tseelig : One of most powerful things you can do is question the questions you ask. #editors3D

Hey, millennials read, care, pay for news. Yet another prezo tells us what we better already know @tbr1 #editors3D


@tseelig says you need to inspire others to innovate. Editor challenge is to inspire trained skeptics — journos. #editors3D

“Long stories are still read, people.” – @DrMarioRGarcia #NENPA2015

“You have to think of how your readers use your information.” – DrMarioRGarcia #NENPA2015

“Many of these editors are still in the past.” – Mario Garcia #NENPA2015

“The era of at-a-glance journalism has arrived.” – Mario Garcia #NENPA2015

A good editor suggests wording / phrasing but leaves it up to the writer to make the changes. #sciwri15

.@laurahelmuth: As editor, be aware of the power balance. #sciwri15 #editing2015

To be an editor, you have to have a high tolerance for meetings @laurahelmuth #sciwri15

When The New York Times introduced bulleted lists in 2015, “I thought it was a moment to celebrate.” – @DrMarioRGarcia #NENPA2015

Um, love. People like long stories via @tbr1 #editors3D #readtoyourkids

“Just because it’s short doesn’t mean it’s bad for you.” – @koci on mini-narratives #editors3D #thinktofu

RT @aconnersimons: Make sure writers still feel in control of their words, says @areesesantafe. #sciwri15 #editing2015

RT @aconnersimons: .@robinlloyd99: journalists often don’t realize how helpful it is to write a story outline. #sciwri15 #editing2015

RT @bobfinn: .@JamieShreeve: Can’t expect writers to write the story you would have written.#editing2015 #sciwri15

RT @ashleybraun: Editors should help the writers rediscover the joy of the story that first inspired it, says @laurahelmuth #sciwri15

MT @KashaPatel: On science editing: “You have to know when to impose your vision on the story and when to back off” –@JamieShreeve

RT @bradscriber: RT @bobfinn: .@laurahelmuth: As an editor you have a huge responsibility not to let a writer embarrass himself/herself.


If your community is getting browner & your newsroom is getting whiter your bottom line will get redder. @RussContreras to #editors3D #ASNE

The touchstone of diversity training in newsrooms is Dori Maynard’s Fault Lines. Required reading for journos mije.org/faultlines #ona15

Of about 2200 members of @ScienceWriters, 89% are white. We must be active on seeking diversity. #sciwriwomen  #sciwri15

Q: How often are women used as sources in journalism? A: not often enough #sexisminsciwri #sciwri2015

“Diversity is the only way for us to be competitive right now,” @mitrakalita tells newspaper orgs @ #editors3D

.@drmariogarcia: Millennials need to mentor their bosses. #nenpa2015 @nenpa

.@mitrakalita: Don’t let anyone be the only one talking about diversity in hiring in your newsroom. #editors3D

MT @ejwillingham: Says @deborahblum: “monoculture isn’t good for anything and that includes the profession of journalism”

RT @juliebastuk: RT @ejwillingham: The Freelance Writer Bill of Rights is here: http://sciencewritingsummit.org/freelance-writer-bill-of-rights/ … #sciwriwomen #sciwri15

MT @apoorva_nyc: RT @NidhiSubs: For internships: Hire outside of your immediate pool. Contact @culturedish @WritersofColor etc to advertise

MT @fkwang: RT @DrMRFrancis: .@apoorva_nyc : don’t underpay interns. That alone opens the pool to far more applicants. #sciwri15

MT @DrMRFrancis: .@apoorva_nyc : trade magazines are much friendlier to non-white writers. Pipeline privileges white people. #sciwri15

Another piece of advice for editors: Bring up diversity all the time. @mitrakalita speaking to #editors3D

RT @sciencesense: People fear the things they don’t understand– Mark Johnson #sciwri15


RT @preetinmalani: RT @laurahelmuth: Re: #sciwri15 #editing2015: Are You a Writer or an Editor? Part I: The Writers http://www.theopennotebook.com/2013/01/15/should-you-be-a-writer-or-an-editor-part-i-the-writers/ …

MT @science_eye: RT @bradscriber: Here’s the Open Notebook post, How Not to Pitch, that @robinlloyd99 mentioned http://bit.ly/1jVN6kN

Also not brought up yet: What about COIs stemming from unpaid activism? #sciwri15

StrawberriesWe’re honored to have won an #ona15 award for our investigation on the Dark Side of the Strawberry! Read it here: revealnews.org/article/califo…

RT @DrMRFrancis: No shame in wanting to be paid reasonable money for doing quality work. Repeat this, loudly, over and over. #sciwri15

#Sciencewriters must get out of usual environment/office; shoe leather reporting required – @marynmck #otherstories

MT @JoAnnaScience: Here’s an essay by @SorenWheeler about keeping humor in your science writing http://www.lastwordonnothing.com/2012/06/05/guest-post-make-me-feel-something-please/ …

MT @arconklin: Burkhard Bilger types his sources’ responses while interviewing, leading to awkward pauses and quote gold. #sciwri1

RT @scienceengage: You can write the absurd but find its significance, and you can write about something serious and make it absurd

On how to interview: Be real with subjects, like w/friends in a bar. Model your own authenticity to elicit theirs. #HumorNASW15  #sciwri15

MT @alizardx: RT @JoAnnaScience: “humor works when it humanizes, when it levels the playing field,”- @SorenWheeler #sciwri15 #HumorNASW15

RT @scienceengage: You can be funny and respectful towards your subject #sciwri15

RT @marcabrahams: RT @AjSolliday: From @MarcAbrahams: Describe the unexpected clearly. It’s funny. #HumorNASW15 #sciwri15

RT @lillianhwang: RT @ErinPodolak: Reporting is an “opportunity to engage with people’s complexity” says @marynmck #sciwri15

“These are the best of times to be a storyteller.” – @DrMarioRGarcia #NENPA2015

MT @LizDrogeYoung: Women far less likely to be expert scientist sources in stories #sciwriwomen

RT @koriosc: RT @laurenkwolf: Fact checking is not a punishment. It’s protecting your work–Brad Scriber #sciwri15

RT @managewski: Acknowledge that you’re a journalist, but also a person. – @kimfox #ONA15 #ONA15failfest

Technology and Multimedia

In @saraquinn research, audience spend 50% more time with professional images over amateur images. #editors3D

Another great #ONA15 find: a free guide for verifying photos and videos by  @firstdraftnews medium.com/1st-draft/are-…

How to handle the haters on social: kill ’em with kindness #ONA15

You can get the 2016 edition of our annual trends report here: https://goo.gl/DDsulZ  #ona15

More on bots in the newsroom – “Should journalists worry?” bit.ly/1gYCmAh @ONANewsroom #ONA15

“I’m surprised at the number of people in newsrooms who do not have a Twitter account.” – @DrMarioRGarcia #NENPA2015

RT @millie: If you read one thing about push notifications, read @lauraelizdavis‘s very smart piece http://www.buzzfeed.com/lauradavis/hope-you-appreciate-this#.atkjY6Vgn … #ona15

RT @DavidHo: From #50Apps at #ONA15 – Our technology is meaningless without the humanity that gives it purpose.

With the advent of mobile, “computers are going the way of print.” – @DrMarioRGarcia #NENPA2015

Use images to “get the reader into the story.” – @DrMarioRGarcia #NENPA2015

.@drmariogarcia: 1/3 of news team will not get on digital train. #nenpa2015 @nenpa

MT @AnnaNowo: .@abexlumberg on podcast funding: team up with people as creative at the business side as you are creative at the journalism

“Social media is not a broadcast platform.” – @NoahBombard #NENPA2015

Science Journalism

MT @kari_choi: RT @ensiamedia: New to science writing? Interested in environmental journalism? Check out Ensia’s mentor program (we pay!)

Imp’t from @JoelAchenbach: Journalists need to be aware of hyping findings, be knowledgeable about reproducibility in science #editors3D

#sciwri15 So many political issues have become so tribalized that it’s a waste of time to talk facts #globalwarming

In fight against poverty, “the truth is often uncomfortable.” Our job as science writers: to seek the truth without fear or favor #sciwri15

RT #VJin140: #sciwri15 award for #longform science reporting goes to #insideclimate team: insideclimatenews.org/fracking-eagle… https://t.co/qwE

Love this wonk translation from @susangoldberg: “how to fix it and how to live with it” – not “climate mitigation & adaptation” #editors3d

Thank you. “We need more political reporters who are comfortable with science reporting.” @MichaelOreskes #editors3D

Thx @CleoPaskal for shout-out for @NewSecurityBeat! #sej2015 Also see @CntrClimSec #climatesecurity 101 http://bit.ly/1R2KcoJ

@burkese Q&A on nexus of energy, natl security, & climate & its impact on the armed services http://ow.ly/TekuF  #SEJ2015

RT @00sarrett: RT @fenellasaunders: #sciwri15 data journ w @leHotz: lidar map of NYC for solar power potential.

Can we expect environmental journalists to connect the dots between biodiversity and climate change? #SEJ2015 @1earthok

LOL. RT @leiashotfirst: RT @raminskibba: Aaronson: “Black holes are like Vegas: what happens there, stays there!” #sciwri15 #blackholefail

ICYMI: @erikvance on ethical quandaries for science writers – good followup to the debate at #sciwri15 via @TheLWON: http://ow.ly/TB0F5

RT @lizdrogeyoung: RT @susannakohler: Hedge words = the error bars of science writing. #factcheck #sciwri15


If this list sparks any ideas that you would like to share, please comment below.

Balancing act

A Template for Freelance Writing Business Planning

I developed the template below as a tool to use when I set freelance journalism business goals for each year. This template can be used at any time of the year. A friend suggested that I share it with a broader audience.

The purpose of this template is to provide you with clarity on:

  1. Your highest-priority skills and beats
  2. Your financial goals for the coming year
  3. Your plan that uses your highest-priority skills and beats to achieve your financial goals

If you are doing non-journalistic writing, you can substitute “topics of expertise” for “beats.”

Balancing actSection 1: Your Beats and Skills

  1. Diagram all of the professional skills you might want to use and all of the beats that interest you.
  2. Rank them all from 1 to 4:
    1 = Enthusiastically interested
    2 = Moderately interested
    3 = Not very interested (but willing to try)
    4 = Not interested at all
  3. Separate and list these items by number. For each number, have a separate category for skills and another one for beats.
  4. Put asterisks next to the skills and beats that are in categories 1 through 3 and also are in high demand in the market.
  5. Underline the skills and beats that you want to make your top priorities. (These may not always match the items you marked in the previous step.)

Section 2: Your Schedule and Income

  1. Plan a grid for your schedule for the coming year using blocks (for example, Sept.-Dec.). Each block should correspond to a time period when you have a specific project configuration, a vacation, or a conference.
  2. Estimate how many hours per week you will spend doing each project. Create a separate estimate for each time block.
  3. Estimate your target income per month for each time block based on the sum of your monthly expenses, taxes, and desired savings.
  4. Calculate your monthly income for each time block and see if it meets your target. Where do you need to add projects to your calendar?
  5. Calculate how many hours you need to work per week during each time block to earn your target income. Use an estimated hourly rate. (Note: This template does not account for the fact that some invoices may be paid late. You may want to adjust your estimates if you expect a delay.)

Section 3: Your Project Plan

Looking at the following items, set your goals for each time block.

  1. Your number of hours that you need to work per week
  2. Your preferred skills and beats
  3. Your skills and beats that are popular in the market
  4. Your existing opportunities

If you are unsure about what the outcome of your work will be, you may want to make one time block chart that is a best-case scenario and another one that is a worst-case scenario.

I’m very interested in receiving feedback on this template. You are welcome to comment on this post and share it with other writers.

Urban landscape

Why Journalists Should Use Twitter Strategically

If you were driving to go to a job interview in a new city, would you forget to research the company, get into your car wearing ripped jeans, and not bother to bring a GPS or a map?

I didn’t think so. Urban landscape

But every day, aspiring journalists set up Twitter accounts exactly that way, hoping to attract business that never comes.

Some of us leave Twitter’s default images of eggs up as our profile photos.

Some of us use Twitter to post about our nightlife and coffee habits. If nightlife and coffee aren’t part of your beat, it’s generally best not to post about them much.

Some of us aren’t sure what we want our niches or beats to be, so we post randomly about anything – and follow anyone. This is also not a good idea. In journalism, specialists earn more than generalists, I find.

Some of us use Twitter to be one-way communicators – broadcasting our own content, but never retweeting or interacting. But on Twitter and in real life, being a good listener is part of being a good conversationalist.

Some of us are drawn into controversial conversations that are unrelated to our beats or interests. Keep a sticky note up as a reminder not to join these discussions, if necessary. Unless you want to become known as highly political, don’t go there. And if a troll starts bothering you, handle it sensibly and move on.

But perhaps most importantly, many of us really don’t know how to plumb the depths of Twitter’s search and list features to find the hashtags and search terms that could be valuable to us.

Did you know you can make a large list of your competitors by looking for keywords related to your specialty and adding your fellow writers to a new list?

Did you know you can make a list of potential sources by looking up keywords related to your beat or to target organizations?

Did you know you can make a list of potential employers and their staff? Look for hiring managers and be sure to include them. Search for keywords related to employers – or names of their organizations.

My favorite list contains tweets from a group of news editors whose work I admire. My main career goal is to edit news websites and magazines, so I am watching my peers and role models to see what they are posting.

You can also use keyword searches related to articles you have written or topics you want to follow.

Is there a conference you’ve missed this week? Look up the conference hashtag, search for it, and take notes or participate in the conversation.

Finally, don’t forget to look up hashtags like #journalismjobs, #scicomm, and #mediadiversity when you are job hunting. Or try combinations of words – like “journalism job Chicago” without the quotes.

This post is loosely based on insights from a Twitter workshop I delivered for Science Writers of Western Massachusetts on June 27, 2015. For more info about our group, please visit our Facebook page. For details about my journalism and teaching experience, please visit my LinkedIn bio.

What I Learned about the Craft of Writing from The Science Writers’ Handbook

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.

What Are Bloggers’ Legal Rights?

If you’re a blogger or independent journalist, do you know your legal rights and risks? If not, there are organizations online that can help you.

Today, experts from Harvard University and Boston University explored journalists’ rights in a panel called “Newsgathering and the Law: Hot Topics for Citizen Journalists in Massachusetts.” They provided many practical legal tips for writers who work outside of traditional media.

The panel was part of a conference on citizen journalism, “Filling the News Gap in Cambridge and Beyond: Citizen Journalism and Grassroots Media,” which took place at the Cambridge Public Library.

Traditional news organizations in the United States have extensive legal resources that independent bloggers and journalists lack, said Jeffrey Hermes, director of the Digital Media Law Project (DMLP) at Harvard University. In response to this need for legal advice, the DMLP has developed an online legal guide.

The panelists delved into strategies for requesting public records, attending civil and criminal trials, making video and audio recordings in public places, and handling concerns about defamation.

“Records really drive our investigative reporting,” said Joe Bergantino, director of the New England Center for Investigative Reporting (NECIR) at Boston University. “It’s one thing to get someone to tell you something. It’s another thing to have a document that proves what they’re saying.”

NECIR sends out public records requests about a wide range of subjects – from sewage discharges to college sexual assaults.

Bergantino calls organizations weekly after sending them requests for information. He also contacts alternate sources and uses leaked documents. “Sometimes it’s a painful process,” he said.

Bergantino recommends that journalists ask for electronic data rather than print data to save time. But often, staff send data in print so they can cross out confidential information. Legally, organizations are required to tell journalists why they are removing the information.

“Sometimes, we get documents where it’s mostly Sharpie on the page,” said Hermes.

Organizations are allowed to charge journalists money for providing data, but must spell out the line items and use reasonable cost estimates if they plan to charge over $10, Bergantino said. However, organizations cannot charge money for answering questions and are under no obligation to provide general information to reporters.

Both civil and criminal trials are usually open to journalists and bloggers, Hermes said. Courts may make exceptions to this rule under special circumstances. A journalist or blogger may stand up and object to the closure of a trial.

In Massachusetts, videotaping police without their consent has led to arrests, said Christopher Bavitz, assistant director of the Cyberlaw Clinic at Harvard University. These arrests happened because a Massachusetts law prohibits wiretapping. However, a court decided that public videotaping of police was a legitimate activity in this state.

The legal rights of journalists and bloggers vary from state to state. In some states, Hermes said, bloggers and independent journalists have less protection from defamation lawsuits than newspaper reporters do.

For more information about the legal rights and responsibilities of bloggers and journalists in the United States, visit the websites of the Digital Media Law Project and the Online Media Legal Network.

Can Simplifying Jargon Be Entertaining?

Sometimes the act of simplifying jargon can be very amusing. At the American Association for the Advancement of Science 2013 Annual Meeting this week, one of the presenters cited this xkcd comic strip with a down-to-earth illustration of a space shuttle. Its humor comes from its simple language.

Space shuttle comic strip

A space shuttle diagram which uses only the 1000 most popular words in the English language.

Try explaining the next piece of technology you own using language like this. It is challenging translating technical language into simple terms. But try it anyway – you might learn something interesting about science communication.

If you write about science, remember most people don’t know what a transistor is, let alone a superconductor. Here are two ultra-simple definitions:

  • A transistor is a product that can amplify electronic signals and switch them on and off.
  • A superconductor is a material that transmits electricity extremely well when it is very cold.

See how entertaining it can be to simplify technical writing?

This post won’t be complete until I invite you to follow me on Twitter and like my Facebook page.

My Writing Goals for 2013

In November, I withdrew into the snowy environment of northern Massachusetts to reflect on my goals for the coming year. I live next to a park belonging to the Trustees of Reservations, so bluejays and nuthatches kept me company while I wrote. Before and after work, I spent hours sifting through my ideas about what to cultivate – and what to prune back – during the coming year.


A nuthatch (Source: Terry Sohl)

I took a three-week vacation from Twitter to reduce the “noise” in my environment. Surrounded by the peace and quiet of the wildlife refuge, I made some difficult decisions about my priorities and commitments for the coming year.

  • I chose to offer the services that match my personality, background and interests. So I rewrote the skills, experience and bio pages of this website – as well as my LinkedIn profile. These pages now show my commitment to working on writing and technology projects that have social benefits. They also emphasize my experience in engineering and fascination with the way things work.
  • I made the difficult decision to close out my media relations contract and focus on content production – writing, website editing, and social media outreach. I gave notice to my client on January 2nd and am currently seeking a new project to replace that contract.
  • Translating science content is very satisfying for me. The more technical it is, the better. Working with an MIT professor on a physics book earlier this year showed me that not only do I have the “chops” for hard science, I relish covering it. I feel confident promoting my services to academics and technology professionals. I plan to seek out more science-intensive projects during the coming year. I am comfortable working with clients anywhere in the United States.
  • Although I want to keep at least one nonprofit project on my calendar at any time, I don’t plan to specialize in working for nonprofits. I am very interested in partnering with green businesses and universities and combining projects from different sectors. I recently signed up to do a long-term blogging project for a brownfield remediation business and plan to take on other similar projects.
  • I’m in the process of retooling NetSquared Boston, the meetup I co-organize, to make sure that it addresses unmet needs within the nonprofit tech community. My leadership role in NetSquared Boston gives me many professional opportunities, including networking and low-cost computer training. I plan to refresh some of my web development and software skills soon to stay current with the state-of-the-art technology that is coming out each year.
  • Although I was considering moving to Denver or Chicago earlier, I now plan to stay in Massachusetts for the next few years. I visited family in Chicago in early January and made the decision while I was there. Although I miss Chicago, there are many reasons for me to stay in Massachusetts.
  • Finally, I have a resolution to take more risks with writing and journalism this coming year. I want to go to events like the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in Boston, take the leap toward doing projects that are outside my comfort zone, and continue to experiment stylistically as a writer.

I’ve pruned back my commitments from 2012 now so that new ideas can flourish. If the flower that I am attempting to cultivate has a name, it’s a “science and technology writing flower.” It probably looks like this image:

Fractal flower

Fractal flower (Source: 123RF)

Identifying and following my dreams was what led to my success in graduate school. After a year of freelance work, stopping to take time to smell the roses and retool my approach to my career goals was exactly what I needed this winter.

This post won’t be complete until I invite you to follow me on Twitter and like my Facebook page.

Simplifying Science Writing

I am ghostwriting part of an environmental physics book. That is why my blog posts have been sporadic recently.

Writing about physics has taught me more about simplicity in science writing. Although I was almost a physics major during college, this is my first time writing copy about environmental physics.

I’ve heard that the best teachers give the simplest explanations. Developing simple and clear explanations of challenging topics has taught me how to streamline science writing in a way I was not able to do easily before. I’m using a concise, crisp style to convey the key points.

In a way, this writing style mirrors how physics works. Physicists seek the most simple explanation for phenomena. From gravity to quantum physics and relativity, simplicity drives physics.

Newton's Cradle

Newton’s Cradle demonstrates the relationship between force, mass and acceleration. (Source: stock.xchng)

Because I am writing for a physicist, I am developing a writing style that reflects how some physicists probably think. It is a fascinating experience to capture the “voice” of a professional thinking style and put it on paper.

If I hadn’t taken physics courses during college, I would probably find this project more difficult than I do. As it is, it has been an exercise in messaging and education: understanding the audiences, capturing the right voice, and shaping explanations clearly and simply.

Now that I have done this, I see that simplicity is useful in other areas of science writing as well. I plan to apply it to my future projects and to other areas of my life.

So far, I am also streamlining my social media use, giving away some of my possessions, and moving to a monastery… well, not really. I’m moving to a house in the woods near Boston. I’m also taking a vacation from some of my other commitments.

For writers, productivity requires space and time. I am creating space by simplifying my schedule. I’ll continue to blog intermittently during this project and will resume my regular posting schedule later.

The Flaws of Personal Branding

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.

Science Communication Toolkit: Part 2: Using Poetic Skills

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?