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.

Gems

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.

Nuthatch

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?

Science Writing and Modernism

I fell asleep while watching the movie Helvetica last week. Like the font it describes, the film seems simple and empty. But it also sets the letters in context. Helvetica is a product of the reconstruction of Europe during the 1950s, when architects and designers idealized the possibility of creating a better, more modern, more democratic society.

Science writing and Helvetica often reflect the same ideals – readability, transparency and user-friendliness. When science writing isn’t stylistic, it blends into the page. The focus is on content, not verbal flourishes. There is an element of storytelling in news stories, but the value of clarity crosses genres. Technical writers strive to make their prose sound like Helvetica. It takes a huge amount of work to unravel scientific information and shape it into this seemingly simple form.

Although I value transparency, I’ve realized efficient writing isn’t the goal I want to pursue. I think we should go beyond putting human interest into stories and start writing expressively. We should put the curlicues and flourishes back into our writing. (That would make it more difficult for The Guardian to satirize the “formula” for BBC science stories, too.)

As a person in a creative field, I don’t want to wear gray every day. Why should my writing be gray, then? Why do we continue making our writing styles uniform when we are really a diverse group of people?

Although “gray” writing styles are user-friendly, they erase the diversity of people’s ideas and visual tastes and create a culture where clarity matters more than personality. I think it’s time to reverse that trend. Let’s be clear, but let’s write in our own voices for a change.

More Inspiration Fuel…

Like many jobs, writing becomes much more fun once you have the right tools. Why else would people buy Moleskine journalism notebooks?

If you’re using a standard word processing program for writing, try visiting some of these websites.

  • Liquid Story Binder isn’t free. But it is gorgeous. The software allows writers to make storyboards that combine images, text, outlines, mind maps and even audio files related to a story, book or journal. (I expect e-books will include more multimedia, sooner or later.)
  • WriteRoom helps Mac users write without being distracted by those artistically designed icons on their desktops.
  • iWrite Assistant can track manuscript submissions, queries and payments. It’s also an online Rolodex for publisher contacts. But it can’t bring you coffee… yet.
  • PageFour is a word processing program for creative writing. It subtracts many of the features writers are unlikely to use and adds new archiving, editing and formatting options.
Liquid Story Binder screenshot

Liquid Story Binder in action

There are other programs out there that you might also want to try. And then, of course, there are notebooks and journals. For example, here’s a recycled, leather-bound journal. There’s nothing wrong with writing by hand.

Recycled leather journal

I don't think I'd buy one of these for myself, but I do accept PayPal.