Category: Good Writing

A Science Writer’s Mistakes

Do as I say my friends, not as I have done. Recently I read this post by Genomic Repairman (@genomicrepairman) in which he provides 10 basic tips for grad student science bloggers, which are really just good tips for any novice blogger. I also read this post about whether or not science writers should always read the academic paper they are writing about, something I try my best to do but haven’t always done. These two posts inspired me to assemble some of my own tips and thoughts about science writing. I’ve made the executive decision to frame this post around the stupid things that I’ve done, in the hopes of helping writers new to the blogging scene avoid my mistakes (so that they can make their own, of course). Also because it is always more interesting to know how someone has messed up than to hear them talk about how great they are. So I’ve decided at the risk of public embarrassment, to bare my little science writing soul and share three of the things that make me shake my head at my own silliness.

Not me, but fairly standard. via Wikimedia Commons

Not me, but fairly standard. via Wikimedia Commons

1. Comment on other people’s blogs. I read between 5 and 10 blog posts a day, yet I am terrified of adding comments for fear that I will sound like a moron. I have written more than 200 posts here, but leaving a sentence in the presence of the likes of Carl Zimmer scares the hell out of me. I can’t tell you how many times I have written a comment, stressed out about it, re-written it, stressed out about it some more and then deleted it completely. I’ve heard over and over that you shouldn’t leave comments unless they serve a purpose, otherwise you aren’t adding to the discussion. However, most of the time I feel like I just want to say “I like you” “I like this” “This is really smart” and thus I end up saying nothing. This is problematic for two reasons, the first being that people I admire put themselves out there in a way that allows me to tell them I admire them and I never do. The second reason is that I can’t very well expect people to leave me comments if I never comment on anyone else’s site. I have a new resolve to get involved in the conversations, but new bloggers should train themselves to comment before they become comfortably silent. Make a habit of it, so that you don’t have to break a cycle of complacency later on.

2. Put an RSS feed and subscription options on your blog. Simple enough. People want an easy way to filter through all the blogs out there, and if they can’t subscribe there by RSS or email the odds of them obsessively checking your site everyday to see if you have a new post (especially if you post sporadically like I do) is slim to none. Why did it take me a year and seven months to put these things on Science Decoded? Hell if I know. I guess I figured, well I have all the share buttons so that’s good enough right? No. No, it is not. I should have had RSS and email subscriptions from day one, and I’m kicking myself that posts that did fairly well from being RT’d on Twitter probably didn’t get me any actual followers because I didn’t have an easy way for people to keep reading posts after they found my blog. Face palm on that one.

3. Read the study, link to the study. If you are going to talk about a paper, you need to link to that paper, even better you should look at it. I mentioned in the beginning of this that I was inspired to write based in part on a discussion about whether science journalists should always read the academic paper. In general, I agree with what I believe is the more popular view that you should always read the paper if you intend to talk about it. However, I also agree with the fact that journalists aren’t always going to understand the methods and technical terms. I think the rule I go by is that I have to feel like I understand the study, either by reading the paper, talking to the researcher, or talking to another researcher in the same field to back up what the study author said. Any combination of these things could make for a well written science article, but you can’t just regurgitate a press release. Just don’t do that. No one likes it when you do that, and all those people you admire from afar because you’re afraid of the comment section? They aren’t going to respect you doing that either. Have I done it? Yes. Is that the work I’m proudest of? Not in the slightest.

Bonus tip: If you want to be a science writer, you should hold yourself to a higher standard than that of EurekAlert. Hold yourself to that standard. For me, one of my biggest mistakes was allowing others to put priority on how quickly I could get a story out rather than the quality. Don’t put yourself in the position where you see your name on a piece that you know you could have done so much better. Don’t settle for easy. If it is easy to do, who is going to be impressed and want to talk to you? You need to offer something to your readers that they aren’t going to get from a press release. This might be an interview, it might be your own analysis, or maybe it is added context but you still need to give something. Leaving a story exactly as you found it, or perhaps just going so far as to rearranging the words isn’t why we’re all here. I for one am here to learn, here to listen, and here to talk. But, how much of those things can you really do if you aren’t actually interacting? Unless you start saying something of value, you’re just going to be talking to yourself.

So there you have it, three of my mistakes. I sincerely hope they won’t be held against me. I also sincerely hope that they will help some other poor soul just getting started as a writer. This isn’t an easy field to break into, and we all stumble sometimes. But if you are open, honest and sincere in your desire to produce good science writing I think you will find that there are people out there willing to give you a chance.

UnMarketing A Science Writer

I’ve mentioned before that I’m taking a class this semester on social media for the life sciences. This class has been a crash course in the internet. Before taking this class, I considered myself relatively savvy about the internet. I’ve been blogging for a year and a half, on Twitter for a year, I’ve written a dozen E-Newsletters for my day job, hell I’ve even been to 4Chan and back. Still, however much I knew about the internet I was grossly uninformed about how to engage with people online. Reading Scott Stratten’s book UnMarketing for this class has me convinced that the most valuable thing you can get out of the internet is engagement. If you checked out my book review of Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit, I talked about having my mind blown by something painfully obvious. UnMarketing took that sensation to a new level.

unmarketing_book_coverThe idea of UnMarketing is that traditional methods of marketing don’t even come close to the kind of success you can have if you just start listening to and interacting with people. Simple enough, right? Well then why aren’t I doing it? I’m a science writer, looking for a steady job. I’ve tried, and failed, to freelance my work in the past. I’m firmly convinced that my freelance failure had everything to do with marketing myself in traditional ways. UnMarketing is about making connections with real people. You make those connections based on mutual interests, you build a relationship around it, and later down the road you’ll be in a position to help that person or they’ll be in a position to help you. People will be way more likely to give you a chance if they trust you and they like you.
That lecture about how to freelance? All those tips about getting to know the publication, introducing yourself sincerely, writing a persuasive pitch letter… didn’t amount to a hill of beans for me. I didn’t sell anything, I ended up posting the articles I was trying to sell here instead. What all the people who tried to help me find freelance success were trying to tell me was to UnMarket myself, and it went right over my head. I thought I got it, but clearly from my results I did not.
You want to get yourself published on a specific website? Find out who runs that website’s Twitter account, follow the official account, follow the editors, follow the writers. Throw some link love in the direction of those people. Comment on things they say. Use them as a case study for a blog post. If you mention them, and tell them you mentioned them, odds are high that they’ll start trying to figure out who you are and what you’re saying. They’ll look at your blog and website, and if you have solid content to back yourself up, they’ll probably follow you in return. Build a relationship where you can start asking them questions. They’ll get to know you and how you operate. Then, when you have an article to pitch instead of your email getting immediately deleted they’ll recognize your name and at least give you some consideration.
Well, duh. I feel like dozens of people have been trying to explain all that to me for the last two years, but it took Scott Stratten’s book to shift those puzzle pieces in my brain into alignment. This is a business book, the majority of the examples have to do with corporations and sales, but I still think every writer should read UnMarketing. Writers are selling their brain and what they can do with it, and I firmly believe it is a lot harder to sell an intangible product. (I suppose my brain is tangible, technically, but I’m not going to let you poke around in it to figure out if you want to invest your time, reputation, money, etc.) UnMarketing was so worthwhile as a writer because so much of the content applied to what I am trying to do as I establish myself online.
The science writing community is tremendously strong online. If you want to get into this industry, you need to be on Twitter and you need a website or a blog because that is where the people you need to convince to give you a chance are, that is where the people you are going to learn from are, and that is where the people who are going to read what you write are. UnMarketing is the best guide that I’ve read for how to get yourself into that community and show people what you’re made of without falling flat on your face. It takes a really honest look at things like transparency and the term best seller, dealing with trolls and even how annoying captchas are. Stratten just calls bullshit on so many things that I’ve seen online but wasn’t sure how to handle. I really wish I read this book years ago (it only came out in 2010) but better late than never.
If none of that convinced you that science writers need to UnMarket, let me just say that the book is also wonderfully written. By that I mean that Stratten has a very clear and distinct voice. You will walk away from reading feeling like you just had a conversation with the guy. I will also say that my favorite part of the entire book was the footnotes. When I write my Pulitzer Prize winning masterpiece (you know, someday…) I’m going to have footnotes like that. I read every single footnote because the funny commentary contained in them was awesome and unexpected. I enjoyed reading this book, and I found a tremendous amount of valuable information in it – that’s just a win all around.

Book Review: In Cold Blood

Note: This post was written before I learned that what has long been claimed/believed to be a pure work of non-fiction, has been called into question by long-lost files from the Kansas Bureau of Investigation. Here is the Wall Street Journal’s reporting on the revelations contained in those files.
– EP 2/13/13
Well, I’m 46 years late to the party on this one, but I finally read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. The first class I took here at UW was a literary journalism class with Deb Blum, in which we read and learned about some of the greatest narrative journalists. I have a long list of books mentioned or recommended in that class that I have yet to read, and when I find free time in my schedule I’ve been working my way through it. I decided last week to tackle Capote’s true narrative of a quadruple homicide, and I’m glad I finally did.

11In Cold Blood made me do some serious thinking about the amount of murder and mayhem my brain digests on a daily basis. My favorite television show is Criminal Minds and I watch it all the time on DVD or in reruns. I also read a ton of paperback murder mysteries as a way of relaxing my brain. I just read the Hunger Games, and the premise of that book (which is young adult fiction) is 24 teenagers fighting to the death for national television. Murder is a fairly common theme when I’m choosing entertainment, and honestly reading In Cold Blood made me feel sort of sick about it all.

I ended up feeling like In Cold Blood was too good, too entertaining. It was entertaining in a way that blurred the lines for me between real and not real, and I had to keep reminding myself that the events recorded by Capote really happened. Four people were murdered, and two more people were put to death to pay for those crimes. Six lives extinguished, and I read this for fun. It was unsettling. Even though it all happened so long ago, the murders happened in 1959 and the murderers were put to death in 1965, I feel like the book drove home the fact that there is a huge disconnect between murder for entertainment and murder as fact.

As far as being a journalistic piece goes, I was blown away by Capote’s attention to detail. Particularly in the first section of the book, before the murders occur I felt like Herb Clutter and his daughter Nancy were described so vividly. The account of how they died would not have had the same impact if Capote had not spent the time setting up how they lived. It is what gives the book all of its heartbreak. The storytelling is masterful and I feel like you can see a tremendous level of skill in the way the story is structured, to set you up, pull you in, and keep you reading until the last page. I had to remind myself while reading that Capote never met any of the Clutters. They were all dead by the time he got to the story, yet they are so alive in his words.

Capote actually did interview the murderers, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith. In the sections of the book dealing with their arrest, trail, and subsequent stay on death row I again had to remind myself that these were real people. Perry Smith really did kill four people for all of $40-50 while Dick Hickock stood by and cleaned up the evidence. I really can’t imagine Capote sitting with the men he describes talking about their lives and getting them to open up about all the things they end up telling him. To get to this level of detail it feels like Capote has to have become a character in the stories of Hickock and Smith, yet he is only mentioned once or twice and always as “the journalist.”

Pieces of writing are considered classic for a reason, and I’m glad I finally read Capote’s classic story of mystery and murder. You have to read journalism, good journalism, and lots of it to appreciate what a narrative journalist really does. It is a great book, but it certainly isn’t for the faint of heart. Not because it is graphic (certainly not by today’s standards) but because the knowledge that every word is true will send your emotions rattling around.

Book Review: The Power Of Habit

I have a smart phone habit. My cue is the little green light that indicates I have a new message. My ritual is checking the phone to see what that message is and who sent it. The reward I get from doing this is the rush of immediately connecting through a text message, email, Facebook mention, or Twitter notification with people that I like or want to talk to. I had no idea this smart phone cycle had become habitual to me, until I read about it in Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit. His description of the smart phone cycle I just explained seems to fit me exactly, particularly because I don’t have to think about what to do when I see that little green light, I just check the phone without really thinking about it.

PowerofhabitIt would be accurate to say that The Power of Habit blew my mind. I walked away with that feeling of shock and awe you end up with when you finally understand something that seems so glaring and obvious now that it has been explained to you, and it has actually made sense. It is the feeling I got in seventh grade when the pythagorean theorem finally clicked in my brain after months of trying to understand it (well, maybe that was a little more exciting because my very relieved math teacher called for Jolly Ranchers all around to celebrate my breakthrough). Still, The Power of Habit blew my mind because now that I know what I’m looking for it is easy to identify the dozens of things I do out of habit, that I never really considered habitual.

Duhigg expertly explains that each habit occurs as a loop in our brain. There is a cue that triggers the habit, the routine (whatever action you do to perform the habit), and lastly the reward our brain feels from performing this routine. This habit loop takes place for different activities, at different times of day, and for different types of habits. Some habits we can easily identify because they are notorious for their negative effects like over eating, smoking, drinking to excess, etc. But there are many habits that are not detrimental, and in fact help us to get through our day without overloading our brain with decisions.

For example, every morning I perform the same habit immediately after waking up. My alarm goes off (cue), I go to the kitchen and press the button on the coffee pot (routine), and I end up sitting at my computer with a warm mug while caffeine percolates through me and I wake up (reward). This type of habit can sometimes be thought of as the things we do on “autopilot” like driving to work by the same route, or checking your email at the same times every day. I had never thought of my everyday actions as habits, but once I was clued into the cue, routine, reward loop I was able to identify dozens of instances within my own behavior. It is quite obvious really, but I had just never looked at my life that way before. Consider my mind blown.

There is a tremendous amount of information in The Power of Habit, and Duhigg navigates it all with precision. I think reading this book could have value for anyone interested in their own behavior. It definitely held some insights for me as to why I do what I do. A good example of the type of stories told in The Power of Habit is this excerpt which ran in the New York Times magazine “How Companies Learn Your Secrets,” about how customer behavior clues companies into things you would never actually tell them. In general, I would recommend this book because the examples and explanations are really interesting and the structure of the narrative drives the book forward in a way that never seems to drag on. It is an easy and informative read.

That being said I do want to take a moment to talk about the structure of the book from a writer’s point of view. I was personally impressed with the way this book is structured, with the different studies and stories cobbled together to create one strong explanation of what habits are, how they work, and what they do. The book is broken into three parts: The Habits of Individuals, The Habits of Successful Organizations, and The Habits of Societies. These parts contain three, four, and two chapters respectively. The chapters all tell multiple stories, which in my opinion serve both to provide context and examples for the scientific studies Duhigg discusses, while hooking the reader and forcing them forward through the text.

For example, chapter three opens with Tony Dungy a professional football coach (who won a Super Bowl with the Indianapolis Colts), and from Dungy goes onto Bill Wilson the found of Alcoholics Anonymous, then scientific studies of alcoholism, onto a girl who bites her nails, followed by an explanation of habit reversal therapy, back to Tony Dungy, then back to alcoholism, and finally wraps up with the conclusion of Dungy’s story. The chapter jumps around, and sometimes feels like you’re being teased with just bits and pieces. Still, none of this was ever confusing for me, I was always aware of where I was within the text.

All the different elements of chapter three are wrapped around the theme of how people actually succeed at changing their habits. The structuring of this chapter is smart. I wanted to know what happened to Dungy, that was the narrative I wanted to see play out. I was personally interested in Dungy, but the other content in the chapter – the discussions of alcoholism and nail biting along with the scientific research – framed the Dungy story so that it wasn’t just a story about a unique football coach, it was a story about what it really takes to achieve a change in behavior drastic enough to override our established habits. It all works together, beautifully.

With a well thought out and careful structure, perfectly chosen examples, and easy to understand scientific evidence The Power of Habit is an interesting, accessible and solidly researched piece of writing. It is entertaining for anyone looking to read for fun, and a great case study for writers looking to learn more about how to structure their own work.
Note: I was contacted by the author regarding the release of this book, and I accepted a copy compliments of Random House. Never did anyone try to influence what I would say if I decided to write a post about The Power of Habit. All thoughts and opinions are my own.

Book Review: Science Ink (and An Argument For Print)

For the holidays my parents gave me a copy of Carl Zimmer’s latest book Science Ink. To say I loved it would be an understatement. Which is why I see no point in reviewing it. There would be nothing balanced about my comments, I just think you should read it. However, Science Ink inspired me in another way, so stay with me for a moment while I make a different point.

Science-InkScience Ink isn’t like any old book. I coveted Science Ink. I wanted to hold it, to feel the cut outs in the cover, absorb the colors, and let my hands glide over each page as I turned it. The subject matter of the book; science tattoos, what they mean, and why people get them; is fascinating. I was completely absorbed in each little story, and found something new to learn on each page. I already want a tattoo, and it made my mind swim with the possibilities. But what I took away from Science Ink more than anything else, was the sheer beauty of the book.

The design of Science Ink is breathtaking. I thought it was just spot on. I honestly don’t know what I would change about it. The pictures are beautiful, but beyond that – the font feels ancient and perfect, the colors are vibrant but somehow dark the way I think a book about tattoos should be, the cut outs in the cover are a clever surprise, and the rough texture of the red spine with its gold lettering is completely satisfying. The smooth mat of the page excellently frames each photograph, with just enough sheen to make it feel fresh and new. I was even obsessed with the index for crying out loud. Now, if this is starting to sound like a love letter to a book, that’s because it is. Not just to a book, but to a PRINT book.

I get the purpose of digital books, I do. I envy my Mom and Dad, who have a Kindle Fire and and iPad respectively, while I’m still living in the dark ages flipping pages with my whole hands rather than just the tap of a finger. I’ve commuted to and from New York City on the train and subways enough times to know that carrying around a book like Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel (which I did for two months this past summer) is a neck ache waiting to happen. Not to mention the ecological benefit to going paperless and saving all the resources (trees, water, energy) that go into making print books. I wouldn’t mind having a digital platform to read on, I think it is definitely the way to go. Still, I argue that there are some books that just can’t be done justice with a PDF or a picture on a screen.

Science Ink is one of those books. Not that I would ever encourage any of you digital readers to skip it – the stories behind science tattoos are clever, meaningful, funny, and astounding (as they should be) – I just think that the print version is worth taking in yourself. Reading it was an experience that attacked multiple senses, and I just don’t think it would have been the same if I hadn’t been holding the book in my hands. The subject matter is art, and I’m sure that has a big part in making the book so beautiful. But for me, the design set the book apart, and sent it soaring right over the top.

The experience of reading Science Ink, brought me back to a topic I played around with last semester in my multimedia journalism class. UW recently opened a new wing of the Chazen Museum of Art, and I interviewed the director Russell Panczenko about the role of an art museum in a digital world. I had some problems with the piece, chief among them that I don’t know if I really got to the heart of the issue. I guess what I was trying to communicate – which Science Ink helped clarify in my mind – is that just because digital platforms make it easier to read books or look at paintings, doesn’t mean that the multi-sensory experience of taking in a piece should be forgotten. That is what print books and art museums have that a little screen just doesn’t. I’m all for moving forward with technology, I just don’t want to lose my senses in the process. That is the point.

Here is that museum piece, I’d be interested in any comments/feedback. In the meantime, go read Science Ink! Or check out Carl Zimmer’s blog The Loom, where there is a great archive of science-related tattoos, and get a little inspiration for your own body art. No seriously, go read Science Ink