Category: Grad School

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.

Facebook, As We Knew It

Have you ever heard the term, “shoulder surfing?” It is the practice of peering over someone’s shoulder to look at what they are viewing on the internet, particularly if they are logged into sites that have content that isn’t visible to the general public. I recently read this Time article about employers asking interviewees to log into their Facebook so they can shoulder surf your profile, thus getting around those privacy controls. This has caused enough of an uproar that Facebook actually commented on it, urging users not to allow employers to circumvent the privacy settings as it is actually a violation of Facebook’s user agreement. All this (and some other stuff) has got me thinking about what role Facebook plays in my life.

Hello freshman year profile picture, you're looking particularly innocent today.

Hello freshman year profile picture, you’re looking particularly innocent today.

In August 2005, I was extremely anxious for my freshman year at Lehigh University to begin. My brother, one year older and thus a fountain of wisdom about such things, insisted (and I do mean insisted to the point that he set it up for me) that I needed a profile on this thing called Facebook. Back in those days Facebook was just for college students, so you didn’t have to worry about your mom, the kids you used to babysit, or your employer checking up on you. It seems crazy to me now how safe that little fact made us feel.

We posted just about everything. We wore our lives in the open on a profile, most of the time without security settings. We covered each others walls with pieces of flair and bumper stickers (yeah, remember those?) to show how cool we were with our inside jokes. We tagged ourselves in pictures out on the dance floor, beer in hand at tailgates, and crowded into the mirror in the ladies room (I shake my head at my own participation in such bathroom photo shoots). I didn’t think about the implications of such posts further than, “oh thats funny, except my bra strap is showing, alright detag.”

Fast forward seven years to where I am now, finishing up grad school and getting my ducks in a row for my impending job hunt. I started looking at my Facebook profile with a more critical eye when Facebook went from requiring a college email address to open for the general public. While in the grand scheme of Facebook, I never had anything on my profile that I considered particularly inappropriate (how lame of me, I know) I became much more vigilant about what was said on my wall and what pictures I was tagged in. I started thinking about how harmless jokes that I understood the meaning of could be seriously misinterpreted because Facebook took them out of the context in which they occurred. I’m now friends with both my parents and several of my aunts, which can be a useful barometer for the appropriateness of your content. I have my profile set for “only friends” and I am only friends with people I actually know. You won’t see any pictures on my Facebook profile that I would be embarrassed to see elsewhere on the internet. I understand that private comes with risks.

Still, the nature of my Facebook posts and pictures is inherently personal. Just because the content is of an appropriate nature and it wouldn’t be the end of the world if it got out doesn’t mean I actually want to see any of it elsewhere on the internet. Why should my vacation pictures be open for all when really I just wanted to share them with my aunts? That picture of me with no makeup? Yeah I don’t mind if my brother sees it, he already knows what I actually look like, but a business contact I’ve never met in person? Not so much. I feel like there is still something about the personal Facebook those of us who jumped on the bandwagon back in the only college days just don’t want to let go. Not because it was safe and personal, but because it felt that way. I have established Facebook for seven years as a running conversation with close friends and family. Turning it into a free for all makes me feel seriously exposed.

I use Twitter professionally. My blog is professional. My website is professional. LinkedIn is obviously professional. I have, but don’t use Google+. So what is it about Facebook that I don’t want to turn over to my professional life? I believe my main audience is on Twitter, but at the same time I fully recognize that there are other target audiences that are most reachable by Facebook. There could be real value in turning Erin Podolak into a business page, but I just don’t want to do that. I know I’m not alone in this either, because it is a sentiment that has been expressed over and over again by my fellow students in the social media for the life sciences course I’m taking this semester.

In class we had the opportunity to pick the brain of Sarah Bedrick from Hubspot. She gave us a lot of great advice, in addition to nobody likes a whiner she also told us to use common sense online. This includes but is certainly not limited to making sure all of your public profiles would hold up to public scrutiny. In addition to Bedrick, we’ve also been able to talk to Mark Schaefer, John Morgan, and Joe Sorge all of whom got asked the same question about keeping Facebook personal, and all of whom echoed the same sentiment that they don’t separate the content of any one of their social media platforms into personal and professional. It all just blends, and if it is personal to the point that you don’t want to share it openly you should probably think twice about posting it in the first place. I understand this, I mean it doesn’t get simpler than just “use common sense” but at the same time I still hold onto my Facebook “privacy” as though it is my precious.

Just use common sense isn’t satisfying. I already use common sense. I’m not ashamed of my Facebook, but I’m still not going to accept your friend request if I don’t know you. I think what we all wanted to be told was that it’s okay to reserve Facebook for just us, to keep it just for our friends and family. The truth of the matter is that if I think Facebook has professional value, I’m going to have to cut back on my posts even more. This will mean not using it for picture sharing, or to post the funny things my roommate says. Not because those things are inappropriate, but because they just go to a level of my personal life that I wouldn’t share with just anyone. If I don’t want to use Facebook to connect with anyone I don’t already know, then fine just keep it clean and keep on keepin’ on. But is my comfort level on Facebook worth the possible lost connections?

I think it is time for my generation to say goodbye to Facebook as we knew it. We aren’t going to get back the “safe” little bubble for inside jokes and silly pictures with our friends. We need to let go of that image of Facebook. It may need to be wrenched from my resistant little fingers, but then again there is a huge difference between understanding something and implementing it. I understand that safe on the internet can only be so safe. That doesn’t mean I have to like it.

So what do you think? Should I go the public route on Facebook? (I’m only sort of hoping for a no…)

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.

The Final Countdown (Part III) The J-School

In this third installment of my special segment where I look back on my time in grad school I want to talk about what I actually took away from my program. I’m in the University of Wisconsin Madison’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication Master’s Pro-Track program. I realize that is a mouthful, which is why I typically refer to it as just the Pro-Track.

The program has only three core courses: short form journalism, long form journalism, and digital storytelling. The rest of the credits (you need 30) come from electives, either in the J-School or in any of the other departments on campus. I’ve taken classes in Zoology, History of Science, Life Science Communication and of course the J-School. Everyone has to have a specialty but you can choose to specialize in whatever field interests you most, I obviously chose science. I tried to choose electives that would be useful for science communication, not just journalism in general.

My colleagues in the Pro-Track, I'm the one in the stripes.

My colleagues in the Pro-Track, I’m the one in the stripes.

One of the best and worst things about the program is the flexibility it affords you to do whatever you want. I liked not having to fit into a pre-fab mold for what a Master’s student should look like. However, there were a lot of instances where I felt like I was completely on my own. Sure, I can always go ask for help, and when I’ve needed guidance I’ve sought it out. I just feel like in general, the Master’s Pro-Track students are an island unto themselves within the overall J-School. I literally had a PhD say to me once, “I don’t really consider you part of the department.” Yeah. Well, learning to be a practicing journalist is very different from doing academic research in communication, it just is.

Still, while we might be our own island, it wasn’t exactly a lonely island. The best thing about the way the MA Pro-Track program is structured is that you go through it with a cohort. The group of people I went through this grad school experience with were a supportive, and in my humble opinion, critical part of the program. More often than not, they were my sounding board for ideas, they answered my questions, they helped me talk through issues or problems, and they offered advice. On days when I wanted to tell journalism to go screw itself, they pulled me back. In several instances they became real friends, and an important part of my Madison life. I am very grateful to them, for helping me make the most out of this experience. (You can get the links to all of their blogs/websites here and I do sincerely encourage you to check them out).

One of the hardest things about this program, again in my humble opinion, is that we all came at it with different skill sets as writers. I have a science writing degree (BA from Lehigh University) and had three internships under my belt when I moved here, but there were several members of my cohort who had never written before. I believe there is always more to learn and work on, but my needs in this program were different from someone who has never sat through the “this is a nut graph” lecture before. It wasn’t easy getting everyone on the same page, and I don’t envy our professors trying to meet such diverse needs. As someone who was already comfortable with standard journalistic conventions, I was grateful when opportunities to challenge myself came up, particularly in one writing workshop course. The course, which I took last spring, was designed to give us the flexibility to tackle stories that we wanted to write but felt we needed help with.
I think of this course as “Journalism Therapy” because in the end all six students chosen to be a part of it ended up writing a personal narrative. We presented these pieces to each other, and worked through the struggles and roadblocks we were coming up against. I’ve always wanted to write about my family, and took the opportunity in the workshop class to write about 9/11. For a group of young people the amount of baggage that got laid on the table every other week was astounding. (I considered posting the piece I wrote in the course here, but so far I haven’t been able to bring myself to hit the publish button. If there is genuine interest, let me know I could probably be convinced to post it.)
Ultimately, what I took away from the course, and this program in general is an understanding of my own voice. It takes strength to tackle the hard subjects, to go to the dark places if you need to, to tell the story with truth and integrity, to keep going – around, over, and under obstacles if thats what you need to do to get it right. I don’t think you can summon that strength if you don’t know what it is you want to say. Ultimately I think my point is that I’m glad I did this. It was an experience I’m grateful to have had. While I didn’t necessarily learn the things I thought I would going into it, I still learned a lot about what kind of writer I want to be, and ultimately I think that is the most important thing I’ll be taking away from the J-School.

There is a lot more I could expound on about my experience, good and bad. If you are interested in the Pro-Track, or are a prospective student feel free to send me an email and I’d be happy to discuss the program in more specific terms.

History of the Scientific Book and Journal

Every Monday afternoon, I go to Narnia. At least that is what it feels like to me. In the post I wrote about the book Blood Work, I mentioned that I am taking a class on the history of the scientific book and journal. I’ve been asked to elaborate on what we do in that class, which I’m happy to do because it is easily one of my favorite courses I’ve taken.

The course is offered through the History of Science Department here at UW, and is taught by Robin Rider. We meet in the special collections department of UW’s Memorial Library. The reason I equate going to class with going to Narnia is because special collections is accessible by a single elevator, separate from all the others, which is the only one that goes all the way up to the ninth floor. Special collections is gorgeous. When you step off the elevator into this magical land it is all glass and dark wood with soothing low lights and the books, oh the books. For me, short of my own library complete with floor to ceiling bookshelves and a ladder to ride around and find things, special collections is as good as a library is going to get.

Memorial_Library_entrance99What I love most about the class is that it gives me the ability to just completely nerd out for a few hours. There is something I love about holding a book in my hands, I felt it when reading Science Ink a few weeks ago, and I feel it every time I get to handle the class materials. A few weeks ago in class we got to see the library’s copy of Andreas Vesalius’ 1543 De Humani Corporis Fabrica (On the structure of the human body). I was pretty awe struck, to actually get to see for yourself something from so long ago that was so important in its time was amazing to me.

Two years ago I was an intern at a science journal (BioTechniques) and was lucky enough to be exposed to a lot of the editorial decision making and publication processes as the journal was put together each month. I found getting to handle copies of the Philosophical Transactions (including the first one published!) of the Royal Society and the Memoirs of France’s Academy of Sciences particularly interesting as early examples of journal writing. There is just something about getting to turn those yellowed pages myself that thrills me. Nerd alert, I know.

There are a lot of issues from back then, when the conventions of printing and publishing were just coming to be, that are still worth debate today. For instance in preparing for my next class meeting I was just reading about the issue of author anonymity in writing. Now, for the most part I believe that putting your name on something is a good way to evoke trust in what you say – at least you are owning it. However, at the same time I see why there are people out there (some wonderful science bloggers come to mind) who choose to operate under a pseudonym. Safety in the wake of backlash against what you say (extreme or not) was an issue back then (ahem, Galileo) and it remains one today. Writers – no matter what you choose to write, scientific paper, blog post, etc. – open themselves up to criticism which can and does escalate. I find it interesting that so many centuries later, claiming individual ownership over words would still be an unsettled issue.

I enjoy that in my last semester of grad school I am being exposed to so many wonderful pieces of science history, but also to the ideas, procedures, and processes that go into creating a printed work. We got to tour the Silver Buckle Press, which is located in Memorial Library, during class. I had no idea UW had a collection of old printing presses, let alone that they were set up in a working print shop on campus. I even got to print something myself, which believe me was fun. For me, this class is about incorporating new experiences and ideas with things I already knew or had at least heard of in some way. It is like taking a step deeper into the world of the written word, and so far it has been amazing.

I’m taking this class as an elective, and I would recommend it. The downsides are that the readings sometimes take more effort than a few clicks of the mouse to get to, and special collections is cold sometimes. Otherwise the professor is enthusiastic, the course work isn’t particularly heavy, and I’ve learned a lot.