#scio11 Wrap Up: Explaining Science In Blog Posts

Jan 25 2011 Published by under Blog Carnivals

Yeah, I know it was over a week ago, but when you've got 10 collaborators, and none of them has spare time, you can understand why it took a while. And now. Here we are.

At Science Online 2011 this past weekend, Joanne Manaster, Maryn McKenna, Vivienne Raper, Eric Michael Johnson, Brian Mossop, Carin Bondar, Melody Dye, Christie Wilcox, Ed Yong and I led a session on "how to explain science in blog posts". The topic sounds prosaic, but it's more complicated than it sounds. It's often hard for a hardcore scientist to really get down to a lay level and its equally hard to keep it entertaining without becoming a fact-spewing machine. We wanted people to get tips out of the session on how to write for a lay audience, and how to tell whether it was working.

But we all acknowledged that we don't know it all about explaining science, and so we decided to break the session up into five discussion groups, where people could voice their ideas on specific topics. We then got together and shared what we'd learned, and had everyone from all of the five discussion groups weigh in. I feel like I personally got a lot out of it that will change the way I blog in the future (when I have to implement some of it!).

And of course we pooled out notes. So below is the basic transcript of what went down, with a couple of comments added in from me. And for those who were there: did we miss anything? Fill me in in the comments!!

How to Explain Science in Blog Posts

Session led by: Scicurious, Joanne Manaster, Maryn McKenna, Vivienne Raper, Eric Michael Johnson, Brian Mossop, Carin Bondar, Melody Dye, Christie Wilcox, Ed Yong and the engaged audience.

Abstract: Many science bloggers dream about attracting a mass audience, but what's the secret to popular and readable blogposts? Do you have to write about orgasms, duck sex and dinosaurs or are there other ways to draw a crowd? This session will discuss how to make your blog an effective tool for getting the public excited about science... and masturbating squirrels.

We decided to go with a discussion group format, in an effort to get the ideas of everyone in the audience on the best practices for explaining science in blog posts. We divided the room into five groups of chairs and had at it, with five different areas for discussion.

1. Writing and Readability

Leaders: Ed Yong and Christie Wilcox

Relate to your audience and know them; writing what they deem to be interesting or to respond to. If your mission is to educate, you need to know what level they’re at. Sci: but at the same time, it's really essential that YOU be interested in what you're writing, or at least fake it good. If you're not interested, it will come across.

Q: I’m very interested in pieces that define a few terms? Should you do that at the start? Is it worth it?

If you can tease the reader at the beginning that there’s some payoff – that if you know the term, you’ll be entertained or there’ll be a use of you. If it’s just ‘here’s how you’ll extend your knowledge’, that won’t work.

Q: Should you use jargon?

Sometimes difficult. Provide an accessible link.
It’s hard to know what counts as jargon – curious to know how people interpret that. It is easy to overestimate what the reader’s familiar with. Some words that might not be jargon in your field e.g. like “feelings” and “emotions” might be jargon in other fields with different expertise. Link to the definition. As much as possible, leave jargon out entirely. Unless there’s some specific
need for it, leave it out. Again, depends on your audience.

As a writer, you signal who you’re writing for by making those choices. As a reader, I can see from the first paragraph that something’s addressed to peers, not to me, etc. And I can move away or hang on.

Q: At what point do definitions become excessively boring.

If you try and define each of those individually, can be difficult. You have the option to link back to previous posts e.g. Bio 101 posts. But you will lose people when you force them to click across links

Metaphors – central image.
The metaphor is where you want to get your audience to anyway – so they can create the metaphor for themselves. Create an image or use an image as a hook.

Q: If I go too far into a metaphor, how far is too far?

Not mixed metaphors; build a consistent image. As a reader, I more feel like I’m being talked down to if there’s a detail that’s been glossed over. Sci: Meta is murder! No, really metaphors are good, I just like saying that.

As an individual writer, it’s very hard to vary your tone; hard to avoid the tone you’ve been using for 20 years. You will end up with selected readers who like that tone and to change it much would put people off. Consistency is good. But we’re willing to hang with someone if they’re trying something new. If it feels inauthentic or contrived, then we’re done. You have to be true to yourself and what your style is. Many don’t care what our audience wants in terms of style because we are writing for ourselves. Sci: even when writing for yourself, stick with a tone you like. Are you formal? Conversational? Funny? Geeky? Of course you are! Adding little bits of "yourself" into your tone and your writing can make you more engaging. At least, if you're not, like, a jerk or something. 🙂

A lot of it is about tone; how it’s going to affect readers etc rather than the content etc. You’re not your own best judge of what your tone is; I hear my own voice as I’m writing and I know what my voice should sound like; other people might hear other tones and connotations. Maybe people who don’t know you very well. Sci: YES. This is big. Get your friends to read it, and look for comments that seem to be misinterpreting. If they are "misinterpreting" your meaning, sometimes it's because they 'hear' your voice differently than you do.

Q: How many people would say you’re writing for yourself?
I find it difficult to blog on command; if I’m giving orders to myself... I’m not taking any orders from anyone, including myself. If I don’t amuse myself, I won’t amuse anyone else. It’s not meant to be work.

Write for your Audience

As a beginning blogger, I consider myself a cheerleader rather than a science communicator – not going for controversial areas, but going for safer areas that I’m happy with.

When I show what I write to my parents, they say “That’s awesome”. Maybe don’t show it to your parents, but someone else. Bora: my mother reads my blog posts. BZ: Occasionally, wife reads my post and she edits my post; more like a document.

I once showed my neighbour what I wrote (an average Joe – his name was Joe): he said, “Yeah that was great”. You really want an honest answer, or an answer from someone who’s a crap liar. You need to find people who you can trust to give you an honest answer. Someone who matches the qualities you’re writing for. Helps to make it clear that you need them; ask them specific questions. Quiz them. Find someone who’s a harsh critic.

Other Tips

Find a mentor – some people in the group have tried to find mentors before.

Walking away from it, not pushing the button. If you consistent to struggle and you’re writing solo, give pieces a bit more time. Doesn’t hurt to give it a bit more time.

Q: How do you edit yourself?

-Learning to write short posts or to do a short radio post forces you to learn to be concise.
Will do several passes of editing to see how much I can take out. If you can say it in fewer words, then people will want to read it in fewer words. You can do it at level of word, sentence, paragraph, entire post – do it as an exercise at first and then it will become automatic.
-When editing, reading it out loud works. Helps to catch things that feel awkward.

Q: How do you balance the need to self-edit with the drive to feed the blog?

"A blog is like a dragon. You have to feed it all the time and sometimes you get burned"

2. Metrics and Knowing Your Readership
Leaders: SciCurious and Melody Dye

Most people don’t seem to try systematically determine who your readership is. We know where it’s coming from, but does who we are writing for line up with who is reading? I did a lot of prep for this section, you can see some of what I asked in these posts here and here, and the results here.

Your Readers: How many and where are they from.
-Bitly, Google Analytics, Sitemeter, all good choices to see where your readers are coming from.
-Engagement: who is talking, referring sites, who is linking in .
-Combotrack: a bookmark that you put in your browser that will track conversations that link to you on twitter, facebook etc
-Backtweets: who is retweeting you, will allow you to put in the original URL for your post, will show all the different people who have tweeted your page or post.
-Wordpress: the commenting plugin, disqus will integrate backtweets, will show who is tweeting you.

What is your ideal audience, who do you want to write for?
The responses broke down into a general audience/interested consumer vs a specialized audience in a specific subject area. People you want to inform vs people like you.

You can always respond to feedback and change the way you are writing to make it more accessible, but a big barrier is for people to acknowledge that they want this information.

How do you find out WHO is reading you?
Ask! Run a “who are you” thread or set up a poll. The results will be biased by who responds, but it should give you some idea of who is out there, and what and why they are reading, letting you know who your audience is, and how better to target the audience you may want.

Building an Audience
-Participate in other people’s conversations, the online society of science.
-Twitter and Facebook can be great for linking over the long term, but can also become kind of insular circles. Grow your own twitter network. Make sure the people who follow you are following YOU, not just following randomly.
-Stumbleupon, Boing boign, Fark, we need to self promote and also promote ourselves.
-Guest posts on other blogs Sci: especially in closely related blogs with large audiences.

3. Sensationalism vs. Deep Research
Leaders: Eric Michael Johnson and Carin Bondar

Focusing on how to keep interest while expressing deep research, and without losing the science.
-Use a provocative title and opening,
-Tension at the beginning without exaggerating the science
-Don’t start in the middle of a story
-Make the story a Quest, allows reader to continue through exposition. Know your audience to make quest relevant to readers’ life. Personification to synthesize issues with a individual example/metaphor
-Invoke where you’re going to go without giving away the goods
-Don’t include too much detail, emphasize about three points
-Don’t underestimate the value of good quotes
-Acknowledging that dense section might be difficult material, give reason to hang in
-Transitions are critically important, most important, cleverest part of the story
-Introduce concepts when you need them in the story - introduce just before used or as late as possible without interrupting flow, like being introduced to new people and how they know each other, social relationships of the concepts
-Each section/paragraph should raise a question
-Avoid lectures, try to show rather than tell
-Followed up by a kicker that concludes quest

Sci: I love the idea of using a quest. Let us go forth! And I shall take my sword of witty bloggery and my helmet of angry squid!

4. Marketing and Promotion
Leaders: Maryn McKenna and Brian Mossop

People who are in the same networks can promote each other.
-Develop your own network on Twitter to support each other — 5-10 reliables who will mutually RT
-If you talk to people, you help them, they help you, people will accept more aggressive marketing. But Keep the proportion of self-marketing low in your tweets.
-Tell your network by DM or email when something is up - but use that for big hime-run pieces, not everything.
-Have an FB page, Put an FB badge on blog. But the problem with FB is they have to know of you to find you, whereas Twitter puts it out to everyone
-Consider aggregators: StumbleUpon and Digg; Reddit (Not Delicious as Yahoo has put it on block), Digg fading, with Stumbleupon taking its place.
-At PLoSBlogs, Twitter, FB, and StumbleUpon are three big referrers.
-If you use WordPress, WP has a Share widget; also LinkWithin (at PLoSblogs and Wired, link across entire network, not just within one person's blog)
-Also consider the AddThis widget - allows Likes - so much easier and goes through as a Like to their FB
-Also recommend Google SEO package on WP — allows adding tags categories post title
-For best keywords for SEO, use Google's External Keyword Tool for page titles because those are most important for SEO
-What about comments on others blogs? Takes a lot of time, and the group feels Twitter has replaced it in some ways. Still, those links back to your blog may help
-submit to BoingBoing
*Best strategy: get RTd by Bora and Ferris 🙂

5. Design and Appearance
Leaders: Vivienne Raper and Joanne Manaster

Vivienne shared some website snapshots for comparison
Bad Astronomy
Alice Bell’s color scheme/magazine style
Alec-brightly colored-categories different colors, magazine style again
Frontal Cortex on Wired
Pharyngula-has side widgets, blog post centrally located
UK political blog—clear brand –flashing adverts

General Points
-First we discussed the possibility that for designs there may be age preferences. An older audience—possibly attracted to tabloid, newspaper feel. Younger audience—want widgets with quick response, don’t like typing and searching, prefer to click through.

-The point was brought up that if the reader has a visual problem, it may make it difficult to navigate a busy layout.

We discussed fonts and readability as well as some brief ideas about side
bars…distracting or not (personal preference)
Circus layout is a newspaper term for multiple fonts—gets your attention, but then gets annoying. One font is nice. Orderly patterns appreciated and offer predictability.

-Post photos relevant to the story, not necessarily just stock photos. (Outside group
comment—want “Big Ass” pictures!)

Your Brand

-We discussed how important it would be to distinguish your blog from someone
else’s—branding is critical. Sci: You can do some of this via tone, but have a recognizable logo is a great thing!
-Even on blog aggregators, it is good to have some separate banner branding.

Outside the group, someone suggested that labeled Images make for a possible
way to find your blog. Google search for an image can drive someone to your site.
(someone suggested to use hyphens not underscore in name for proper formatting)

For more information on design and appearance, visit http://vudat.msu.edu/lookandfeel/ for suggestions on the look, feel, color, readability, etc of a website. This is aimed particularly at online courses, but has much information for other websites as well.

2 responses so far

  • Yoder says:

    I can't say enough how much I enjoyed this session. I wish it'd been twice as long.

    One note though: Disqus will play nice with platforms other than WordPress—I've had it on my humble Blogger-based site for a few weeks now, and I'm very happy with it.

  • Recommended this via the #scio11 hashtag when it came up in another session, but I figure I'll say it here. If you have jargon, stuff that's glossary-worthy, acronyms or abbreviations, you can use the <abbr> or <acronym> tags. And if you're not sure what to use, here's what's what. http://www.benmeadowcroft.com/webdev/articles/abbr-vs-acronym.shtml

    When you use one of these, you may not see any indication that you can do so, but you can hover over an acronym to see the definition. Looks like the tags work in comments on Scientopia, too, so I can actually prove my point! That way I'm not yet another SIWOTI.


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