I feel so fortunate that I was able to go to Science Online 2012, the “unconference” at NCSU in Raleigh, NC, that brought together scientists, science journalists, and science educators and communications people together. We talked a lot about the special considerations of science writing, but a lot of what I learned was just great advice for all journalists. So, I thought I would share a random collection of the bits of advice that really stuck with me from this weekend in which I learned so much I felt my brain start to melt, for the rest of those in my j-school and beyond who couldn’t make the conference.
Because my brain is still slightly mushy, recovering from meeting so many fascinating people and trying to read more than 17,000 tweets in 4 days (my favorite tweets here) and learning so much cool stuff, I am going to skip smooth prose, and just give you a list. So here it is:
Stuff I learned at #scio12 that all my journalist friends might want to know:
#1. Manage your information overwhelmed brain by keeping a writer’s journal. This tip is from David Dobbs, a great science journalist who has managed enough information to write several books. He suggested jotting down, with old fashioned pen and paper, daily notes about who you talked to, what you read, and what ideas you’ve had. That way, a year later when you are actually writing your book, or just a month later when you are trying to remember that great idea you have for a blog post, you can look back over the ideas and questions that have long since evaporated from your busy brain.
#2. Making a living as a freelance requires thinking of yourself as a business. Maggie Koerth-Baker suggested that making a career as an independent writer requires a business plan. How much money are you making for your time, how much do you need, do you need a side job, how much time will you need to spend being your own office manager, IT professional, errand boy, tax accountant, and saleswoman.
#3. When pitching a story to a magazine, it’s great to think your plan A publication, and then your plan B, C, and D if necessary. During our session on making a living as a freelancer, Dobbs (yes, apparently he is my guru) mentioned that as soon as he sends a pitch off to A, he starts re-writing the letter and re-configuring the story to try and pitch it to B. He saves that letter, and as soon as he gets a rejection back from A, he sends off the B letter, no point in wasting time wallowing in rejection.
#4. Feed yourself. Brian Switek reminded us that it’s important to take the time to feed yourself, with good food, good exercise, good people, whatever it is that motivations you to go back to your writing with strong energy is important. Others in the discussion chimed in that you need to make time to feed yourself words too. Reading is the key to good writing. You need to feed yourself good writing so that you can produce good writing.
#5. Good structure is what makes stories good. I already knew this, from Jon Franklin’s excellent book, Writing for Story, but I learned some new ways to visualize and feel the importance of good structure. Deborah Blum and David Dobbs (yes, I’m clearly infatuated) shared their tips on using geometric shapes and musical structures to understand the importance of how you shape your story. Deborah’s advice, on shapes, was mostly for the overall arc of the narrative, what shape the story builds as it moves. David used music to remind of of the importance of shifting tempo, building long sentences to lull the reader along and short, abrupt sentences to draw their attention to tension or climax. He also stressed, like a good music teacher, the importance of playing the rest. Here’s a great description of the full session, from Tanya Lewis
#6. You can do great writing anywhere. On your blog or in Scientific American, great writing is still great writing.
#7. Women’s magazine pay way better than science magazines (on average)
#8. All writers feel frustrated with writers block and anxious about making mistakes or writing badly on occasion, even some of the veterans writers who’s signatures I waited in line for feel doubt in their abilities sometimes. And we all just need to work past it and keep writing.
#9. Online writers need a community of support. For some reason or another, people feel like they can write nasty, off-topic comments in anonymity of the interwebs, and even great writers can get a little tired of the negative comments. So, as a community of readers and writers, we need to leave constructive comments, engage in interesting debates, and help our friends out when someone is saying inappropriate things on their blog. Maybe if we all participate in creating positive and interesting discussion forums, the blogosphere will be a better place.
#10. There are so many jobs out there in communication. I’m not saying that it’s going to be easy to find one, but I met so many people doing so many different types of good work that it was really interesting to see how many paths there really are to finding a career in science journalism or science communication. Not sure which path(s) I plan to follow yet, but I am glad to know that I have more options than I had previously imagined.
That’s all for now. If you went to #scio12 and learned something great that I forgot to mention here (because I’m sure that you did- I only listed 10 things and I’m sure I learned 100s) please use the comments to add to my list. Thanks!