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Monday, 6 May 2013

Effective Science Writing, Part 3.

This follows on from Effective Science Writing, Part 2.  That follows on from Effective Science Writing, Part 1, as you probably guessed.  It might be a good idea to start there!

Understanding your readers.

You need to know what your readers expect, which means knowing what they are likely to understand.

Most readers know little of other countries' idioms, so you need to "fit in" and make your writing appear to come from one of them. I have learned that Americans have only heard of one civil war, so where we might write "the US Civil War", they just say and write "the Civil War". Every audience has its own peculiarities.

Think about the age of the audience, the strength of interest and type of interest that they will bring to their reading. Are the readers going to understand what it means to think like a scientist? Will they know that science is often puzzling, going against intuition?

For example, if we just examined the world in our lifetimes, we might say that species don't vary, because we can't see it happening. To explain evolution, we have to make people understand that our intuitive ideas are often wrong.

Point number 8: know your public. (If you don't, they probably won't want to know about you!)

How to know what information is reliable.

You need to choose your source and reference material carefully. There are many traps out there for somebody working on the fringes of journalism, because they are usually decent, honest, reliable people who don't tell lies. There are also frauds who try to sell fake stuff, there are PR people and bloggers whose job is to make pollution look good, politicians who prefer to muzzle the truth out of ignorance or greed.

With experience, you will learn where the charlatans are. For some years, I would not read anything coming out of the US Office of Naval Research, because the stories they released were not only boring and misleading, but every six months or so, the flacks there would release a few old stories again, hoping nobody would notice. I assumed they had a monthly target for press releases, and met that target by recycling. I met their dishonesty by ignoring them.

There were other US colleges with no real research to report, who kept on churning out bland rubbish. This is why, whenever possible, you should find and read the abstract of the paper online, and if you are going to write about it, you should email the lead author or the nominated contact person, and ask for a PDF of the paper. That gives you a chance to form your own opinion.

When I am scoping and planning a book, I will use Wikipedia as a starting point, but I know the traps: I use Wikipedia as a place to find things I should look into. There will always be rubbish there, but the quality stuff is building fast, as more and more people add original material and the sources. To see the sort of thing I mean, I contributed original material to the entries on the Silex Piano and the 1812 New Madrid Earthquake. In each case, I chanced upon original material that no search would have uncovered, and added it.

All I would say is: approach Wikipedia (and everything on the web) with caution. Use those sources wisely!!  (I wish a recent editor of mine would heed that advice: she changed the spellings of the names of two Australian movies to match the wrong spellings that she found in Wikipedia!)

Point number 9: trust nobody. (At least until you have double-checked what they say.)

Being open to revision.

Know as you begin that most of your first draft will be changed, either by you or by your editor. All writers are egotists, and the better you are as a writer, the more people will notice that (to be polite) you have a high regard for yourself. That usually shows up as a high regard for what you write. Anybody who can't see how good your writing is can be safely ignored, right?

Wrong. You are being your own worst enemy, because you are up too close to the issues, you care too much about things, but you simply can't make a judgement. The copy editor who questions your work is a friend, not an enemy.

There is another aspect: when we re-read what we have written, we see what we expect to see. All sorts of typos, spelling mistakes and bad grammar can slip past us. One method that I favour is to use software that converts my prose into an mp3 file that I can listen to while I am reading the text. The software I use is quite cheap, as it was designed for use by people with poor vision. You can find and buy it on the Internet: it is called TextAloud.

Against my better judgement, I was persuaded a few years ago to write a history of a World War II military campaign. I was asked to write it so teenagers could understand the complexities of a three-month series of battles on the Kokoda Track. As it happened, the general commanding the Australian army was a coward, a bully, a fool and a crook. My book rapidly turned into a brief of the evidence to prosecute that general. It didn't fit the brief I had been given.

I had a chat with the publisher, we agreed that the manuscript was rubbish, I ditched that draft, went back to my notes and wrote a second draft that told a human story and became a prize-winner. The first draft would never have won anything.

Point number 10: trust your editor. (Editors have a different view, and can often see what you can't.)

Where to publish.

This is the one area where I won't be of much assistance. As I have indicated, I have my networks, my contacts, and a solid reputation for always delivering as specified, on or before the deadline. That helps, but there's another issue that is even more important.

Remember what I said about listening to your copy editor?

Here is a secret: editors talk to each other about writers, and they sometimes recommend an author to a publisher, based on knowing their track record. I rather suspect that some of my most valuable deals would have been missed if the editors knew me as a difficult character who refused to make changes in the text.

That is why you never refuse an offer, because you never know which one will give you the contacts you desperately need. The same applies to the poorly-paid writing jobs that are offered by magazines published for schools. Most of these have a regular turnover of staff, in part because those magazines go out of business, but also because the editorial staff are always looking for better work. And when they move on, they take the email addresses of productive and helpful writers with them.

The short answer as I see it: it isn't what you know, it's who you know, so you need to work hard to make yourself known. And always get the work in ahead of deadline!!!

I have rarely succeeded with a "cold call" where I come in as an unknown and pitch an idea, but it sometimes works. Most magazines offer a list of staff names, and sometimes emails. If they don't provide emails, you can sometimes work them out. Suppose you want to publish in The Magazine, and you know that the email addresses will all be in the form <>, there will be a few email addresses floating around out there on the web.

You need to be tricky and Google <""> (with the quotes but not the angle brackets) or <email AND "">. With luck, this will harvest you enough email addresses to show you how the IT staff at The Magazine generate email addresses for the employees.

(This also works when an airline like Virgin Australia refuses to pay a promised refund because the call centre says wrongly that the refund has been paid, there is no other phone number and no published email address for the CEO.)

(Note: the paragraph above is an example of the sort of indulgence that tempts clever people and clever writers. Under normal circumstances, I would have deleted it, but I left it in as a warning. While both true and correct, it is smug and doesn't tell the reader anything important. Be ruthless!)

So, once you have a name and an email, send a short email to the editor's assistant: one paragraph on your qualifications and achievements, a second paragraph listing one to three proposed topics, and asking if they would like to see a full outline or a draft. If you get no answer, try emailing the editor instead, but don't mention the earlier email.

I began my writing life expecting to write books and magazine articles. I was lucky enough to find a second strength: the writing of crisp 2250-word essays (the chapter was in effect, two such essays back to back). Then I found myself hired to write science news by a publisher whom I approached about an entirely different project. Luck was definitely a part of it, but persistence also played a part.

The printed book is probably dying, slowly, and magazines and newspapers are disappearing, but there is still a place for crisp prose that carries a message, interests the reader and ends cleanly.

Point number 11: it does no harm to approach an editor with a proposal. (Try to keep it down to one page of 12-point type with your name and contact details at the top, one paragraph about you, one paragraph about the content of the article you wish to write, and a few sentences about why you are well-equipped to write the article.)

Point number 12: good luck, and welcome to a noble profession. (I wrote that, just after writing the introduction—but I hope you guessed that!)

Coming attractions:

The other thing I need to do before I get too old and silly is share a few of my tricks of the trade.  Most of these are buried in my web site, so I have started to disinter them so I can offer them here.  Look for the following in the near future: when they go up, I will change these labels to make them links.
Planning a book with a spreadsheet;
Practical use of macros and spreadsheets;
Macro tricks in Word, part 1; and
Macro tricks in Word, part 2.

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