Green Gabbro

Dear Science Bloggers (Self, You Too):

Stop burying your leads.

Ledes. Leads. Whatever. Your opening line – the one that draws you in to a story, that limns the scope of your writing while providing the so what. It belongs at the beginning and you are placing it two or three paragraphs deep into your entry.

I tell you this, because after a month or so of mostly ignoring the blogosphere (not for any particularly interesting reason) and buzzing through some John McPhee and Natalie Angier books instead, my expectations for writing have been reset. I also tell you this because I have just finished triage on a whole bunch of submissions for this year’s Open Laboratory science blogging anthology.

Run-on sentences of the form “I was reading DoucheNozzle, who linked to Monkeytastic asking whether Churro-on-Squid was misreading Foo Blog’s subtle point about zombie pirates” serve a valuable social purpose – who doesn’t want that backlink from Churro-on-Squid? – but they are hell on your readers. Interestingly, the social motives of academics are similar to those of bloggers – i.e., if you don’t properly situate your own work in the context of an ongoing discourse, you are irrelevant. But scientific articles at least have the decency to hide those particular paragraphs near the end of the introduction instead of at the beginning.

Gleaning valuable writing tips from the scientific literature? Yes! It can happen!

Love and snuggles,
Maria
(who promises to bury the lead on her very next post, which she will write soon, she swears)

Comments

  1. #1 Kim
    December 11, 2008

    I’ve noticed that most blog posts don’t work well as stand-alone essays. (I didn’t nominate anything for the Open Lab this year – someone else nominated a bunch of geoblog posts, but I didn’t – in part because the posts that I remembered as being good worked well within the blog context, but didn’t seem to fit the Open Lab criteria. In the geoblogs, the problem was often that images were the centerpiece of the post. But the social networking aspect of blogs – and blogs are more inherently social than journal articles or essays by John McPhee – also gets in the way. For blog readers at a particular point in time, the social context may be the real hook, and the apparent subject of the post may be something that people are tricked into reading by the social context.)

    Maybe I’m just justifying crappy writing. I don’t know. But I know the kinds of opening lines that you’re talking about, and they don’t seem jarring when I skim the geoblogosphere RSS feed. (But they would suck in the Open Lab, yes.)

  2. #2 BrianR
    December 11, 2008

    To turn some of my blog posts into “real” essays would take work … I don’t write them with the permanence of other writing styles. Blog posts are inherently transient — tied to the moment.

    While there are some blog posts of mine that I like, I don’t think they are immediately translateable to book form. It would take work, and I’m … well, lazy.

    That said … your points about starting posts off with a bang are well taken, Maria!

  3. #3 Andrew
    December 11, 2008

    Thanks for the whap on the head. Writing well matters, even on the blog scale. But most bloggers don’t take writing seriously, probably because there’s no money involved, which makes them mere blatherers or, in Dr Johnson’s pungent term, blockheads. Bloggers who do write seriously, for free, are treasures.

  4. #4 Maria
    December 11, 2008

    Kim: My level of writing peeve definitely varies with the degree of personal connection I feel with the blogger or blog community in question. Still, I have never found myself wishing that a post with a more traditional opener had begun instead with a discussion of social context.

    Bloggers who do write seriously, for free, are treasures.

    … yeah. I was kinda sad when I realized that my triage work was heavily fractionating out those who write for free, in favor of paid and quasi-paid bloggers. Seems like Open Lab should be more, um, open. But the difference in writing quality was very clear.

  5. #5 christie
    December 11, 2008

    this is why i am a fan of you.

  6. #6 Coturnix
    December 11, 2008

    Blogging is conversation.

    It makes sense to start a post by situating it in that conversation: telling the readers where that post fits in an ongoing online discussion, by linking to the previous posts that provide the context.

    Many entries to the first two anthologies had to be edited – almost always the first paragraph. A book is a different format. A blog post that started as a segment of a conversation is now cut off from it. Thus, it needs to be edited to fit the non-conversational medium.

    Blogging in many-to-many, while print is one-to-many, and nowhere is that as obvious as in the opening paragraph. There is just no sense to talk about a “lede” on a blog – this is not journalism.

  7. #7 Maria
    December 11, 2008

    I don’t buy this many-to-many vs. one-to-many distinction. You’ve got one person writing a blog entry, and people read it separately, not as a group – on some level it is all one-to-one.

    A blog audience may be more heterogeneous than a newspaper or magazine audience, but so what? Readers will either already have some grasp of the ongoing conversation, and can wait until the second paragraph for the details, or they won’t care.

    The lede exists in journalism because newspaper readers are fickle, and will quit partway through a story. So you need to hook them in while also presenting the important bits as quickly as possible, just in case they quit. Unless you have built up an exceptional reputation for delivering good endings, blog readers are just as fickle as traditional media consumers, if not more so. The valuation of what stuff is most important in a blog post might be slightly different than in a newspaper (though really, if the chain of begats is more important than your actual opinion, why not just use del.icio.us?) but since we are responding to the same reader behavior as journalists, it still makes sense to talk about ledes.

    (And I did triage the entries with editing in mind – but I think the old canard about how you never write a decent opening line until you have built up a good head of steam, and therefore must extract your real opening from the middle/end of the piece, applies just as well to blog posts as it does to traditional forms).

  8. #8 Coturnix
    December 11, 2008

    That’s what cool titles are for (and for RSS feeds, enticing people to click through).

  9. #9 Michael Welland
    December 12, 2008

    As someone who in the past sort of passively monitored the geoblogosphere, but is now seeking to be an active participant, this is an interesting discussion. Clearly, each of us sets up a blog for our own reasons, and those reasons vary enormously. I’d finished writing a book and was frustrated by the things that interested me and had to be left out and by the continuing items from the news and other sources that I would have liked to include, so, yes, self-indulgently, I set up a blog to address these things and pass them on. I set out on a learning curve to talk to anyone that might be interested – I wasn’t sure who they were, but I hoped that such a community might develop. So the social aspect wasn’t a driver, but an aspiration.

    I therefore simply set out to write about things that interested me and, I hope, might interest others – to provide stories with news and links to places for further exploration. So I guess that each of my posts is a short narrative, I hope with a clear headline topic, linked by a theme that happens to be sand. I feel hugely liberated from the constraints of writing a book according to the Chicago Manual of Style, but, nevertheless, at this stage I’m still writing short essays. What I hope is that the social and conversational dimensions will develop – assuming that a critical mass of readers will find the blog of interest. When that happens, I can see the blog becoming more conversational, probably more informal, and more of a mix of the informative and the social (virtual though the latter might be – I’m in London and most of these conversations take place in the virtual space of the US; don’t hold your breath for a contingent of geoblogging Brits!)

    I recognize that many of the blogs that I enjoy have a strong social element – but at the end of the day (which is where I am in London right now) it’s the content and the way it’s presented and written that I’m looking for.

    I look forward to this discussion continuing – and any thoughts or advice!

    Michael Welland

  10. #10 Comrade PhysioProf
    December 13, 2008

    Douchenozzle!!

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