The posts selected for the 2009 edition of The Open Laboratory, collecting the best writing on science blogs for the year, have been announced. My We Are Science post made the list, which is nice.

Amusingly, this showed up in my inbox at the same time that the ScienceBlogs front page is featuring this Bloggingheads episode featuring George Johnson and John Horgan. Johnson, you might recall, riled everybody up a couple of weeks ago with a bit of a dyspeptic rant about science bloggers compared to science journalists. They spend a good fifteen or twenty minutes on the topic again this week, and it’s probably safe to say that Johnson won’t be winning any converts with his comment.

What’s amusing about the juxtaposition of this dialogue with The Open Laboratory, is that it demonstrates the point where I think Johnson is exactly right.

Given the opportunity to revise and extend his original comments, Johnson makes clear that he’s including a lot of things in the category of professional science writing. Most important among these (in my mind, at least, he doesn’t really emphasize it) is editing. At a couple of points, he speaks very approvingly of his interactions with editors at the New York Times, and the positive effects they had on his work.

I think this is really a critical point. A lot of the more triumphalist writing about science blogs, and blogs in general, reminds me of the sort of thing you see written about print-on-demand and other publishing technologies with regard to regular books. People have been proclaiming the imminent death of traditional publishing for longer than there have been web browsers, and they’ve all been making the same mistake: Printing and binding physical books is just about the least important thing that a publisher does.

The most important service provided by a publisher is editing. Not just in the sense of critiquing and line-editing manuscripts, but also selecting which works to publish in the first place. Theodore Sturgeon famously remarked that “90% of everything is crud,” with regard to publishing, and he was probably an optimist. The most valuable thing that book editors do is to go through the vast piles of potential books, and select those that are worth publishing to a wider audience.

And then, of course, there’s the critiquing and line-editing. I handed in the third draft of my book-in-progress last week, and I can confidently say that the third draft is much better than the first, thanks in large part to a couple of rounds of back-and-forth with my editor. I haven’t enjoyed the process very much, at times, but responding to her comments and suggestions has made it a much better book than it would be otherwise.

Both of those functions are essential for traditional publishing, and both of those functions are very much absent in the blog world. That’s not entirely a bad thing– the immediacy and ephemerality of blogs is part of their charm– but it’s a major difference between professional science writing and science blogging. And that’s part of what George Johnson was going on about– stuff that you see in major newspapers and books has generally benefitted from the editing process in ways that stuff that you see on blogs hasn’t, and that makes a big difference in the quality of the product, as it were.

So there’s no small amount of irony in the arrival of the Open Laboratory selections at the same moment that Johnson is re-ruffling the feathers he ruffled a few weeks ago. That list represents blogging imitating more traditional publishing– they’ve taken a huge list of nominated posts, and cut them down to about 50 final selections. Like all edited lists, it’s got some biases to it (at first glance, it seems a little heavy on the meta, and light on physical science content), and some odd selections, but it’s an attempt to separate the wheat from the chaff, which is exactly the sort of thing that traditional publishing and journalism do that blogs usually don’t.

And, based on the email I got, there will be at least two more levels of line edits before the finished product. Which is another of the things that traditional publishing and journalism do that blogs don’t.

The end result, whenever bound copies get printed by whoever is doing the printing (I’m still not clear on that), will undoubtedly be much better than any individual blog could be, and almost certainly better than a mere listing of the original posts would be. That’s as it should be. It’s also the most important point that George Johnson was making.

Comments

  1. #1 Jimmy Montague
    January 5, 2009

    It takes a large ego to stand up in front of the world and shoot one’s mouth off for 15 minutes or an hour or three, all that while imagining that what one says actually matters to anyone. Ergo: all published writing is vanity and all writers who want to be published are egomaniacs. Problems arise principally because there is no natural law (such as ‘all mammals must have oxygen’) that says all egomaniacs must be rational, intelligent beings. We’ll all suffer for nature’s lack of oversight while the NEW “New Journalism” takes shape on the Internet.

    Dorothy Parker once wrote that the second best thing a loved one can do for an aspiring writer is to give him or her a copy of Strunk & White. After giving the aspirant a style book, Parker wrote, the very best thing anyone can do for the aspiring writer is to shoot the poor creature while he or she is still happy.

    Parker was right. If you find yourself talking to someone who thinks that writing is fun, you’re talking to someone who is either a liar or an egomaniacal idiot. Caveat emptor.

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