How to Explain Science in Blog Posts

If you believe the maxim "the more the merrier," then you would have LOVED the session which I am proud to say was my first as a moderator. I wasn't alone - nine other fantastic people worked with me. Our collective goal was to do the impossible: to give a complete 101 on how to explain science in blog posts. Everything from style and tone to content even website design and marketing. All of it. In one hour. And, might I say so myself, we totally rocked it.

This session took unconference to the extreme. Instead of having us stand up and talk at the audience, we split into five groups each led by two moderators. Each focal group was given 15 minutes to discuss a particular facet of science blogging. These were:

1. Writing and Readability
2. Metrics and Knowing Your Readership
3. Content: e.g. Sensationalism vs. Deep Research
4. Marketing and Promotion
5. Design and Appearance

I was honored to be paired with the mythical Ed Yong to tackle the first one. In reality, we did very little. We opened the discussion up to the 15 or so people in our group and let them talk about tone, style, and editing. Unlike any other session I'd seen, almost everyone contributed, and certainly everyone who had the desire put in their two cents. Ed typed furiously, and I sat back and watched everyone else do our work for us.

After those 15 minutes, each group stood up and shared with the other groups what conclusions they'd drawn. Here are the key points brought up by each of the five discussion groups:

    Writing: Christie Wilcox & Ed Yong

    • Know your audience. This is central to pretty much any question you might have. For example, how much jargon can you use? Depends on if you're writing for the general public or particle physicists. If you think it might be jargon to your audience, try not to use it (though, admittedly, this isn't always the easiest thing to determine). Should you define terms? Depends on if your audience already knows them. If not, don't weigh down the intro with definitions. Weave them into the flow of your piece to make them seem less intimidating or jarring. Use good metaphors - but don't mix them.
    • As far as tone goes, be yourself. It's hard to force your writing into one box or another. If it's not you, people will notice, and your writing will seem fake. But, of course, you can modulate your tone with specific choices - to swear or not to swear, for example. Just be aware that these decisions directly affect who will and won't read your blog. Sometimes you're not the best judge of your own tone. You'll hear it in your head one way, but someone else might read it differently. Pass your blog around to friends or family and ask them how they think it sounds. Find someone you can either trust to be honest or really sucks at lying to tell you what they think.
    • Other tips for writing better: edit, edit, edit. Don't just hit "post" the minute you're done. Read it aloud. Cut as many words as possible. Even walk away and come back later with fresh eyes - you'd be amazed how much you catch when you give a post a little time. Or, find a blogging mentor and ask them to give you feedback. Established bloggers are often wiling to help out when they see talent.

    Metrics: SciCurious & Melody Dye

    • Step One is to get to know your readers. Google analytics and sitemeter will track page views and where they're from, while bit.ly will show you who clicks your links. You might even try Convotrack, which monitors conversations that link to a page on witter, facebook, and other social media platforms. Backtweets will tell you who retweets your story, and if you have wordpress, the commenting plugin disqus will integrate backtweets to show who is tweeting you. From this you can learn who is actually reading you. Of course, you can also ask your readers who they are - a tactic Ed Yong uses yearly to determine his readership.
    • How do you build readership? Take advantage of Facebook, twitter, boing boing, Fark, StumbleUpon and Reddit. Build your social network by following people with similar interests. Comment on blogs, and link to relevant posts of your own. Even though it might seem counterintuitive, guest post on other blogs - it will get your name out there and if people like your stuff, they'll click the link to read more.

    Content: Eric Michael Johnson & Carin Bondar

    • How do you keep interest without losing the science? Start with a provocative title and opening. Use tension at the beginning without exaggerating the science. Ed Yong repeated over and over at Science Online: if you haven't got them in the first three sentences, you won't get them. Know your audience to make quest relevant to readers' life. Use examples and metaphors to make abstract or difficult points more interpretable. In other words, show, don't tell. Also, don't try to give too much detail; about three points is as much as people will willingly follow and absorb. Don't underestimate the value of good quotes. 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.

    Marketing: Maryn McKenna & Brian Mossop

    • Do not be afraid to promote yourself, but be sure to return the favor. Use twitter, facebook, and other social media platforms to your advantage. Are you on a blogging network? Cross-promote. Feel free to DM big players when you write something big, but don't abuse the privilege. Think about Digg, Reddit, StumbleUpon. Also consider the Google SEO package if you're on wordpress. And submit to Boing Boing!

    Design: Vivienne Raper & Joanne Manaster

    • Visuals can be tricky; your audience may help you dictate your "look". Older audience may prefer tabloid or newpaper-esque sites, whereas younger audiences want widgets and the ability to click through. Busy layouts can be distracting. Maybe choose readable fonts that are consistent throughout. Photos are great, but only if they're relevant. Fell free to post "big-ass pictures" if they help convey the message of the post.
    • It's key to develop a "brand" for yourself. Distinguish your blog from all the others. Whether it be the entire site or just the banner, be sure your blog really is unique and notable. Label your images because this will allow searches to better find your blog. For more information to visit http://vudat.msu.edu/lookandfeel/ for suggestions on the look, feel, color, and readability of a website. This is aimed particularly at online courses, but has much information for other websites as well.

    So there you have it. That's science blogging in a nutshell. Go forth and blog!

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