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Science Blogging Essentials: Cutting the Dead Wood

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by Kimberly Moynahan

Science in Society subject editor

One of my freelance jobs involves writing panels for science centres, nature reserves, and museums. Informational and interpretive panels are an important way to deliver science to visitors who presumably already have an interest in the topic.

But even with an audience that’s self-selecting, it’s still tricky to write effective panels that will grab their attention and keep it. Successful interpretive writing boils down to handful of rules:

  1. Know your audience
  2. Know your subject
  3. Limit your message to one or two points
  4. Write simply and clearly
  5. Write short

Not much different from science blogging, really…except for the last rule.

The beauty of blogging is that we have infinite space. We can write as much as we want – word count and column inches be damned.

This allows us tell long stories, expand on our original ideas, bring in fascinating background material and interesting anecdotes, and embellish every sentence (like this one) with strings of commas, parenthetical thoughts, and endless adjectives and adverbs.

In other words, it makes for sloppy writing.

Good writing entails clarity and precision. And that’s the lesson to be taken from interpretive writers. What I might take 300 words to explain in a blog post, I have to get across in 100 words on a panel, or even 50 if it’s for children.

That means putting every word on trial for its life.

hybrid chinese

Would you have blogged this concept in eight sentences? ( Credit: Graphics: Niina Gates-Kass; Text: Kimberly Moynahan)

So my challenge to bloggers is this: count the words in your last (or next) blog post. Now edit it back to half that. Then, once you’re happy with it, try to cut it by another third.

This is where the real writing begins.

I guarantee that, if you do this exercise, you’ll have a much stronger, more focused piece and you’ll wonder why you included all of that dead wood to begin with.

And just so you know I’m on board with the challenge, the first draft of this post was 679 words to here. And it included four images. Now it’s at 365 words and two images. #stillcutting

While I continue to cut words, take a look at some illustrative posts from our bloggers:

I really like Dirk Steinke’s (@dirch3) One Species a Day because you know he could write volumes about these insects, but he manages to contain his posts to a few short paragraphs. I also like that he includes a short “For the Experts” section. It’s an effective way to break out the heavy material.

When it comes to reducing a message to its basics, Geoff Lee and Steve Kux over at Sketchy Science (@sketchyscience ) nail it. Some of their cartoons (Invisible Bears!) would make great science centre panels.

This post about the mechanism of an anticonvulsant on the Something About Science Blog is long compared to the ones above. But I’m impressed with how scientist/blogger Lynn Kimlicka (@DrKimlicka) has managed to provide background and carefully walk readers through the complex biological mechanism she’s discussing in an admirably tight 675 words. It would be a challenge to cover as much ground as she did in fewer words.

This lovely piece on fulmars by Marie Davey (@biophilesblog) on The Biophiles Blog is a reminder that being well-edited and concise does not mean merely sticking to dry facts. Science writing can (and should!) be done through storytelling, experience, description, and poetry.

And on that note, I’ll close with Marie’s description of the fulmars:

“They arrive silently and without fanfare, lithesome grey shadows appearing as if by magic in the air all around the boat. On wings held stiff and steady, they glide for seemingly impossible lengths of time bare centimeters above the wake of the boat, jockeying with one another for the best position behind us.”

For more on writing by omission rather than by inclusion, see this recent New Yorker piece by John McPhee.

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3 thoughts on “Science Blogging Essentials: Cutting the Dead Wood

  1. Thanks for the kind words Kim. You’ve got some great suggestions to make writing shorter and more concise. Limited time and attention spans really challenges science writers to be efficient!

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