Buffy and C.S.I in the Writing Lab: Interview with Jennifer Ouelette

Jennifer Ouelette runs the delightful blog Cocktail Party Physics . She has published two popular science books: The Physics of the Buffyverse and Black Bodies and Quantum Cats and was the Very Special Blogging Star Speaker at the Science Blogging Conference two weeks ago.
Welcome to A Blog Around The Clock. Would you, please, tell my readers a little bit more about yourself? Who are you? What is your background? What is your Real Life job?
I’m Jennifer Ouellette, a self-employed science writer specializing in physics and associated topics, although my interests veer into other scientific disciplines from time to time. My blog is called Cocktail Party Physics, and it’s populated by my avatar/alter ego Jen-Luc Piquant, who is far more stylish and snarky than I could ever be. My Real Life Job is somewhat ironic, because I majored in English and suffer from math-phobia (although I’m working on countering the latter); most science writers have at least one degree in a scientific field. I was also raised by hardcore fundamentalist Christians, and was pretty much steeped in that world through college. Somehow I found my way into science and rational thinking. And tied it all together with my love for writing.
What do you want to do/be when you grow up?
In my fantasy life? A forensic pathologist! Blame my fondness for C.S.I. and Bones, and all those forensics documentaries on The Learning Channel before it was over-run with reality shows.
When and how did you discover science blogs? What are some of your favourites? Have you discovered any new cool science blogs while following the Conference?
I discovered them by accident. I started Cocktail Party Physics somewhat reluctantly at the advice of my publisher just before my first book came out, and found I loved it. One of the reasons I loved it was because there were all these other science blogs out there, having substantive, fun, lively conversations about science. I read a lot of blogs, and skim the SEED ScienceBlogs combined feed to keep at least marginally abreast of what’s going on in other fields (perhaps pointing out Neurophilosophy for its good writing and an interest in history of science). My new favorite blog is Tom Levenson’s Inverse Square blog. I met him at the conference, and we have a shared love of quirky science history. Plus, he’s a fine writer!
Your blog is very popular. What’s your secret? And what good did blogging do for you?
I forget sometimes that the blog is popular, so it’s nice to hear. 🙂 Probably the smartest thing I did starting out was to keep the focus sufficiently narrow so my topics weren’t all over the place, but sufficiently broad so I didn’t run out of stuff to write about in the first 6 months. Especially since my definition of “physics” kind of bleeds into things like chemistry, neuroscience, epidemiology, science communication, and the like.
In terms of raw traffic, I probably get fewer hits than the biggest science blogs out there: I write longer posts, and post less frequently, and that translates into lower traffic. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I think there’s room in the blogosphere for all kinds of different bloggy formats, and different approaches draw different readers at different times. I find that folks tend to check in on Cocktail Party Physics less frequently, but when they do, they come prepared to sit back and enjoy a good read. And hopefully leave some substantive comments. So find your niche, a format that works for you, and isn’t too onerous, so you don’t burn out, and stick with it for as long as you love it. It takes time to build up a solid readership.
As for what I personally get out of blogging — well, certainly I’ve made lots of new friends because of it, and yes, I did meet my shiny new husband, Caltech cosmologist Sean Carroll (of Cosmic Variance), because we read each other’s blogs. I was actually a confirmed singlet, quite happy in that state, and not “in the market” for a spouse at all. Ditto for Sean. But it was such an obviously perfect match, we succumbed to the inevitable. 🙂 And now I’m living in sunny Los Angeles instead of the frigid Northeast.
Most importantly, the blog gave me back my writer’s “voice.” When I was first starting out as a science writer, I didn’t have as much confidence as those with actual degrees, so I tended to write more stiffly and seriously. Can you say “over-compensation”? But I’d always write lengthy, lively personal letters and (later) emails to friends, who would sometimes comment, “Why don’t you write like that about science?” Maybe science writing wasn’t ready for that back then, but it is now. I think I was always a blogger at heart: I just had to wait for the format to be invented. I suspect lots of people feel the same way.
At the Conference, you said that your blog is your “writing lab”. What does that mean?
Well, it certainly has improved my writing by loosening up my style a little — for better, or worse, I leave to the discretion of the reader. 🙂 It certainly makes for a more appealing, populist approach to science writing. The blog is also where I explore concepts, topics and ideas that catch my fancy. I do a bit of background research, write up a blog post, and sometimes discover there’s enough substance there to spin into a larger article for a magazine, or work into a book. I’d have to do that initial research phase anyway to write a compelling “pitch” for an editor, and writing a blog post on a topic helps me get my thoughts straight, particularly if it’s a new area for me.
The blog also gives me a chance to latch onto one aspect of a science story in the news, and explore the underlying science a bit more in-depth: e.g., a new nanotech device that exploits capillary forces inspired a post about capillary action and ice flowers — I stumbled on ice flowers while looking into capillary forces, was fascinated, and though it wasn’t “newsworthy” according to our current 24/7 media cycle, I felt it was still worth exploring, just for personal curiosity. The blog gives me the leisure to do things like that. In the long run, I’d argue that it makes me a better science writer.
There are blogs and then, well, there are blogs…. How would you design a system in which deserving bloggers get paid for their work?
This notion seems to be more controversial than I’d expected. There will always be a place for the unpaid idealistic blogger — I count myself among them — but increasingly, blogging is moving into professional circles, with a corresponding need for establishing credibility and authority. This is especially true of science blogs, and/or blogs written by science writers. To do that will require a much greater effort at quality control. Those willing to put in the extra effort to meet that higher standard should be reasonably compensated for their efforts. Not all science bloggers have the kind of day jobs that give them the freedom to do this for free indefinitely.
It takes a lot of work just to dash off a reasonably factual post at Cocktail Party Physics — I spend a minimum of four hours on each post, sometimes longer. It would take twice as much time, at least, to bring the quality up to what I’d consider a professional standard. People sometimes compare my posts to actual published magazine or newspaper articles. They’re not. They’re subjective, a bit snarky, a bit unfocused, with lots of extraneous personal details woven into them. Plus, there are still typos, there’s no firsthand interviews with scientists, the links are mostly to Wikipedia and a handful of online resources that I find credible, but they’re not exhaustive and, well, I could be wrong! I’d rather make my errors in a blog post and be corrected immediately, than make them later on in a published article. But if I were blogging professionally, these are all things I’d have to correct.
I doubt at this point that I’d take the cocktail party professional; I enjoy the breezy informality and the right to ramble on and bore my readers if I so choose. Right now, the intangible payoffs outweigh the lack of economic payback. I’m just saying, for those who want to become professional bloggers, they should be able to do so, and should be fairly compensated. I don’t have an easy answer, or a template for doing so. But I think one will evolve. And soon. It shouldn’t just be folded into an existing job description as an afterthought: “And by the way, on top of all your other duties, we expect you to produce a professional-grade blog.” That’s just not realistic.
Is there anything that happened at the Conference – a session, something someone said or did or wrote – that will change the way you
think about science communication, or something that you will take with you to your job, blog-reading and blog-writing?

The informal discussion format was a terrific idea. I gained some new perspectives in the session on blogging and journalism, and wish I’d been able to hear more of the discussion on blogging in education, because I think that’s going to be a powerful tool in the near future. I found the whole conference so energizing, and I’m honored to be part of such a smart, vibrant community.
It was so nice to see you again and thank you for the interview.
You too!
Check out all the interviews in this series.


3 responses to “Buffy and C.S.I in the Writing Lab: Interview with Jennifer Ouelette

  1. Great interview! I’m an occasional visitor to Jennifer’s blog and I’m pleased to hear a bit about the background of her efforts.

  2. I agree. Engaging and non-standard questions. Great interview!
    Jennifer’s responses will give lots of us some things to mull over in our own not-even-close to professional writing, I’m sure.

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