What I learned about science blogging/writing this year

I experimented with topics, lengths, forms, and voices, quite a lot this year, trying this and that to see what works for me, what works with the readers, etc. This is what I learned:

I can still write a standard ResearchBlogging post of reasonable length, yet covering all the context it needs.

And I can post it at the time embargo lifts. And I can get quite nice traffic for it:

How barley domesticated its clock

I can blog a conference, even if the topic is not my narrowest area of expertise.

I wanted to learn how to cover a meeting like a journalistic pro. Instead, Editor-in-Chief told me “No, you should blog it”. So I did. And I had fun, I added my own photos, and people in the field liked it:

#2012SVP – what do Vertebrate Paleontologists talk about?

I can get outside of my area of expertise when the news cycle requires it, learn about it fast, and become a temporary expert on it.

And then get interviewed and quoted by the other new outlets as if I really am an expert on the topic:

Did NYC rats survive hurricane Sandy?

But my personalized follow-up on the Big News story, does not work as well as the original.

But heck, at least I finally got to publish some old photos:

No rats in Ryder Alley

I can write on deadline, with word-limit, and I like getting my stuff edited.

When all the editors started nominating stories for our Top Ten 2012 Stories list, I suggested ENCODE, so I was assigned to write about it. I was worried about having to re-write everything from scratch, so I turned it in two days ahead of deadline. When I got the piece back, edited by Phil Yam, it looked very, very red on my screen. But as I started checking all the edits, I realized that each edit was small – a punctuation here, a word-order there, a small change in wording, etc. No huge changes, but LOTS of tiny changes. And each little thing made my article a little bit better. All the changes together made my article much better. So I am quite happy how it turned out:

Publication of the ENCODE Encyclopedia: A Milestone in Genome Research

Long posts with strange structure can work well.

I experimented with coverage of several papers in a single post. I covered each one briefly, had subheadings (e.g., What is it about, What is new, Take-home message, Some more thoughts, Good coverage elsewhere, etc), finishing with my own summary of how all of the papers fit together, how they move the field as a whole forward. And it got quite decent traffic:

Clocks, metabolism, evolution – toward an integrative chronobiology

I can write fast, publish as embargo lifts, and STILL manage to get a lot of context and lot of my own thoughts.

It helps that I have written, few years before, a very involved post on a related topic, so I could draw from that pool of information, build up on it. Many people told me they really loved this post:

Stumped by bed nets, mosquitoes turn midnight snack into breakfast

Totally quirky stuff has its own fans.

It started with a bet that I could seriously use the word “callipygous” in a science article. That led me on a search for topics in which I could potentially use it. That brought me to spiders (yes, it could have been sheep instead). So I wrote a completely stream-of-consciousness post connecting all sorts of seemingly unconnected things about spiders. I wrote about spiders before. I talked about spiders very recently. I saw the Spider exhibit at the AMNH just before it. I included bits and pieces of all of that somewhere in the post. And I timed the post to show up on the anniversary of ‘Charlotte’s Web’. All of that combined into a quirky post with surprising twists and turns, cool scientific information, fun videos, personal stuff, and more. And people just loved it:

Charlotte’s Web: what was she smoking?

I can write REALLY fast! And lack of time for over-thinking makes it better.

I heard about the study at 8am. I published my post at 11am. While multitasking other stuff I had to do at the time. Yes, I carefully read the paper first. And the paper got lots of media coverage elsewhere, yet the author contacted me to tell me specifically how well I did it. And the PIO in charge of the paper bought me a beer a few months later for giving the paper so much visibility and good coverage. And the post even resulted in a comic strip, the original of which is now hanging on the wall of the institution where the research was done. My favorite post of the entire year:

Tigers take to the night – for peaceful coexistence with humans

Next year, I’ll try some new approaches, do new experiments, try to make it fun for me and you. We’ll see how it works out in the end….


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