I wrote an assignment for my students yesterday. I ask them to write a blog post (watch for those soon), and give them some guidelines for doing so. I thought it was worth putting up here both for public comment and because I think it’s a nice statement about what I’m trying to do here.
I highly recommend that everyone who goes through my lab learn how to explain their project to the public. This is partially because you’ll have to do it when you get to Senior Seminar (TESC 410). Evan more importantly, it’s because we scientists need to be better about engaging the public with our science. If we don’t, we run the risk of becoming the kind of caricature of a scientist you see in the movies: academics with no connection to the real world.
So, to make that connection with the public, we have a blog. Or rather, I do, since I’m the one who usually writes for it. I try to explain what’s exciting about my science in a way that college students taking an intro class (or any interested people at about that level) might understand. The audience I write for isn’t stupid, but they might not be familiar with the jargon we use as scientists and the kinds of graphs we show each other. They might not care about the details of my work, but they do care about what’s new, exciting, or potentially relevant. Why I do things is much more relevant than how I do them. My audience also cares about stories (I think), including stories about how science works for me.
There are no strict rules about writing a blog post. This is an assignment with no strict page limit or style guidelines. Really, it’s the ideas and how you convey them that matters. I’ve seen a lot of good material on how to run a blog in general. I’m collecting it below. Some of it might be helpful if you’re writing a single post. In the broader sense of communicating your science, I’ve found some useful guidelines in Nancy Baron‘s book Escaping the Ivory Tower. Baron directs an influential program called COMPASS that focuses on preparing scientists to better communicate with the public. Her book has a lot of useful information about how to make sure your science is relevant to different audiences (politicians, journalists, filmmakers, etc.).
- Blogging tips for science bloggers, from science bloggers, by Paige Brown Jarreau (@FromTheLabBench on Twitter, where she posts lots of good science communication analysis and advice)
- Example blogs by scientists, in no particular order:
One of COMPASS’s signature tools is the Message Box, a scheme for organizing your scientific ideas so you can pitch them to non-scientist readers. Working your ideas into a message box is hard. But it’s good preparation for writing a blog post. Plus it forces you to think about how your science s relevant… which is the whole purpose of doing it! If you want to give the message box a try, there is a template here.
Aim for about a page of text, with an image. If you don’t have an image, I can help.
You can use informal language, but don’t be sloppy. People will read this.
Have you taken pictures? Drawn comics? Found places on Google Maps? Great! I’m a visual person, and I like having good images on the blog.
Aim to engage people rather than to explain. Stories are good.
Avoid jargon, but don’t dumb it down. Explain it when you have to. I think of my posts as initiating readers into the club of people who understand what I’m talking about.
Look at other blog posts for inspiration.