Culturing Science – biology as relevant to us earthly beings

Young or otherwise inexperienced science bloggers: where do we fit in?

Sometimes in the science blogging community, I feel like I'm once again a little girl in a frilly dress who can't spell her name. (And who is trying to write about science on a T-shirt.)

Many of you may be familiar with Ed Yong’s post on the Origin of Science Writers, in which he invited writers to post their stories, their travels and travails to get to their current status. (There are over 100 comments at this point.)  As I read through the contributions, I realized that something was missing: young or new science writers (with one or two exceptions).

Although encouraged by a seasoned blogger to contribute myself, I felt uncomfortable with the idea.  After all, almost all the other writers have higher degrees, have been writing for many years, have published books, etc.  Who am I to add myself to the list?  I, a mere 23-year old with her bachelor’s degree, a science writer by self-definition more than anything else – do I dare to add myself to their ranks?

The science writing world is changing, and not just because of the ScienceBlogs exodus (Bora’s must-read farewell here).  We no longer need credentials to write about science: I can just sign up for a wordpress page and do it!  I can risk irrevocable embarrassment and failure on the internet, dooming my dreams of becoming a “real” science writer!

Joking aside, I can see why some people would be hesitant about the emergence of younger, less-experienced science writers on the scene.  I don’t know everything about science.  I haven’t received my grad school drilling in identifying faulty methods.  I haven’t been trained in journalism or ethics.  So I care a lot about science and education – does that alone make me qualified to spout off on various topics that I’ve only learned about in the past week?

The potential problem with inexperienced writers is a greater likelihood of making mistakes.  I admittedly use this blog as a learning tool for myself.  It’s an incentive to read and do research, and then regurgitate it in a fluid way so that I can get a sense of how the research fits together and, in the process, make it useful to other people.  While some of my recently graduated friends comment on how their learning has dropped in this year since college, I would say that I’ve actually learned more, in great part due to this blog.

My awareness of my relative inexperience and thus potential for spreading misinformation makes me work really hard to not blather on about things I don’t know anything about.  This is one of the reasons I can’t write a blog post every day (or week): for every post I write, I first fact-check, read review articles, and generally make sure I know what I’m talking about.  My lack of expertise forces me to do my research well (resulting in mini-epic blog posts).  This also helps me toward my goal of creating posts that provide a lot of background, so that I’m providing more than just a small piece of the puzzle when I write about a topic.

But mistakes happen to everyone – not just inexperienced writers – and the internet community should respond to error in a constructive way.  Several times I have been torn up in the comments by other scientists (sometimes with unfounded anger) in a way that doesn’t help correct an error, but simply to make me feel like an idiot and doubt myself.  That doesn’t do good for anyone: it doesn’t provide a correction, makes me want to disappear, and only serves to make the commenter feel good about her/himself.  (As if showing intellectual dominance through mockery should make anyone feel good… bullies.)  Mistakes should be corrected through polite questioning and suggestion, increasing information quality without discouraging the writer.

But these potential mistakes don’t mean that we young bloggers don’t belong.  We are kids who have normal jobs.  We don’t have time scheduled into our workday to read papers, but do it when we get home instead of going out drinking.  Our worldviews are not yet jaded by academia.  And I think this shines through in our writing – excitement, a certain humbleness, an ability to admit that we don’t know everything.

Well, now I’ve blogged about blogging.  If that doesn’t make me a science writer, I don’t know what does.

And with that: several weeks ago Bora (aka the blogfather) of A Blog Around the Clock tagged me in the Blogging with Substance meme, and I’d like to dedicate mine to a few young bloggers that are doing really great work

1. Sum up your blogging motivation, philosophy and experience in exactly 10 words.

That’s a hard one – 10 words is incredibly restrictive.  I guess I’ll write a haiku!

Teaching and learning;
Never limit oneself;
Share always the cool

2. Pass it on to 10 other bloggers with substance

I’m going to tag other young bloggers with substance – just because we don’t have PhD’s doesn’t mean we don’t have something to say!

Skeptic Wonder by PsiWaveFunction – She weaves great tales of protists and manages to make what may seem mundane hilarious.

Labrat by Labrat – Think bacteria are cool?  So does she.  Great posts on anything bacterial, and more.

Thoughtomics by Lucas Brouwers – Excellent writing mostly on genetic evolution studies.  Has an eye for research with cool twists.

C6-H12-O6 by Michelle – A combination of smart science blogging with reflections/rants on grad school thrown in the mix

Written by Hanner

August 10, 2010 at 8:56 am

Posted in Reflection

34 Responses

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  1. Thanks for this. After three years as a science blogger. I can definitely relate. The first 18 months seemed very lonely and I felt lucky when I got a comment. An important step is to connect with other newer bloggers, make contacts with somewhat experienced bloggers, and continue to pester pros. You need eyes on your stuff and those all important links to get out of the backwaters. But the most important thing is to make your writing as good as it can be. Expect to make mistakes and learn from them. It really is a simple matter of practice, practice, practice. But if you love and believe in what you’re doing it will help you through that difficult period of seeming anonymity.

    EMJ

    August 10, 2010 at 9:20 am

  2. Thanks for the link! And a great response. I must admit my reasons for not answering were the same. What place did I have amongst all these experienced and many-degree’d writers?

    btw…you have my twitter linked wrongly. It’s /labratting not /labrat. :)

    Lab rat

    August 10, 2010 at 9:20 am

  3. I really enjoyed your earlier post on peak oil, incidentally. Keep up the great work!

    EMJ

    August 10, 2010 at 9:22 am

  4. Thank you for such an encouraging post! This post, as well as your other thoroughly-researched ones, really make me think about the direction and purpose of my own, little blog. Thanks for the inspiration!

    Sarah

    August 10, 2010 at 9:24 am

  5. Nice post.
    I like to think that blogging has been a learning tool for me too. It also has got me writing and has help me develop editor skills, as I edit all invited posts. These are skills that I’m sure are necessary for becoming a better scientist.

    I don’t, however, feel as “troubled” or concerned as you make it sound about “being right”. I write my posts based on what I think is correct and generally write them within my narrow area of expertise.

    ( I don’t stay awake at night thinking that I have probably made a mistake that I should correct ASAP… I do stay awake at night doing circadian timecourses, though :)

    I’m confident that the 2 or 3 people that read my blog will call me up on anything that doesn’t seem right or that may need some clarification.

    I agree, though, that not only young bloggers MAY make mistakes, but experienced ones too and that proper and constructive criticism is the way to go.

    Anyway, I like that there is an increasing number of young science bloggers discussing fascinating research and life experiences.

    Keep up the good work!

  6. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Bora Zivkovic, KentBottles, Fornazier Guimaraes, Russ Campbell, Phoenix alx and others. Phoenix alx said: RT @sc_k: Well said! RT @culturingsci: Young or otherwise inexperienced science bloggers: where do we fit in? http://bit.ly/93DP2A (via @BoraZ) [...]

  7. Great post! I have a fancy degree but am new to blogging and share a lot of your worries. I’m also using me blog as a learning tool. Because I stress about the writing and exposure, I’m triple checking everything…

    Genegeek

    August 10, 2010 at 9:33 am

  8. I agree with pretty much everything you wrote. I’ve only been blogging since the start of the year and I’ve not written many ‘meaty’ pieces (mostly due to a series on endangered species which takes up a fair bit of my time) so I didn’t really feel qualified to comment on Ed’s post. While I have a small – but very much appreciated – readership, I’m terrible at connecting with other bloggers; the one exception being Brendan at BioNode. I don’t feel part of a community at all (largegly due to my ineptitude when it comes to networking) and, given the size of the blogsphere, I don’t know that I ever will. All I can do is hope people enjoy my posts.

    thonoir

    August 10, 2010 at 9:33 am

  9. Thanks for this post. You’ve summed up a lot of the thoughts I’ve been having recently about blogging!

    I do the same as you, spending extra time fact checking because I know I’m maybe not as knowledgeable as others (I haven’t even finished my undergraduate degree yet). I’m glad you brought up the issue of not being able to post every day / week because it’s something I’ve been thinking about… occasionally I start feeling that maybe I should be writing more blog posts, but this would mean less time spent on each one and that’s not a road I want to go down.

    Also, blogging about blogging definitely means you’re now a bona fide science writer. ;)

    Kelly Oakes

    August 10, 2010 at 9:44 am

  10. This is a great post and I’m glad I found your blog via a twitter RT :)

    “My lack of expertise forces me to do my research well (resulting in mini-epic blog posts). This also helps me toward my goal of creating posts that provide a lot of background, so that I’m providing more than just a small piece of the puzzle when I write about a topic.”

    This is what every one of us should do. I’ve been blogging for 7 years or so, and consider myself a science blogger of sorts. Although i don’t always write about research i do write about *being* a scientist. And I made the cardinal error of not fact checking something a recent post. The comment thread is literally aflame right now and I think I pissed off a very senior scientist by ‘misquoting’ him.

    You’re never going to get it 100% right, and if you’re offering anything to the public, via the Internet or other mechanisms, you need a thick skin. Everyone’s a critic :)

    You relative lack of sciecne chops means you might not be able to dissect the specific details of a scientific paper, but it certainly doesn’t mean you can’t offer your perspective on something that interests you. Your bio says tou like to discuss evolution science so how about finding a mentor who does their terminal degree. this is someone who could help you with a difficult section, or offer some alternative interpretations if you need them.

    With time, patience and *lots* of practice you’ll be able to do as well, probably better than most “real” scientists at communicating science. You have the time and passion to learn how to communicate. That can open valuable opportunties down the road (science publicity officer, museum press office, non-profit director of research communication etc. etc. etc.)

    Just never ever stop writing and never stop believing in yourself.

    Ian Brooks

    August 10, 2010 at 9:49 am

  11. Sweet heavenly buggeration I need to proof read my comments before hitting “post”.

    Sorry about the atrocious spelling errors!

    Ian Brooks

    August 10, 2010 at 9:51 am

  12. [...] Hannah Waters: Young or otherwise inexperienced science bloggers: where do we fit in? [...]

  13. “My awareness of my relative inexperience…This is one of the reasons I can’t write a blog post every day (or week): for every post I write, I first fact-check, read review articles, and generally make sure I know what I’m talking about… My lack of expertise forces me to do my research well (resulting in mini-epic blog posts). This also helps me toward my goal of creating posts that provide a lot of background, so that I’m providing more than just a small piece of the puzzle when I write about a topic.”

    Fellow young, Philly-based sci-blogger here. We’re in the same boat on this point, I think. I’m a journalist, not a scientist, by training, and so every article or post I write starts with me taking a self-guided crash course in whatever topic I’m writing about (and often mini lessons in related topics). It can be a real time suck, and put you behind the news curve, but pays off with a solid piece of writing.

    I like the way you’ve approached providing background with your “primers” section, though. I often find myself having a “Topic X 101″ graf in some of my stories, which can really kill the momentum of the pieces. May have to try something similar on my site.

    Matt

    August 10, 2010 at 11:03 am

  14. I know what you mean about feeling inexperienced amongst so many brilliant writers and researchers. For me, I haven’t even finished my BS yet, which makes it hard for me to blog about subjects/ideas I haven’t encountered yet. On the other hand, my love of knowledge and learning arms me with the tools necessary to (as you said) research topics thoroughly and then write insightful posts. Perhaps this process lacks a certain sense of authoritativeness that long time Scientists can lend to their posts, but it doesn’t necessarily make the content any less valid.

    At any rate, we just have to keep writing. :)

    Brendan Locke

    August 10, 2010 at 11:12 am

  15. I’m glad to find that I am not the only blogger with these thoughts. Your post and the comments on it are encouraging to keep it up. :)

    sachanwi

    August 10, 2010 at 12:26 pm

  16. Thanks for writing about this. I’m an experienced journalist, but not an experienced science writer or a scientist, so was very hesitant when jumping into the ring. I fall into the group you describe above: “We no longer need credentials to write about science: I can just sign up for a wordpress page and do it! I can risk irrevocable embarrassment and failure on the internet, dooming my dreams of becoming a “real” science writer!”

    I’ve always been fascinated by the intersection between science and culture, and a couple of years ago had the revelation that instead of waiting for someone to give me the greenlight to start writing about this topic, I could now just start because of the digital tools. It’s been a challenge to find the time amidst other commitments, and at times daunting to put myself out there for fear of getting something “wrong” because of my non-science background. So posts like yours, and the resulting comments, let us know we’re not alone, which is reassuring. Keep up the good work!

    ~Tamara Krinsky
    http://www.sciencelush.com

    tamara krinsky

    August 10, 2010 at 1:00 pm

  17. Awesome post! Don’t let the imposter syndrome keep you from doing what you do well.

    Jason G. Goldman

    August 10, 2010 at 2:08 pm

  18. Thanks for the link and writing a great post Hannah!
    You’re far from the only one who feels this way. I recognize many of the feelings that you’ve described in this post.

    Our approach to blogging is also similar (almost eerily so!): even the simplest blog posts that I write take +4 hours to complete, largely because of the research that I put into it and the endless rewriting. As an inexperienced writer and scientist I feel that is what I have to do. I want to provide quality content. I feel I cannot get away with posting L0Lcats and funny videos, there’s already so much of that out there, and as the new (science)kid on the blog, you’ve really got to prove your worth.

    Quality only gets you so far though, networking is the other part. I must say that it has been young science bloggers like you and Lab Rat that give the best feedback and make me feel confident and at home. While it’s hard to get into the science blogging ‘in-crowd’, I already feel like belonging to a community of young and eager science bloggers.

    You’ve really struck a chord with this post, as the many comments show. I’m glad that many new young bloggers that have responded here: more good stuff to discover :).

    Lucas

    August 10, 2010 at 3:32 pm

    • My heart gasped a little at this… it was you and Labrat that made ME feel at home. You guys left me my first comments… oh the memories. It’s nice to have a lil network of us youngins.

      Hannah

      August 10, 2010 at 11:19 pm

    • 4 hours? Try 15+ hours per posting and that doesn’t include the field work. I mentioned this in a blogging class I took recently at Stanford (way cool continuing education class) and the rest of the class gasped. I can say that the hours I spend trying to track down one fact have led to richer insight, better writing, and, unfortunately, longer posts or multiple posts just so I can share all the cool stuff I keep learning. The interaction between observing nature outside and investigating/logic inside is intriguing. On the other hand, after a year and a half of blogging about natural history, I now have a cutoff alarm that tells me when to just finish up and get it posted. I stash the remaining material somewhere because I am sure it will roll up again in a future season. Even if the writing is not perfectly resonating, I just go ahead and post good-enuf because it is great practice and I see my writing getting better just by doing it over and over again. And the inspiration. And the community. Ooops, alarm just went off, have to stop now. after proofing . . . arghh, the vultures just flew overhead reminding me I have to get outside.

      Cindy

      August 21, 2010 at 1:21 pm

  19. Hey Hannah,

    I’m going to claim I count as you since I’m a grad student…

    I think you already know this, but the most important thing you can do it keep writing! I love reading blogs like your and Psi’s that are clearly written by young people that are excited about science and want to share it. It’s really important that causual readers, especially young ones, understand that science is exciting and interesting and you make that very clear.

    One thing you learn through you scientific career is that, even in science, quite a few people are dicks. And there is really very little you can do about it, it would be great if everyone could calmly talk about mistakes that popped up in a post (or a talk for that matter) but there are at least some people that need to take the opportunity to show the world how clever they are. All I can suggest is that you realise that says a lot more about them than you, and you shrug. (BTW, you think you’ve made mistakes, look at this one from me!)

    I wouldn’t worry too much about your inexperience either. I’m sure you’ll write a few posts you’ll look back on in 10 years time and shake your head at. But the more important thing to realise is that you probably have the broadest knowlege of science you’ll ever have right now. When you go on an specialise you’re going to be a master of one subject, but for now you’re a jack of all trades and the skills you’ve learnt in your bachelors degree allow you to think critically and research a topic well. That’s all you need.

    david winter

    August 10, 2010 at 7:09 pm

    • You give the advice of a wise old sage. Officially NOT young! :)

      (Thanks)

      Hannah

      August 10, 2010 at 11:21 pm

  20. err that should say “count as young”. I have no particular desire to full in for you in way…

    david winter

    August 10, 2010 at 7:15 pm

  21. Thanks for the comments everyone — I’m glad that this post at least got me in touch with a handful of you youngins. We’re all in this together. Keep up the good work.

    Hannah

    August 10, 2010 at 11:22 pm

  22. I’m still working on my undergraduate degree. I’ve tried to like being wrong, because (though it’s embarrassing some times) it’s the best way to learn.

    Keep on keepin’ on.

    Mike Lisieski

    August 11, 2010 at 10:46 am

  23. Cor, I didn’t realise my original comment sounded so ridiculously whiney at the end until I re-read it.

    thonoir

    August 11, 2010 at 3:16 pm

  24. Not just those without advanced degrees, but those who haven’t written for so long. I’ve a Ph.D., etc., and have been blogging for slightly less than a year, but I decided I wasn’t who Ed was looking for. (My initial impression was that he wanted experienced “professional” (meaning: as their income) writers; this may have changed?) After all if he started to include the likes of me, he’s going to end up with a very long list! :-)

    Grant

    August 11, 2010 at 6:06 pm

  25. FWIW, I specifically said in the writer origins thread that I was after stories from people with a couple of years of experience under their belt. It had nothing to do with being “professional” or doing it for a living or working in mainstream versus blogging. Look at the list and you’ll see bloggers and newspaper people sharing space. The reason for the stipulation was that the thread was meant to act as a showcase of inspiration and advice for young upcoming science writers, and it’s very hard to give advice without having a bit of experience.

    That’s not to say that young science writers have nothing to add, as this fine post demonstrates. I think the blogosphere, and Twitter in particular, is incredible for equalising people with vastly different amounts of experience. I can, and regularly do, interact with people who’ve been at this game for decades while I only have 4-5 years under my belt. Nonetheless, I’m not treated any differently because of it; it feels a lot like a meritocracy.

    So, as many commenters above have said, don’t let inexperience breed intimidation. Here’s another thing about science writers: we’re quite keen on helping each other out. With so much crap science writing out there, it pays to nurture new talent.

    Ed Yong

    August 11, 2010 at 7:48 pm

  26. Hannah, thank you. You have spoken my heart. I am not as young as you are (31), but I’ve only been writing professionally about science for about three years; I’ve had a couple of previous lives, none of which were remotely related to what I do now. And, if possible, it takes me even longer to produce posts (I feel like I have a “science website,” not a “blog,” because I post far too infrequently to qualify as a blogger) because I don’t have a background in science—my bachelor’s and masters degrees are both in literature. I am furiously hungry for knowledge, though, and am acquiring it day by day through as many avenues as it is humanly possible to pursue. Some days, I definitely still feel as if I will never know enough to write about the things that fascinate me so painfully—or as if I am navigating an entire world whose outlines are unclear.

    Anyway, I love what you said and the discussion it has sparked. Clearly, you are not alone. You have allies; and we are both young (or otherwise inexperienced) and experienced (or otherwise old).

    Meera

    August 11, 2010 at 8:17 pm

  27. Ed,

    I worry you’re reading more into what I wrote than I have! (frowns) Yes, I am the sort that worries about how others read what I’m saying… :-)

    I’m not saying that’s what you want now, just what my *initial* impression (when your post had a handful of replies) *impression* (i.e. at a glance) of what you wanted was. (Didn’t you widen the scope at some point?)

    I’m aware of the wider (widened) scope, but I still feel bit awkward putting myself alongside those who have been at it a lifetime (or so). I’m just sympathising with her reluctance to put forward her own story, both for some of the reasons she mentioned, and for the reason you mention.

    Grant

    August 11, 2010 at 9:46 pm

  28. Very very nice post. It completely echoes how I feel as well. Just wanted to say this.

    Khalil A.

    August 12, 2010 at 12:01 pm

  29. It’s such a DRAG when some pedant feels the need to post a comment about some obscure thing I didn’t go into in great detail. But I’m still new enough that I’m just excited that somebody’s reading the blog!

    It’s really cool to find other noobs who are thoughtful about how to improve and gain the respect of the veterans. Keep it up!

    David

    August 14, 2010 at 11:31 pm

  30. I’ve been a freelance writer for two years and a professional writer (PR copy for a big London agency) for more than three… And I still feel like a noob who needs a writing license.

    My husband is always getting annoyed with me, saying “you are not a wannabe. You had a front-page lead in the UK’s Financial Times newspaper. You write regularly for a science magazine. You work part-time as an editor”.
    It doesn’t help.

    We – scientists blogging and writers alike – are part of a huge transition in the media. ‘Journalism’ is no longer a profession with exams where people work their way up from local papers. Prestigious publications no longer pay more for freelance copy than non-prestigious ones. And it’s not clear where the jobs in journalism/writing are going to be in 10 years time.

    The result is there are now no barriers to entry. It’s not obvious why a well-researched, well-written article you write about a scientific paper isn’t ‘journalism’, but rewriting a science press release in a newsroom is. This is very confusing and scary for scientists who suddenly realise they can just start writing and get an audience – no experience necessary.

    But it’s not just you. Young science journalists and writers are in the same boat as young researchers who write. We all feel terribly inexperienced and clueless because our careers/experience doesn’t match the 40-50 somethings who started science writing in a completely different world. So just hang in there – you’re a good, thought-provoking writer so you’ll succeed regardless :)

    Vivienne Raper

    August 29, 2010 at 1:42 am

  31. [...] at Culturing Science posted today about being a young and/or inexperienced science blogger (inspiring a follow-up post by fellow FoS-er, Lab Rat), a category which I suppose I fall into. I [...]


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