A Walk in the Woods: A Short Story about Persuasion

Here is another tidbit for thought from the Science Writing in the Age of Denial conference. The first keynote address was given by Dr. Arthur Lupia, from the University of Michigan. His talk entitled “Communicating Science in Politicized Environments” focused on the physiological mechanisms of learning and the evidence from the social sciences about how people learn and make decisions when they have limited knowledge of a subject. During his talk he presented a 1-minute story synopsis of his “main point”, in the hopes that if we came away with anything from the talk, we would, at the very least, remember this story. Here is my sketched version of his story with notes.

What do you think? Do scientists and science writers do a good enough job of knowing where our audience is when we write? Continue reading

How to Evaluate Consumer Health Reporting

NASA image

In April I had the privilege of attending Science Writing in the Age of Denial, a conference held at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, that featured science writers, journalists and scientists from around the world discussing some of the perils, pitfalls, challenges and amazing opportunities of covering science, medical and health stories in today’s media landscape. I reveled in the two days of intense discussion.

My notebook from the conference is filled with notes, sketches, web addresses to visit and names of books that I simply must read. One of the talks that hit home hard was given by Gary Schwitzer, a consumer healthcare journalist who is publisher of the web site HealthNewsReview.org

Schwitzer’s talk, “Cheerleading, Shibboleths and Uncertainty” addressed the status of consumer healthcare reporting which, in his opinion, often tends to be little more than “cheerleading” for the latest greatest drug, technology or screening test. His talk addressed some of the cult-like following for screening tests (the shibboleths) and the tendency to convey with certainty the “upside” of screening without discussing adequately the risks or downsides (uncertainty).

His focus on the screening issue was particularly poignant to me, because I have experienced my own transformation of thought regarding health screening. Continue reading

When the Writing Gets Tough, the Tough Write about Semicarbazide-Sensitive Amine Oxidases

These are the cranes I saw while walking and thinking about SSAOs.

When you hold a position as a scientific communication specialist at a biotech company, you never know what you are going to need to write. Most of the time I really like the fact that I have to master new subject matter on a daily basis. I’m using my degree and my brain, and articulating science in a way that connects with the reader is incredibly rewarding. It’s why I do what I do.

However, when I was asked to write about a new assay for semicarbazide-sensitive amine oxidases (SSAOs), my enthusiasm waned. This is a subject about which I know nothing, so I searched the literature to learn as much as I could. After reading several review articles I was able to write this scintillating paragraph: Continue reading

Reflections on Write by the Lake: Lessons Learned for Science Writers

This week I attended the Write by the Lake Retreat at UW-Madison, and I will be genuinely sad to see it end. The magic in the nonfiction session led by Amy Lou Jenkins has been incredible.

I want to share a few of the writing tips I have picked up from this week, even though this wasn’t a “science writing” workshop. What I have found as a writer is that what I work to improve in one type of writing ends up improving every other type of writing that I do. I have heard so many scientific writers claim that science writing is different from all other types of writing. Not necessarily.

So what are some of the things that I picked up at this workshop that I think can easily apply to scientific writing? Continue reading

Use Parallel Structure to Guide the Reader

Getting What You Want from Your Science Writing Part X

computer_keyboardParallel construction signals to the reader that two ideas are of equal importance. If two or more ideas or items are connected by a coordinating conjunction such as “and”, “but” or “or”, then those ideas should be expressed in parallel or equivalent grammatical constructs. Items and ideas of equal importance should be presented using equivalent grammatical structures. Items in a list should be parallel: all verbal phrases, all nouns, etc. Parallel construction guides your reader and helps your reader organize concepts on a first read of your text. Continue reading

One Reader’s Journey through The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (3)

It’s been a while since I have pre-ordered a book and waited expectantly for its arrival. Ever since reading the first reviews of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot on several Science Blogs sites, I have been itching to read this book for myself.

So, when I drove home and saw the boot prints in the snow leading to the front porch, I knew the awaited tome had finally arrived. I began my journey, guided by the able pen of Skloot, through the life of Henrietta Lacks and the incredible story of her tumor cells, first introduced to me as HeLa cells when I was a college student. At that time there was virtually no acknowledgment of the fact that these cells, a staple of cell biology research and teaching, originally came from a person, a mother, a wife, a daughter.

These blog entries will not attempt to be a review of Skloot’s book; more experienced book critics have done that and done it well. Instead, here is my reaction to the book “journaled” as I read—my thoughts and questions as a scientist, a writer, a woman, a mother, a daughter, and a member of the human race.

Entry 3 February 17, 2010
As I read I am struck by contrasts, and perhaps that is what Skloot intended. Continue reading

Rhythm and Flow in Writing

Getting What You Want from Your Science Writing Part VIII

My first project, a scarf for "Floppy Dog".For a while now I have made a living knitting words, stringing them together with a rhythm and flow to create a finished piece that has some kind of meaning. Recently I started learning how to knit yarn together with a rhythm (ideally) that will bring the loops and knots together into some kind of finished whole that has meaning: a scarf, a hat, a dish rag (hey, I’m a beginner here). And just like the clacking of knitting needles can relax and de-stress you, the clicking of the keyboard when your writing is in rhythm can be a joyful experience.

The rhythm and flow of language is important in all types of writing, not just in poetry and dramatic monologues but also in prose and—gasp!—scientific writing as well. Continue reading

Jargon and Buzzwords

Getting What You Want from Your Science Writing Part VII

I received a comment from a reader in response to the “Not-A-Verb List” that I posted as part of our science writing series. He wanted to see an article about the vague words used in life-science marketing and cited in particular his disdain for the word “robust”. I’ve done some research and found a great article entitled the “Content-Free Buzz-Word Compliant Vocabulary List”, an article listing words that are so over-used they have ceased to convey any real meaning. Interestingly, “robust” is right at the top of the list.

So, if our buzzwords of efficiencies, synergies, continual improvement, robust procedures, scalable assays, and world-class science are not communicating anything, what should we do? Continue reading

Genomics, Cellomics and…Poetryomics?

Poems On the Underground is an annual project that has been a part of London life since the mid 1980s.  It is also one with which I have a personal connection—my father used to work for The British Council which cosponsors the project (1).  Every year a selection of poems authored by literary greats such as William Blake, William Wordsworth and Wendy Cope are carefully selected for publication on London Underground trains (1).  For many a rush-hour traveler, these short poetic nuggets will inevitably engage the mind perhaps temporarily drawing it away from the monotony of a working day.

The world of bioscience has recently latched onto a similar craving for all things poetic and creative writing-related.  Sponsored by UK’s Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), The Human Genre Project is the name chosen for a new initiative that aims to tap into the writing abilities of the public at large with a specific focus on genes and genomics (2,3).  Continue reading

Use Words That You Understand

Getting What You Want from Your Science Writing Part VI

A friend of mine told me about an incident that happened during a speech crafting workshop for professionals. One of the members was given the task of selecting a word to introduce and define for the group. The other members of the group were supposed to incorporate that word into their conversation during the workshop. Continue reading