Starting Things Off Write – Guest Speaker: Bora Zivkovic

24 09 2012

A little background into this post before diving in:  I am taking ENG 520 Science Writing for the Media, taught by David Kroll.  The class is about how to write articles about science for the general media, so that lay audiences can gain insight into the goings on of the scientific community.  Bora Zivkovic was the first guest speaker invited to talk with our class, our assignment to prepare for his visit was to read several of his blog entries, which I have linked to periodically through my reflection.  The format of the visit was a very open ended interview, which allowed the majority of the class to have their questions answered about science writing, blogs, writing formats, job opportunities, and personal anecdotes.  I really gained a lot from his visit, most importantly, that I can be a science writer.  Below is my formal reflection on his visit.

I’ll admit when I first heard that we’d be blogging, hearing from bloggers, and reading blogs I was a bit nervous.  I had the general impression that blogging was for those so bold as to put personal diaries online, so once I began reading, I was quite surprised to see people using it to communicate knowledge, parse out thought processes, and critically analyze publications from mass media to scientific journals.  I think my original fears came from my parents’ and school teaches’ ardent lectures about taking care not to reveal too much on the internet, as this could be dangerous.

In some cases they are right, there is no way that I’m going to be publishing addresses, social security numbers, etc online, but then I’ve  also begun to wonder if not having enough online is also a  bad thing.  Could you lose out on potential opportunities that shameless self promotion and publication of a reasonable synthesis of scientific ideas could present?  Would it be better for potential employers to have an idea about your capability and personality beforehand? Bora Zivkovic’s answer to both of these questions would most certainly be yes.  His straightforward, stream of conscious, write until you’re done explaining, style is informative, creative and admirable.  He’s taken off with a new trend, well new since the 20th century, and adapted it to current technology, evolving as the world of science journalism evolves and helping to stand tradition on its head.  I greatly enjoyed our class’ opportunity to discuss with him the ins and outs of his journey in scientific writing and here I muse on some of the topics he brought up.

Bora very deftly describes that the idea that the mass media is 1. the end all be all in news authority and 2. completely accurate in their reporting is crazy, you have journalists with no expertise in science translating it for lay audiences, which definitely has the potential to turn out very badly.  As he realized the potential in blogs early on, he’s helped to popularize the modern outlets for writing, which has allowed for a style of writing and reporting to return that was lost for a blip in the timeline of the earth, aka the 20th century.  By sharing everything and hashing out ideas in mass, with everyone contributing thoughts and critique, this may help a lot of the bogus science to be brought to light, and for the progression of discovery to move at a faster clip.

Bora also brought up the need to be extremely critical when you’re reading, as even in peer reviewed journals, garbage has a tendency to get shoved through the cracks.  With this thought in mind, blogs are an excellent way to discuss the latest science news and publications, getting multiple points of view from a variety of sources, via the comments section, to hash out what is good science and what is hogwash.  One of his suggestions was very insightful, in that you can use a blog as a think tank to work out new ideas, but I’m not too sure this will catch one with prominent scientists too quickly, as most are very protective of new ideas that could be stolen.  I also wonder about how I will personally be able to handle some of the critiques that come from allowing writing to be available to the masses, especially in light of the recent ENCODE circus.  Bora’s thoughts on the matter were helpful in my musings over this matter; he talked about “attacking ideas not people,” a way to critique someone’s writing without bashing it, which can also be used in the reverse, take to heart the content of the criticism, but taking the criticism personal.  Keeping this in mind will allow me to use critiques from the public to grow as a new science writer, rather than shrink back away from my thoughts and principles.

I very much appreciated his openness about how he got some of his jobs; the stories were comical and incredible at the same time.  Who knew you could get a job via blog post? It just goes to show that indeed, having an online presence and a loyal readership can get you pretty far on the job front.  Based on some of Bora’s comments it seems expertise and trust from your readers is absolutely developed over time, along with deftly placed links to resources that can verify your thought processes and resource; this should definitely be kept in mind if you want to science write for a career.  However, if you’ve got a creative streak and an ability to integrate other disciplines with science topics, then you may catch the Blog Father’s eye and be on the fast track to notoriety.  Bora tries to promote and encourage new science writers through mentoring and opportunities to post your work on sites like Scientific American, where he is currently an editor and blog community facilitator; he may also tweet up a storm about a post if he likes it enough.  This attitude of encouragement seems to permeate the science writer blogosphere with veterans promoting newbie’s work; the key to success according to Bora, it’s all about just getting your stuff out there for other curious minds to find.

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