Hello fellow science blogger – how do you decide what to write about?


This tweet by Julie Gould this morning brought the question to my mind - how do we as science bloggers decide what to write about?

Shutterstock: http://ow.ly/wdeMC

Shutterstock: http://ow.ly/wdeMC

This question isn't a new one for me - in fact, it's a question I'm interested in exploring for my PhD dissertation work. So I'm asking for other science bloggers to give their input.

If you are interested in being interviewed by me about this question and your science blogging practices in general, give me your contact information here!

The first problem with asking this question, though, is that science bloggers are NOT a homogeneous group. There are science journalists blogging on the side. There are scientists blogging about their research. There are scientists blogging for science outreach purposes. There are science students blogging out of passion for science, for class credit, etc. There are science communication scholars (like me) blogging about their musings in #scicomm. There are science bloggers doing capital "J" journalism, sometimes in efforts to build their portfolios as freelancers. There are science PIOs who blog for all kinds of different reasons.

But setting aside this complication for now, I'd love to hear your thoughts on the following questions:

1. How do you as a science blogger decide what to write about? Do you write about new research studies/papers that fall into your own research area? Do you write about interesting questions that catch your eye as you have conversations on social media? Do you blog mainly things that pique your interest, regardless of whether they are "newsworthy"? Do you blog to answer reader questions? To dispel myths?

Some of these are big picture questions, but more specifically, what criteria do you find yourself using when deciding whether to write on a potential story idea, or pass on it?

2. What about traditional news factors - or the attributes journalists traditionally use to determine if a story is newsworthy? Do you think you take these into account (consciously or unconsciously?) Impact? Timeliness? Prominence (featuring well-know individuals or institutions are newsworthy)? Proximity? The "bizarre"? Conflict? Currency (a topic that is current or already in the news media)? Human interest (stories that have more of an entertainment factor)?

3. If you DO think about traditional news factors - why? Do you include "news pegs" in your stories to help them spread via your readers on social media? (A news peg is 'an aspect or angle of a story that makes it newsworthy'). Or do you include news pegs in hopes that more traditional media outlets will pick up or share your story?

4. Are there "non traditional" news factors that you consider when deciding what to write about? Maybe the scientific impact of a given piece of science? Its relevance to current "hot areas" of science?

5. What about humor? Awe factor? "Cool" science?

6. What other criteria do you use when deciding if a given story idea or scientific discovery is worth blogging about? Another way to ask this question - what would you probably NOT blog about? What story ideas have you passed on, because you didn't think there would be much reader interest?

7. Do you blog for a community / network that encourages certain topics over others?

8. So a story idea has caught your eye, and you've decided to blog about it. Do you inject any news pegs or news values INTO the story as you write it?

9. Have you ever noticed your blogging content being picked up by a bigger (or traditional) news outlet? Have you ever been contacted as a news source because of your science blogging?

Considering the big picture, do you think it's important for science bloggers to consider traditional news factors and news pegs in the first place? Or should we be focusing on making science blogging more "timeless"?

And if you can think of any questions I'm NOT asking above, please answer them too!

Tweet to me @FromTheLabBench, or comment below!


7 Responses to “Hello fellow science blogger – how do you decide what to write about?”

  1. Kausik Datta Reply | Permalink

    Quoting you, Paige: "... scientists blogging about their research... scientists blogging for science outreach purposes... blogging out of passion for science" -- This actually sums it up for me quite nicely. This is why I blog about science and scientific research.

    Now to answer your questions:
    1. How do you as a science blogger decide what to write about? Do you write about new research studies/papers that fall into your own research area? Do you write about interesting questions that catch your eye as you have conversations on social media? Do you blog mainly things that pique your interest, regardless of whether they are "newsworthy"? Do you blog to answer reader questions? To dispel myths?

    A hearty YES to all of them. These represent exactly the way how I decide. Mind you, my time constraints allow me to blog about only, say, 5-10% of items that catch my eye.,

    Some of these are big picture questions, but more specifically, what criteria do you find yourself using when deciding whether to write on a potential story idea, or pass on it?

    I write about things that excite me, regardless of their story 'potential'. Sometimes I also blog about science-associated issues (such as funding) which I feel need wider dissemination.

    2. What about traditional news factors - or the attributes journalists traditionally use to determine if a story is newsworthy? Do you think you take these into account (consciously or unconsciously?) Impact? Timeliness? Prominence (featuring well-know individuals or institutions are newsworthy)? Proximity? The "bizarre"? Conflict? Currency (a topic that is current or already in the news media)? Human interest (stories that have more of an entertainment factor)?

    The short answer is 'No'. I know people who do it. We had a talk the other day from Gina Kolata (she of the NY Times fame), and she spoke of an interesting thing - she said, as a science correspondent, her goal is to inform and entertain, but not to educate. I guess, my primary motivation is to educate in some way, shape or form.

    3. If you DO think about traditional news factors - why? Do you include "news pegs" in your stories to help them spread via your readers on social media? Or do you include news pegs in hopes that more traditional media outlets will pick up or share your story?

    I don't. My research-blogging is mostly done ex post facto. The so-called 'newsworthiness' of a topic is something that I am yet to understand and incorporate in my blogging endeavors.

    4. Are there "non traditional" news factors that you consider when deciding what to write about? Maybe the scientific impact of a given piece of science? Its relevance to current "hot areas" of science?

    Sometimes, yes. For example, when I have written about the abysmal science funding scenario in the US currently.

    5. What about humor? Awe factor? "Cool" science?

    Again, sometimes. I'd love to write more about "cool" science stuff. But what I have realized is that things I find "cool" may not necessarily resonate with others.

    6. What other criteria do you use when deciding if a given story idea or scientific discovery is worth blogging about? Another way to ask this question - what would you probably NOT blog about? What story ideas have you passed on, because you didn't think there would be much reader interest?

    I prefer the positive take on this; scientific discoveries are always worth blogging about. However, of late I have been considering the human angle bit, especially in my field. So if a discovery has some immediate public health benefit potential, it catches my eyes sooner than do the others.

    7. Do you blog for a community / network that encourages certain topics over others?

    I don't know. Do I? :D

    8. So a story idea has caught your eye, and you've decided to blog about it. Do you inject any news pegs or news values INTO the story as you write it?

    As I said above, I am yet to learn about the so-called 'news pegs'. But to be honest, for the Scilogs blog posts, I am more concerned about getting the science right, rather than making the whole story newsworthy.

    Considering the big picture, do you think it's important for science bloggers to consider traditional news factors and news pegs in the first place? Or should we be focusing on making science blogging more "timeless"?

    To my mind, both approaches have their benefits given a particular context.

  2. Zen Faulkes Reply | Permalink

    "How do you as a science blogger decide what to write about?"

    Do I think I have something interesting to say?

    "Do you write about new research studies/papers that fall into your own research area?"

    Yes (though lately, not as much as I'd like to).

    "Do you write about interesting questions that catch your eye as you have conversations on social media?"

    Definitely true that social media conversations spark longer posts.

    "Do you blog mainly things that pique your interest, regardless of whether they are "newsworthy"?"

    Yes.

    "Do you blog to answer reader questions?"

    Rarely. Not many people ask me direct questions.

    "To dispel myths?"

    Yes.

    "What criteria do you find yourself using when deciding whether to write on a potential story idea?"

    Can I say something interesting, that hasn't been said by other people, and do it in a timely way?

    "What about traditional news factors - or the attributes journalists traditionally use to determine if a story is newsworthy? Do you think you take these into account (consciously or unconsciously?) Impact? Timeliness? Prominence (featuring well-know individuals or institutions are newsworthy)? Proximity? The "bizarre"? Conflict? Currency (a topic that is current or already in the news media)? Human interest (stories that have more of an entertainment factor)?"

    Sure, sometimes.

    "If you DO think about traditional news factors - why?"

    Journalists aren't stupid. They work hard to realize what people want to read. And while I get a lot of value in just writing for myself, I do think my writing has more value if other people read it.

    "Do you include "news pegs" in your stories to help them spread via your readers on social media? Or do you include news pegs in hopes that more traditional media outlets will pick up or share your story?"

    Don't even know what a news peg is.

    "Are there "non traditional" news factors that you consider when deciding what to write about? Maybe the scientific impact of a given piece of science? Its relevance to current "hot areas" of science?"

    My own expertise and interests.

    "What about humor? Awe factor? "Cool" science?"

    I want those.

    "What would you probably NOT blog about? What story ideas have you passed on, because you didn't think there would be much reader interest?"

    Research that other people have blogged about already, and I didn't feel I had anything new to add.

    "Do you blog for a community / network that encourages certain topics over others?"

    No.

    "A story idea has caught your eye, and you've decided to blog about it. Do you inject any news pegs or news values INTO the story as you write it?"

    Not sure I understand the question (remember, I don't get what a "news peg" is.)

    • Paige Brown Jarreau Reply | Permalink

      Thanks for the comments Kausik and Zen! A news peg is "an aspect or angle of a story that makes it newsworthy." For example, if you write a story about science, you might make an analogy or connect to a current event to make that story more newsworthy. You might infuse it with a timely event, or infuse it with a famous character (Einstein!), etc.

  3. Al Taylor Reply | Permalink

    1) I tend to write on things that interest me, typically broader than single science areas, eg politics, economics of science, science careers. I write about either my past experiences, especially if relevant to a recent social media discussion, or summaries of events I've been to. I often find it a good way of actually committing things I hear at a conference to memory! Occasionally I write blogs on request or for certain Twitter "festivals". I guess my main criterion though is that I have to be interested/passionate enough about the subject to want to spend several hours of my spare time writing about it.

    2+3.I occasionally write directly in response to a newsworthy article but its not a priority. I'm trying to write in a style that uses certain news pegs, better headlines, catchier first lines. I'm also trying out different styles from passive reporting of facts to personal narratives, opinion pieces etc.

    4+5 I'm similar to Kausik above. Again, what I find cool may not match with what other people find cool, but I'd like to write more to attract people outside the "community", so I may try a few hotter topics in the future.

    6. Again, it comes back to my interest or passion in the topic. I happily write on research close to my heart but outside that I prefer to leave it to those who know more about it. Time is a factor- often I have an idea to write about something but I don't get the time to do it there and then. I come back to it a week later but the spark has gone, so I move on.

    7. Starting to. I've written a couple of articles for a medium community called Future Exchanges, although the topic area is generally outside my core area as more technology-focused than science. I've also joined a couple of blogging platforms in my research area and will start writing for them soon.

    8. I think I'm coming to an editorial decision to avoid anything that immediately dates my blogs, although I may write about particular events. It might be I keep the main content of the blog "un-pegged" but include a footnote referring to the event/conference/story that inspired the post. I'd like to think most of my blogs can have some longevity and retain their relevance over time. There are some occasions I will write something in direct response to a current event, however, where I can't avoid using a news peg.

    One example does come to mind- I was asked if one of my posts could be reposted by another website some months after I wrote it. However, despite most of the blog being "timeless" it was originally written in reference to a specific news story. As such, I refused permission for the repost, but ended up writing another piece for the platform on a more recent event.

  4. Aurelie Moulin Reply | Permalink

    Hi Paige,
    First my thoughts on a question you asked me on Twitter, then more thoughts about your article.
    0) "are there things you can make people relate to or value more easily? Examples?"
    I think the answer lays in your writing style. A talented writer could interest anyone on any topic. I blog about the Ocean. I'm a physical oceanographer by training, the topic I'm more knowledgeable about would tune someone out in about 7 seconds. The challenge then is how to make them stay 30 sec, what can they learn in that amount of time that would want to make them read more. I write each of my posts with a summary and a full explanation to cater to all interests. But ocean mixing isn't going to fascinate the masses (sadly ;) ). So I try to write about diverse topics and always try to explain how they relate to the reader. I haven't received much constructive feedback on my blog. I have good traffic for a beginner blogger, and people tell me they like it. My more popular posts were the ones with pretty pictures and funny cartoons. The post about the Coriolis force wasn't a hit even with my attempts at humor.
    But again, people would see value either in an elephant seal than in an apparent force they never heard about.

    1. How do you as a science blogger decide what to write about?
    I prioritize writing about the research done by people I know. By talking to them and hearing their excitement it's easy to communicate it. I write about diverse ocean topics (although my blog is only 2 months old, still building a post archive) that I hope will teach people about the ocean so they care more about it. Teaching science is an integral part of what I write, but my real motivation is make people want to care, protect and support the ocean.

    2. What about traditional news factors?
    I don't get inspiration from the news, except if I feel that more background needs to be explained to fully grasp what the news is about. I feel that there already are a number of great science journalists or ocean blogs that take care of the "news", I don't need to add to it. I will happily link to them though.

    3. If you DO think about traditional news factors - why? Do you include "news pegs"?
    I don't include news pegs, at least not on purpose if I do. I say what I have to say with my own perception and understanding, bring up the other side of the story if I know it. I rely on the reader to spread the post on social media if they like it. I haven't had much growth so far, but I'm still learning.

    4. Are there "non traditional" news factors that you consider when deciding what to write about? Maybe the scientific impact of a given piece of science? Its relevance to current "hot areas" of science?
    I write mainly to explain how cool the ocean is. Current hot areas sometimes give me inspiration, although the news coverage about the search for MH370 has been so sickening that I stayed away from it. I definitely start from the science impact, and balance it with how easily I can write about it to make it understandable and entertaining.

    5. What about humor? Awe factor? "Cool" science?
    Yes, yes and yes! I think it is essential to attracting readers, keeping them coming back, and maybe make them want to share the story.

    6. What other criteria do you use when deciding if a given story idea or scientific discovery is worth blogging about? Another way to ask this question - what would you probably NOT blog about? What story ideas have you passed on, because you didn't think there would be much reader interest?
    I ask myself whether I can make it interesting to read, how much I know about it to teach it. I will not blog about topics that are so technical that the reader would require a certain level of education to understand. For example, a friend works on modeling ocean mixing. The topic is fascinating to me, but what ocean mixing is and why people should care is already a tough one, so modeling it is inadequate. Maybe after building a solid readership with enough archived posts related to it so the reader learned enough material to understand the jest of it.
    I also try to stay away from controversial topics unless I have enough arguments to support my point. For example, I believe climate change is happening, but faced with a hard core denier, I may not have all the scientific proofs in mind to support my opinion.

    7. Do you blog for a community / network that encourages certain topics over others?
    No

    8. So a story idea has caught your eye, and you've decided to blog about it. Do you inject any news pegs or news values INTO the story as you write it?
    I would if I thought of one. It would make it accessible to more people who need to be presented with the facts in multiple angles to understand it.

    9. Have you ever noticed your blogging content being picked up by a bigger (or traditional) news outlet? Have you ever been contacted as a news source because of your science blogging?
    I wish! Someday... someday...

    • Paige Brown Jarreau Reply | Permalink

      Aurelie, thank you SO much for this detailed response! I hope to be able to interview you in-depth for this project soon. I find it really interesting that your real blogging motivation "is make people want to care, protect and support the ocean." How do you make people care - and activate their support of ocean conservation - through your stories about the ocean? Do you have particular strategies that go beyond just giving people information about ocean science? I suppose it includes telling a good story?

      I also think it's interesting that you start with the impact of a particular piece of science and then "balance" it with how understandable and entertaining you can make it. I'd love to hear more about how you balance these things.

      Thanks!
      -Paige

  5. Aurelie Moulin Reply | Permalink

    Hi Paige, I'll be happy to talk to you more to contribute to your project! I can also learn a lot from you to better my scicomm. Feel free to email me with any questions!

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