A Brush With Journalistic Style of Authoring

I am tickled pink. I wrote something for a magazine, an informational piece on the Cryptococcus gattii outbreak currently ongoing in the US (on which I expanded in my last blog post). My essay was published yesterday, on May 16, with the launch of the UK edition of the online news magazine, The Conversation. One of the editors for The Conversation is none other than the Scilogs community's very own, Dr. Akshat Rathi (he of the Allotrope fame; read his interview with Scilog's Matt Shipman here).

This opportunity was doubtlessly exciting for me, but at the same time, I approached it with considerable trepidation - because I knew next to nothing about the journalistic style. In quick succession flew through my mind various discussions (sometimes even heated) I have had over the years regarding the all-too-obvious stylistic differences between jounalistic writing and scientific writing. Earlier this year, I even wrote down some of my observations in my blog, in which I argued in favor of positive use of technical terms, a.k.a. jargon, which many seem to abhor. In addition, there was the matter - which I think is extremely important - of maintenance of scientific accuracy (including the uncertainties inherent in science) in the reporting, which some journalists have been accused of egregiously disregarding (see some examples in this Columbia Journalism Review piece and this Slate piece).

My problem was that, as a working scientist and writer of scientific articles destined for peer-reviewed trade journals, I didn't necessarily know how to write, or even explain a concept or present it accurately, while completely eschewing jargon. I find that jargon is helpful in cutting down rambles and getting at the central idea quickly and precisely; I value that precision in communication. While I do recognize that the excessive use of jargon may confound and alienate a reader, I did not know how to reach readers across a highly diverse readership.

When I communicated this concern to Akshat, he offered, most generously, to work with me to tone the essay down and make it suitable for the intended readership. The only stipulations were that there was a deadline, and that the essay had to be restricted to 1200 words. Thus encouraged, I spent the next few days at the keyboard of my computer, writing, chronicling the events, consulting references to ensure factual accuracy. I made several edits to maintain the word limit and to avoid technical terms as much as possible, and also rearranged the text to make the flow of paragraphs more appealing (or so I thought).

I wrote the essay in Word, incorporating references via Endnote - how blasé, no? Because the default word count function in Word counts everything, not differentiating between body text and references, my word count went up quickly. Panicking, I asked Akshat if the word count of the references mattered in the overall piece. He reassured me saying that the references would be eventually hyperlinked, so that I had nothing to worry on that count (pun intended!) - but nevertheless, I should try to keep the references to a minimum.

I was reasonably happy with the final piece. It was very slightly over 1200 words, but I trusted Akshat's experience to manage that. I copied and pasted the text into the Author Interface of the platform that The Conversation uses. The layout of the platform was slighly different to me - I have gotten used to writing in WordPress and Blogger, where I hand-code the HTML - but it was not a big deal.

The first indication that everything was, in fact, not quite peachy was right there, and I am ashamed to say that I kind of ignored it. This platform incorporates a "Readability" button, which by default has a green circle by it. Curious, I pressed that button, et voilà! The green circle turned pale red. A message box appeared, which said several things: of these, the most reassuring was the note indicating that the system apparently recognized my writing as 'scientific' or 'technical' writing - which was also why it got a poor readability score. I was required to construct short sentences with no more than 17 words in each. However, realizing that I was already in troubled waters, I submitted the first draft, hoping to rely on Akshat's editorial skills.

Akshat - bless his soul! - responded with a cheery note that he had received it, and was editing it - and that he enjoyed reading it. He put up the edited draft - he had cut it down to tighten the narrative, he said - requesting me to check if the science was still accurate. Eagerly, I betook myself to the draft, and...

Good golly gosh! Jumping Jehoshaphat!

The meaning of the verb 'bowdlerize' had never before been so crystal-clear to me. To me, it was a radical edit. Words, paragraphs, descriptions, definitions were gone; the size was drastically reduced; introduced in the narrative were one-sentence paragraphs, something that - while working fine for some situations - is considered an anathema in scientific writing. For a few moments, my emotions were that of a grief-stricken, whimpering Copeland discovering his car, completely dismembered and destroyed by Hightower (don't worry if you don't get this obscure Police Academy (1984) movie reference).

And then, upon a second reading, several realities sunk in. First, I have a LOT to learn about news article. It is a completely different ballgame, with different focus, different emphasis, and different means to deliver that emphasis.

Secondly, and more importantly, Akshat had done a masterful job of editing the article; it now actually read like something you'd find in a column on the front page of a daily newspaper! The basic facts were all there, not overburdened by multitude of details. The narrative was tight and structured, but did not overwhelm the reader; I had to admit that even the pesky one-sentence paragraphs, placed strategically for emphasizing a point, seemed to work adequately (although, these were replaced in later edits by succinct and pithy short paragraphs, which was better). A few more rounds of edit to correct minor errors and supply a couple of supporting references, and it was done - ready to be revealed to the world. The result is for y'all to see.

I am forever grateful to Akshat for his yeoman's service re editorial assistance. I hope that I have learnt something from it, and that that knowledge of a different authoring style will stand me in good stead for future writings. I cannot abandon yet the scientific writing style, which I shall keep for my blog, but I hope to grow as a writer as I grow more adept at espousing the journalistic style at will.

Perhaps someday, I, too, shall be able to write like my absolute favorite science journalists and communicators, Carl Zimmer, Ed Yong, Maryn McKenna, and Deborah Blum, whose phenomenal science essays have enriched me greatly over the years. Come on, a guy can dream, no?

2 Responses to “A Brush With Journalistic Style of Authoring”

  1. Khalil A. Cassimally Reply | Permalink

    Great piece Kausik. By my count: you write papers for your academic peers, you write a blog for your peers and for science enthusiasts, and you've begun writing news pieces for science enthusiasts. Three different writing styles there!

    • Kausik Datta Reply | Permalink

      Thank you so much for your encouraging words, Khaleel. I continue to learn new things, and hope to be good at them one day.

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