March 13, 2014 | 1
“Goodbye don’t mean gone.” – attributed to Ray Charles
“Everywhere I go, I’m asked if I think the universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them.” – Flannery O’Connor
When New York calls, you listen, you go. That’s what two decidedly non-scientist role models in my life, Ray Charles and Flannery O’Connor, did during separate decades. Neither lived there for any length of time, but the city offered crucial connections in the music and publishing worlds; their careers zoomed forward.
New York City recently called me, too, and offered a full-time job. I accepted. This post marks my last as an official Scientific American blogger for Food Matters. (My great pals here — with misguided generosity, perhaps — have offered me a chance to guest-blog in the future. Thank you!)
Where are we going?
Technically born on Georgia soil, Ray Charles fueled my belief that so-called handicaps are not hindrances at all, but gifts which allow folks to experience quite a different world, providing them with much-needed “differentness.” This, in turn, can be applied as fresh approaches to research experiment designs or songs or stories. O’Connor, Georgia-born and raised, helped me believe that a girl from a rural Southern town can write stories that capture the attention of a broad audience, so long as she practices hard enough. The desire to succeed despite society’s perception of you as apart is common whether you were born in Boston or Bamako.
But for scientists and science writers, the definition of success has undergone such tumult lately. At a point in recent history, say, the mid-1990s, a person from either profession might have said, “I’m successful because I’m published.” The proliferation of online-only publications — and the accompanying relentless drive for new studies, new posts, new stories, new images, new videos, new updates on Facebook feeds, new attention-grabbing tweets, new Instagram followers — makes this statement now sound quaint. For a longer time, we’ve relied on brand-names. But even these are under threat as companies merge, diversify, start up. Yesterday I spent a good 30 minutes on the phone haggling with The New York Times home delivery salesperson. I’m unsure my 7-year-old nephew will even care about the history and influence of that brand when he grows older. But it’s also part of what makes science writing today so exciting: people aren’t getting news from only a handful of places anymore.
Before I leave here, I’d like to offer a couple pieces of advice.
1. Know the work of established writers.
Throughout my science writing career, I’ve visited, revisited, and, if web links could become “dog-eared,” then such would be the condition of my link to Ed Yong’s classic 2010 post “On the Origin of Science Writers.” Chock-full of inspiration and reassurance. Prominent science writers, too many to list here, have chimed in. (Bookmark it and curl up with it on dull days when your own recent blog post receives nary a tweet.)
2. Cover a highly specific scientific topic, make yourself known as the “go-to person” – BUT, read widely on all subjects.
In the food and agriculture science world, I’d recently decided I wanted to be known as The Soil Person. If anyone in the online science communication community and beyond read a study or article about soil, my hope was that I’d be the first to be tagged in a link share. To this end, I’d spent some time on interviewing Novozymes researchers about microbial-based fertilizer. I’d planned to write about recent market potential changes and crop yield results of that not-so-new technology. In keeping with my philosophy to read widely, I’d also gotten halfway through Sarah Elton’s book Consumed. She and I spoke on the phone at length and the book provides an excellent summary of the main problems the world food system faces. Additionally, I had plans to better understand how small-scale farming could be implemented (again) in the U.S. I planned to interview Calestous Juma, author of The New Harvest, about current sustainable agriculture approaches in Africa and China.
Blogging, or whatever we will call it in a few years, can be such fun!
And this leads me to my conclusion and prediction. (My Twitter handle @sci2mrow is confusing to spell and puzzling in general. But I stick with it because I love thinking about what will be our “science tomorrow.”) My prediction is that blogging networks will continue to increase the amount of web traffic to main news sites, such as ScientificAmerican.com. But to maintain this trend, writers/bloggers/online communicators must work ever harder to write compelling stories and ask challenging questions within their chosen topics of specialization.
To the question “What is success?,” Ray Charles and Flannery O’Connor might have responded with the same answer.
Hard, hard work.