Bringing science to life


Surf Club

Not everyone is fascinated by science. Not everyone thinks science is vital. CSIRO’s Craig Cormick finds this strange and thinks we should try a little harder to engage the unengagedHe suggests 4 ways of doing this. 
What do you think? 

Quote of the month

‘An editor should tell the author his writing is better than it is. Not a lot better, a little better.’ T.S. Eliot

Welcome to our August 2013 newsletter: Being editedWriting is such a large and necessary part of what we do at Econnect that, while some of us are experienced at editing, all of us are experienced at being edited.Editing is intended to save the writer from embarrassment (and, of course, help the reader), but it’s easy to get defensive, especially when the editor goes beyond fixing errors.Perhaps in the workplace it’s better to think of writing as a collaboration—a process through which both writer and editor hone their skills to jointly create something of excellence—something more than the sum of the parts.

What do you think? Let us know on Facebook, Twitter or email us.

Regards from the @EconnectTeam:

So what? Unforgettable edits

By Alison Binney

Every now and again an editor or subeditor says something about your writing that cuts straight to your core. You never forget it. The comment can be so blunt that it lives in you.

In all truth, those seemingly cutting remarks have improved my writing over time.

One editor made the ‘So what?’ statement about the opening paragraphs of a media article I wrote. My immediate response was, ‘hmmmff’.

But after I reread my work, I could see the point was valid. I rewrote the paragraphs to answer the ‘so what?’ and in doing so made the writing much more readable.

Some other unforgettable edits have been about my use of words that the editor simply disliked. For example, I now think twice before using ‘got’, ‘empower’, and ‘impact’ (as a verb).

I still twitch when I hear a journalist say that a car has ‘hit’ a tree, simply because one subeditor left me with a clear vision of a car having an arm and king-hitting the tree.

And there was the classic comment that my high-school English teacher made 25 years ago about my poetry interpretation: ‘Alison, that was as clear as mud’,

I think that was the turning point in my way with words. After almost failing English at school, I went on to top my journalism course.

So, hats off to those editors, subeditors and teachers who have immortalised their way within me, by being blunt and to the point.

These days I stop, think seriously about my writing, and try to improve it.

Building a scaffold

By Amelie Casgrain (intern)

Summary: For me, being edited is the most formative—and humbling—step of the writing process. During my Econnect internship, editors have taught me to build a ‘scaffold’ to structure my thoughts before jumping in at writing’s ‘deep end’. Building a scaffold before starting to write makes the writing process easier and quicker.

Danger Scaffolding Incomplete

What’s a scaffold? Well, you are reading one!

Lesson 1:  The scaffold acts as a guide; it keeps my writing focused and easy to follow.

Lesson 2: By clearly summarising the piece and stating the main messages (or lessons, as in this instance), I make sure that I keep to the aim of each section.

Lesson 3: Positioning the proposed content for each section helps me maintain a logical flow and prevents me from repeating myself in different sections.

Take-home message: Building a scaffold is one of the techniques I have adopted during this internship, and I am sure I will learn plenty more by being edited. Practice makes almost perfect—in the writer’s case, perfection comes with being edited.

Breaking bad habits

By Robbie Mitchell

I like to view editors as my writing coaches.

They offer me feedback on how to improve my writing, encourage me when I nail a sentence, and hand down a lesson or two when I drop the ball.

These lessons can seem fairly severe at the time but, as with any coach, I’ve learnt that such lessons are being delivered not to spite me but to help me improve.

Sometimes we need a kick up the backside to realise our mistakes, particularly if it is becoming a habit.

Habits are hard to shake; that’s why we have to learn from such lessons and train to break them.

Just like in sports, training in writing can help you reap rewards.

Just like in sports, training in writing can help you reap rewards.

I have a checklist of bad habits I’ve been pulled up on by my editors, which I use before sending my writing to an editor. I now make a concerted effort to use active voice and not overuse abstract nouns—I try instead to make the verbs do the work.

I also like to refresh myself on handy writing tips by reading back through our past newsletters and checking in on Grammar Girl’s quick and dirty tips.

These simple drills have helped me, and my editor says I’m improving with every piece I write.

Tweet me your training tips for breaking bad writing habits @RobbieMitch

Addressing edits: give yourself time  

By Sarah Cole

Here are my 4 tips for working through the edits to your writing:

  • Space out the writing, editing and revising. The concept of letting your writing ‘incubate’ can apply to edits too, I believe. I give myself some time (if I can) between sending my writing to the editor, receiving their feedback, and then working through the feedback. Often, I find, the problems are then clearer, and easier to deal with.
  • Give yourself time to address the edits. Depending on the level of editing, you may need some thinking time to restructure your writing, or time to check a quote or clarify your understanding with your source. Don’t leave it until near a deadline to look at these sorts of edits.
  • Work ‘small to big’. I find it less taxing to accept/change small edits at the word or sentence level before tackling larger structural edits. It’s less about avoiding the restructure and more about wrapping my head around the topic again. I also find it easier to read a document without hundreds of small tracked changes cluttering up the screen.
  • Check the flow after moving text. This has caught me out in the past! After restructuring, I carefully check that my explanation of a term, for instance, doesn’t inadvertently occur after the term has been used. The same goes for introducing people and abbreviations.

Write better by reviewing the writing of others

By Jenni Metcalfe

A few years ago we were doing a large writing job in a short timeframe—summarising 30 lengthy scientific documents into 2 pages each of plain English.

We brought together a pool of writers and Mary and I reviewed their work. We wrote some of the summaries ourselves, so we also reviewed each other’s drafts.

Usually it is Mary who reviews my writing, helping me to make sure it is always the best it can be. So it was with great glee that I searched Mary’s drafts for anything where I could write the sort of comments that she had often made about my writing—‘vague’, ‘abstract – be more specific’ or ‘what does this mean?’.

It was a challenge, not unlike a treasure hunt, and I sometimes succeeded!

On later reflection, I realised that the process of reviewing another’s writing had helped improve my own writing by reinforcing some of the basic rules of good writing. No wonder Mary is not only a terrific editor but a great writer.

My thinking on this was reinforced by a research paper, Learning by reviewing, published by Charles MacArthur in the Journal of Educational Psychology. He shows that students who reviewed another student’s work were more likely to improve their writing than those who only received feedback about their own writing.

Here are 5 sentence-level techniques I’ve learnt from reviewing and being reviewed:

  1. Put the action in the verb and avoid abstract nouns e.g. ‘describe’ instead of ‘provide a description of’.
  2. Use active voice e.g. ‘we ran field trials’ instead of ‘field trials were conducted’.
  3. Use short, simple words e.g. ‘give’ instead of ‘provide’, ‘get’ instead of ‘obtain’.
  4. Be specific, not vague – if it’s an abstract concept, given an example that the reader can visualise.
  5. Cut redundant words e.g. ‘we need to do more research in the future’.

Take nothing for granted

By Mary O’Callaghan

My dad was one of those people who circled typos in the newspaper and ranted about them to anyone who’d listen. So editing has probably been part nature and part nurture for me.

Being edited is a different story. What I’ve learnt first and foremost is to take nothing for granted.

I had a refresher on this back in March when I wrote a media release about the turbidity in the ocean off Western Australia caused by Tropical Cyclone Rusty.

NASA image of the bloom plume off Broome

Tropical Cyclone Rusty stirred up a bloom plume off Broome (Source: NASA).

The scientists monitoring the turbidity were really excited because it was the first time they had been able to measure turbidity during a tropical cyclone. And they were surprised by the results—the measurements were off the scale of their instruments.

But what did it all mean for the ‘ordinary’ person?

For me, it was tricky posing the ‘so what?’ question without a) feeling like an ignoramus or b) inadvertently trivialising this important work.

Finally, I gleaned that all the sea creatures and plants in the local area could get a nutrient boost. Everyone would see the benefit in that, right?

After many drafts, I got approval and sent out the release. 

My first contact was a one-line email from a senior journalist with the Broome Advertiser. It read: Hi Mary, Can you please tell me what turbidity means?

My heart sank. I visualised a huge placard with the word ‘FAIL’ on it. In all my efforts to get the facts right, to satisfy the scientists, to be relevant to the lay person, I had taken for granted that everyone would know what turbidity was.

Sometimes we know too much. Sometimes we think we know something, but it is only when we try to explain it to others that we realise we don’t understand it fully, or at all.

So when I’m writing for the reader with little or no knowledge of the topic, I like to be edited by someone with little or no knowledge of the topic. It keeps me on top of my game.

[The same journalist later confided that I had ‘stirred up a bit of interest’. So all was not in vain. Later again I found this NASA explanation of how cyclones (hurricanes) help ocean deserts to bloom.]