Website review: Self-publish and be praised

 

So if editors ignore your queries and you want to keep writing anyhow, what do you do? Ignore the middlemen and start a blog, of course! That's what Ed Yong, British freelance writer and creator of the blog Not Exactly Rocket Science (NERS) did. Thanks to his skill and in-depth reporting, Ed was invited to blog for Seed Media Group's ScienceBlogs. Now editors know his name, and he has clips from New Scientist, Nature, and The Guardian to prove it.

Recently, the award-winning writer banged a selection of past Not Exactly Rocket Science blog posts into a book by the same name and published it himself. I had to find out where Ed Yong gets his moxie. After spending some time with him, I realized that his success isn't due to moxie at all, but to exuberance, smarts and a big helping of passion.

NA: Ed, when you began blogging, had you already been published? Did you think of the blog at the time as a sort of instant clip file to show editors, as many of us do?

EY: Aside from a nugget-sized piece in New Scientist, no. It was precisely this frustration at not being able to break into mainstream science writing that catalyzed my desire to blog in the first place. I wanted to write about science but I was getting rapidly bored of scrabbling around minor journals looking for B-list stories that hadn't already been covered by major news outlets and that I could pitch. Blogging allowed me to write about topics of my choosing in a style I'm most comfortable with. It definitely crossed my mind that this would provide an instantly accessible portfolio for editors, but that wasn't the major driver and it certainly took at least a year before that benefit first kicked in. I started blogging because I wanted to get my hands dirty and I felt that I could add something to the cocktail of popular science that had already been mixed.

NA: Give us the quick and dirty version of your science background. What bench were you holding up before you turned to science writing?

EY: It was a bench in one of Cancer Research UK's London labs, and by "holding up," I think you mean "periodically contaminating with radiation and setting fire to." When I left university, I figured that an interest in science would surely translate to a desire and/or aptitude for research. So I started doing a PhD in biochemistry and I rapidly learned the myriad unexpected ways in which I would completely suck at it. The two years I spent in a lab taught me a few important things. One, my manual dexterity is equivalent to animal species that lack opposable thumbs, and possibly limbs. Two, I need broad scopes -- my attentional spotlight is jerky and has no narrow setting. Three, I need frequent tangible hits of satisfaction and I can't cope with the months of systematic frustration.

All of this culminated in a brilliant two-day training course on science communication that Cancer Research UK holds for its grad students, during which I had a brilliant, shiny epiphany that I was much better at talking about science than doing it. I got an MPhil out of it though, and my theses have contributed to the betterment of mankind by propping up my monitor so that I can blog without neck-ache.

NA: Has the success of NERS surprised you, and if so, tell us how. Are you getting gazillions of readers; are editors pounding at your door?

EY: Getting some readers far exceeded my initial expectations of getting, well, no readers. The plan was to cover science news for lay audiences, which a massive number of other established news outlets already do. My goal was to do it better, but I wondered if anyone would agree or, indeed, care. Also, I didn't plan on doing a lot of things that blogs are advised to in order to build big readerships. NERS is not controversial or argumentative; the style isn't chatty; posts are long and initially infrequent.

And yet, it has slowly and steadily built up a substantial readership -- currently, I get about 100,000 page views a month. It reached a point early this year when I finally started considering it a success and, yes, that has surprised me. To me, it's a testament to the fact that on the Internet, content is king. When I started, I deliberately avoided bashing creationists or pseudoscientists in favor of emulating the approach of the books, documentaries and teachers that inspired me in the first place. The goal was to inspire the sci-curious by making science seem less complicated and more beautiful, and judging by comments and feedback, it seems to be slowly working.

It has definitely brought opportunities too, including the attentions of literary agents (yay!) and PR agents (boo-hiss!). But the most rewarding elements have been the comments, kudos from other bloggers, and especially nods from the scientists themselves, saying that they enjoyed what I wrote.

NA: I have seen your bio -- you're a full-time information officer at Cancer Research UK, you post 3-4 articles a week on your blog, and you have a nice, hefty publication history with The Telegraph, New Scientist, and Nature network. Do you ever sleep?

EY: Ha! No! I live in a state of perpetual fatigue and when I do sleep, I do it hanging upside-down, wrapped in a cocoon of my own wings. But seriously, if anyone wants to blog prolifically, I highly recommend developing light insomnia. I usually write in the wee hours of evening, when I would normally be getting frustrated about not being able to fall asleep. And actually the mental exertion of writing and the satisfaction of having completed a piece help me to doze off more readily.

And to be honest, the secret to all of this is that I absolutely love it. If I wasn't writing for a career, I'd be sneaking off somewhere so I could write for a career. I love the work I do for Cancer Research UK -- it's a great cause, it's intellectually stimulating, I'm surrounded by committed and talented people and I get to flex some creative muscles. When I'm not there, blogging and freelancing help me to scratch that writing itch. It hasn't escaped my attention that it's not easy to land a job that pays you to do something you love, much less two.

I've got embargoed access to papers from a few major journals and aside from that, it's just a case of managing my time. I grab half an hour in the train journey into work, half an hour on the train home, an hour in the evening, and so on. I blame the scientists -- if they'd just cut it out and go on holiday, perhaps there wouldn't be anything to write about and I could actually get some shut-eye.

NA: What is the secret of a good blog?

EY: I always find this question amusing. You would never, ever ask a novelist or a musician what the secret of a good book or album is. Blogs are no different -- the medium's so young and diverse that trying to pigeonhole it along set criteria of quality is insane.

As far as I'm concerned, the only thing that's important is having something to say and being able to say it well. Diversity is one of the medium's key strengths. You'll get people writing about all sorts of things with all sorts of voices -- some focused, others meandering, some in a journalistic style, others in a personal one. The most popular blogs tend to be fairly controversial or adversarial, but you don't have to take that approach in order to be successful. Basically, there are no clear rules -- I even know a few bloggers who don't actually like what they do, persist at it anyway, and manage to churn out excellent content.

This being said, I have a yen for deft, clear and lyrical writing. I also have a strong preference for blogs with a high signal-to-noise ratio. All the ones that I read provide interesting content with few distractions; the ones I tend to ignore clutter their writing with random personal musings or funny stuff they've found on the Internet. I also prefer original content; blogs that mostly cut, paste and link to text from other articles are basically the online equivalent of newspaper churnalism, and they lose my interest.

NA: Are there any that you have followed for a long time or feel especially passionate about?

EY: Some of the best popular science writing out there can be found in blogs such as Mind Hacks, The Loom, Laelaps and Cognitive Daily. Blogs like Bad Science, Respectful Insolence, the Lay Scientist and NeuroLogica give me my regular fix of pseudoscience-demolishing. A recent favourite is Myrmecos, which provides some of the most consistently incredible wildlife photos I've ever seen, all the more so because the subjects are usual millimeters in length. You'll note that all of these follow the basic pattern I laid out above -- lots of original and interesting content.

And obviously, XKCD. If anyone reading this doesn't know what that is, I feel sorry for you. Go and find out so that your life will be better.

NA: Which has been more helpful to your career as a science writer -- the Telegraph award or NERS?

EY: Lately, NERS has played a bigger role, especially since I devote more time to it than other forms of freelancing. But winning the Telegraph award was definitely the key to starting a serious freelancing career and getting my name recognized. I noticed that people were actually responding to my pitches and taking them a bit more seriously. The award also meant that I got to meet and talk to David Attenborough, a life-long hero and one of the judges. I spent two hours writing a 700-word piece and six months later, David Attenborough is showing me his fossil collection in his living room. Best two hours I've ever spent.

I'd definitely recommend entering competitions. An award helps to elevate you in what can be a very crowded field. As of this year, the Telegraph has stopped running their award for reasons unbeknownst to me. That's a great shame, not only because it was a great opportunity for budding writers to prove themselves, but also because if they'd ceased it a year earlier, I would forever be the reigning champion!

NA: What gave you the idea to self-publish a book from your blog? Has it been a good experience? Is the book selling? Any advice for wannabe self-publishers?

EY: Without meaning to sound facetious, and because there's not really an answer more complex than this, I did it because I could. This was the same rationale behind starting a blog -- I wanted to write about science and I wasn't getting anywhere pitching to existing media channels. So I created a channel of my own. Likewise, with the book, I knew that the technology was available, I felt that it would be relatively simple to do given that most of the content was already written, and I wanted to see what would happen. Putting it together was trickier than expected, and it's sold a couple of hundred copies. That's by no means a success, but it's what I expected, it was fun to do, and at the end of it, I have a tangible thing with my name on it on my bookshelf. It was also a proof-of-principle. The web revolution places the power of communication into the hands of just about anyone with a decent Internet connection. You want a book? Do it yourself. But don't expect to get on any bestseller lists without a strong marketing push behind you.

NA: And how's your marketing push? Are you the only pusher? What about the Seed Media Group, publisher of ScienceBlogs. Do they help you along? And can you say a bit about the whole process of being invited to write for them? How did that happen, and other than the great exposure, does it pay?

EY: The invite was essentially a short email asking if I wanted in, and it came out of nowhere. Joining ScienceBlogs has been fantastic for reaching a wider audience. There's definitely a bit of name recognition going on, as well as cross-pollination between the different blogs and many features on the homepage designed to snag in ScienceBlogs readers rather than just your own specific ones. We've also been very lucky to have a squad of successive overlords [waves to Erin, Arikia and Ginny] who have worked hard to push our content out to ever wider audiences.

We do get paid in amounts proportional to our traffic. The cash is certainly a lot more sizeable now that I'm getting more readers. But even now, if I divided my earnings by the time I spend blogging, I'm still making a less efficient living from it than people on minimum wage. Or freelance journalists.

NA: That was a nice endorsement about the book from NASW member Carl Zimmer, by the way! If you don't mind my asking -- how did you go about asking for a quote?

EY: I just asked and he was kind enough to say yes. I'm a big fan of The Loom and Carl's books, he's a ScienceBlogs alumnus, and he had linked to my blog in the past.

NA: So what's next up for you, in terms of your career? This is only to warn others who may want to try and compete. It's not fair on the rest of us, you know. You've already got a day job. And just because you can't sleep, you start freelancing!

EY: Heh. Next: more of the same. Continue working at CRUK, writing for NERS and doing the odd freelance feature. I might write a book -- I've had talks with an agent and I have an idea, nay, even a plan. I just need more time...

NA: Ed, I hate you, but it has been a real pleasure.

EY: Aw, shucks. Thanks for inviting me to do this. 'Twas fun.


Nancy Allison writes about the fascinating research, art and scholarship occurring at universities, in galleries, and on the web. She blogs at Writer on Board. Send your web and blog picks to her at: nancy@nasw.org.