Sarah Keenihan – Science for Life. 365

Sarah is a freelance science writer based in Adelaide, South Australia. Her blog Science for Life.365 is a National Science Week 2012-2013 project that featured daily posts based around science in everyday life. Upon completing the last of her 365 posts, we asked Sarah if she could share her tips on blogging about science.

Being inspired to blog

I didn’t have a huge amount of experience before I started the Blog. I had been occasionally blogging for work and on my personal website to practice writing.

One day I read a report sourced through Twitter describing how 60% of Australian students who study science at University, don’t go on to become ‘working scientists’.

The Australian newspaper had also picked up on the report, and interviewed Australia’s Chief Scientist, Professor Ian Chubb to gauge his thoughts. He responded that we should be considering these numbers when designing science degrees, and indeed embrace the view that “an education in science is valuable beyond the labs and fields of research.

Although I’d been subconsciously aware of it for a while, this report crystallised my view that having a background in science (doctorate in Immunology) influences how I perceive the world, how I seek out information and how I make decisions based on the scientific method. I wanted to share this with others and thought a blog would be a great way to do this.

So with National Science Week 2012 about to begin, I set myself the challenge to write a post a day for 365 days about the science in and of my life.

Focusing on a topic and audience

The topic of science in everyday life is quite broad, so I tried to narrow it a little by focussing on my own experiences. Sometimes I would break this rule to explore certain topics in more depth.

I deliberately didn’t think too much about my audience at the start. I was originally only going to post my stories on a dedicated Facebook community page, so I thought my initial audience would consist of friends and family and connections through these networks.

However, I was advised by former colleagues to concurrently set up a matched dedicated blog on WordPress, mainly to expand my reach but also to overcome some of the limitations of Facebook. Posting on the two platforms only required a few additional minutes work each day, and dramatically increased my audience. Advice I received has been summarised in the post for Day 349.

Identifying what posts worked

At the start I didn’t design post subjects for a reaction or to meet special audience needs. I didn’t consider what posts would ‘work’, nor would I write posts for particular audiences.

However, as I progressed it became clear that I had two very distinct sets of followers who enjoyed particular posts.

In general, my Facebook followers enjoyed the more personal posts while my WordPress followers preferred posts with a professional bent (on topics such as science communication, journalism, career development and such).

Sarah lists the top ten viewed posts on Science for Life.365 in Day 360.

As I became more confident in my skills as a science writer, I found myself writing more frequent professional posts. Towards the end, I did deliberately add in regular personal posts to re-engage my personal followers.

Finding ideas and drafting posts

With Science for Life, often I would get up in the morning and quickly jot down a brief outline or some ideas I’d had whilst exercising or in the kitchen. I’d then add further ideas on the topic and develop them during the day. Other days I’d sit down and write a post ‘straight up’.

I also received some very valuable advice at the outset of the project to use a calendar and map out a selection of posts matched to key events for the year ahead – things like seasonal events, holidays, celebrations. This ensured that a proportion of my posts were ‘newsy’.

Sarah’s 365th post provides insight into where she finds inspiration for her posts.

Incorporating social media into daily life

I was on Twitter and Facebook constantly before I started blogging.

As described in a previous post, I use these platforms for many reasons. I post links to what I’m reading. I post questions about who I can contact to help me write a story on specialist topics. I tell everyone I need new ankle boots. I whinge about my toddler’s tantrums.  I retweet cool stuff that others post – science, current affairs, anything well-written, really. I let people know about my latest piece of writing. I make coffee appointments with other science communicators.

Both Facebook and Twitter were great for marketing my blog. On Facebook, the original post appeared on the dedicated page and then I posted short snippets and a link on my personal Facebook timeline. In doing this I started to learn to write better Facebook posts. With the way the Facebook interface is set up, you need to make the first couple of sentences short, concise and most importantly interesting, tempting readers to click to read more. The choice of image is also very important.

I used my twitter account to entice readers and link to my WordPress posts. With Twitter it’s all about the perfect grab that will hook the scanning reader.

Generally, I think Twitter is actually a great way to practice your writing as it forces you to crystalise what is important. As I got better, I found myself naturally thinking about and knowing what’s appealing.

The bottom line is that social media links me in with social and academic communities that would otherwise be beyond my reach as a solo operator.

Using active voice and sharing personal stories

I have quite a casual style of writing that has worked so far, especially given I’m often writing about science for a non-scientific audience. For Science for Life.365, I was writing a lot about my own personal life so it was important that I was being myself and referring to myself (using active voice).

People do like personal stories that show you are a human being and have the same daily battles as everyone. However, you do have to be cautious of what you want to permanently share with the world.

My advice is to draft your personal posts early, and come back to them later to decide if you want to share them. It will also give your mind and eyes enough rest to pick out any spelling and grammar mistakes.

Final advice for first time science bloggers

My advice for first time bloggers is to set up a blog, start writing and force yourself to continually write – practice and repetition will allow you to develop your own style and your own voice.

At the outset, don’t think too long and hard about your style, focus and audience. It will come naturally as you become a more confident and consistent writer.

You might not have anyone reading your first few posts, but over time your audience will grow with your writing skills. Allowing your audience to come on the writing journey with you is very satisfying and you will receive the most wonderful feedback.

Sarah is taking a well earned break from blogging but is working on phase 2 of Science for Life.365