Writing the Wrong Stuff

Previously on my blog I have discussed both the challenges of writing for different audiences and the difficulties for students to get on top of thesis writing with little prior experience to help.  I have written from the point of view, particularly in the latter context, of seeming to know what is required and with a hope that the student embarking on thesis-writing has somehow picked up the necessary conventions by osmosis or, preferably, a helpful supervisor.  However, my recent experience with ‘journalism’ has shown me just how much I myself need good advice when faced with an unfamiliar writing situation.

In any situation there are always cultural norms which may be visible to an outsider or newcomer to a greater or lesser degree.  Hence my comments in the earlier post about the different forms paper titles take in different disciplines, which seem culturally well-established but not necessarily ever explicitly discussed; and I discussed the idea of scientists forming a ‘tribe’, with stylistic conventions newcomers are meant to have an innate grasp of as they write their thesis. I suppose it simply hadn’t crossed my mind that the Guardian’s Comment is Free (CIF) was as susceptible to this pattern as anything else, and I am grateful to (the pseudonymous) Peter Guilliam and Ally Fogg for providing the expert’s view of how CIF operates in comments on my earlier post about this topic. It should teach me not to undertake new tasks without carefully scouting the background, albeit time was not on my side for this particular novitiate .

I have from time to time read CIF, but just about never the comments. To me they have too often smacked of people either rehearsing well-known grievances in disagreement with the article, or been comments tangentially related to the original article and so allowing someone to get a grumble off their chest. Hence, it hadn’t seemed worth studying them in depth. Clearly Ally in particular has done so, and (presumably from trying different strategies) worked out what seems to be the most effective way of dealing with the different kinds of comment. I had felt that, when looking at the comment stream on my own piece, replying could lead me down a path of blind alleys and ever more bitter exchanges; I am pleased to hear that this need not be so if properly managed. Indeed – according to Ally – that commenters respect the exchanges, given that the tone of some of the original comments implied a distinct lack of respect (I can’t believe it’s common for a self-declared Cambridge physics professor to be told to go and spend more time with scientists so as to learn something about their world).

Nevertheless I have learned more from the experience than simply receiving advice as to how to respond to what I now know is called BTL (below the line) comments. I have learned that writing about something which could fill a book in a mere 550 words, without introducing ambiguity or accidentally assuming prior knowledge of context or fact, was beyond me in 18 hours. This isn’t merely a problem of précis, reducing the word count to that which space permits, so much as having sufficiently vigilant eyes to spot where background information is being taken for granted or I am using a word in ways that not everyone else does. In trying to write an article for people beyond the readership I’ve grown used to on this blog, I probably didn’t spend long enough working out what is common knowledge and what isn’t. If I complain not all students understand when writing a paper for the first time that the structure should be clearly defined and have a beginning, a middle and an end, then equally I failed in realising that when trying to write a short piece I shouldn’t try to squeeze in multiple arguments. In this case I attempted to cover the overall culture (macho, particularly when use of that term in itself led to so much misinterpretation) plus different disciplines not all being the same (when I had no space to give the relevant statistics for different stages of the career pathway) plus using a quote from  study where the lack of qualification about the quote misled people. I think the correct hashtag (for twitter users) to apply at this stage would be #epicfail.

However what I take away is, just because I got a B- on my first attempt I shouldn’t give up. New challenges are just that, challenges, but one is never too old to learn new tricks despite the old adage. I have learnt some interesting facts that I had never had occasion to contemplate before. I would like to think I can do better if a further opportunity were ever to come my way. It is interesting that Peter Guilliam feels I could just pitch to the Guardian for another slot, but I suspect I won’t be rushing off to do that just yet. I may feel this was a less than perfect outcome, but I most certainly do not regret the taking part. And, the bottom line is perhaps I shouldn’t care anyhow. Just getting folks beyond the usual suspects to contemplate the issue is a plus. That is the great thing about having space in a mass circulation paper. Random people from different walks of life may just briefly have glanced at it and thought about their own daughters, or children of friends or colleagues, and for an instant thought ‘is that world as good as it can be in letting them fulfil their dreams, and if not why not?’

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4 Responses to Writing the Wrong Stuff

  1. This morning I got my Guardian Weekly (a weekly digest of The Guardian for expats) and it has a reprint of your CIF article under the rubric “My Two Cents Worth”. I’m curious as to whether it will provoke any reader’s letters.

  2. Ursula Martin says:

    Please don’t give up !

    I have never been bold enough to write for the press except for book reviews and the like, because whenever tried to write in that voice I realised that it was much harder than I thought it was going to be. So well done you for doing it.

    And how many eminent people “write” in the Guardian and elsewhere who don’t really write at all – just talk to their PR/communications person about roughly want they want to say and get it written for them by a professional – and probably never look BTF either.

  3. Steve says:

    Reviews and feedback is a curious beast, particularly in the press, but also in science. Andy Warhol once said “Don’t read your reviews, weigh them”. I guess if people are saying lots about you, even if it is vitriolic and underhand, at least they consider your views important enough to comment. In a way, a very back-handed compliment……

    If people don’t ask questions of your science then I guess it has little impact. Even “getting it wrong” is an important step, and only through critical analysis by others can we begin collectively to formulate our view of the world.

  4. Anna Marie says:

    I recently accepted a commission to write a magazine article about some work in natural history that I was doing. The care and attention of the editors to fluid prose style, the graceful turn of phrase, and the accuracy of my content was humbling. I think my own writing improved as a result, and I hope the clarity of my thought improved as well. Don’t give up! The public will benefit from your articles, and so will you.

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