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The University of the West of England are running an interesting science writing competition and asked a bunch of writers for their tips for potential entrants. Here are mine.

When you’re really into a topic, it’s easy to think that everyone else will be and it’s hard to narrow it down to just a few aspects – everything is so fascinating. I have to cover all the bases to do it justice. (This counts double if you’re coming from an academic background).

Take a few moments before you start writing to think: what is my story really about? What is the one take home message that I’d want a reader to get from my story, even if they only skimmed it or read a bit? If you were to sum up your story in a sentence or two to explain to a friend or your mum – what would that be?

In film and business, they talk about the ‘Elevator pitch’ – you catch the executive in the lift, and in the one minute between floors you succinctly pitch your idea – enough to give a taste of what the story is about, what’s fascinating about it, why it’s important and how you’re approaching it – why it’s worth them investing. It’s the same principle in writing.

More than anything, it helps you, the writer, stay focused and clear on the purpose and point of your story, in your writing, research and interviews. Your readers – and editors – will be thankful for it.


 

decline

I work for a funny little magazine. It’s online only, and published by a non-profit charitable foundation. Moreover, it purposefully gives all its content away for anyone to republish, for free – we care not whether someone reads it on our website or not, just that they read and engage with it at all, wherever they like. And it does go everywhere.

When your model is like this, what on earth does success look like? How do you measure that? When your content is everywhere, and the subsequent conversations too, how can you possibly know how well it’s doing or what people think?

Three years ago, this is what we at Mosaic wondered. So we came up with a system.

  1. Quantitative metrics: the straightforward stuff – unique pageviews, average time on page, referrals. All stuff you can get off of Google Analytics. We track our own website, and also have a republish tracker – building on an open source ‘tracking pixel’ that can be embedded into syndicators sites and which pings back data to us. But not everyone is able to put this in, so we also get what we can off of any known republishers who are kind enough (we ask nicely) to, confidentially of course, share their stats. We also use HotJar to generate heatmaps of our stories – a snapshot of how much and where people are engaging with our stories (i.e. how long they’re scrolling down and where they’re dropping off). Elsewhere, we track metrics from Facebook and YouTube insights, particularly for our videos, and in the last year have added podcast metrics – via our server Libsyn.

  2. Qualitative metrics: “Engagement” – comments, likes/reactions, shares, retweets, sentiment – sometimes seen as the softer stuff, but I actually think this is more important, particularly to us.

Yes, the quantitative stuff is important. Everybody likes to see numbers and graphs going up (especially higher ups). We watch those just as carefully as everyone else does. And we have to take them with a pinch of salt too. No web metrics are perfect, and it’s even harder to integrate when your data is coming from different systems and sources – how do we know what one publisher counts as a ‘view’ is the same as what another does, or if that’s the same as our data?

But given our publisher and mission statement, it was clear from the start that the qualitative stuff was going to be key.

When we launched in March 2014, we were – to be honest – taken aback at how quickly other publishers took to our Creative Commons offering. Though we’d done a lot of work to talk to potential partners about what we were doing to and to convince them of the quality and rigour of our work, we thought they’d be pretty cautious at first – fishing for more of a sense of exclusivity, seeing what the content was like first, and reader reactions to it. Instead we got a plethora of republishes right from day one including the BBC, Gizmodo, Digg, the Guardian and CNN.

With topics such as the safety of cycling and the legitimacy of female condoms, heated discussions started exploding all over the place – comments under Gizmodo and the Guardian, on forums such as Hacker News and Reddit, under other pages’ Facebook posts, and of course on Twitter – in reaction to our tweets and those of our republishers’ links.

It was a real buzz to see how big a response we were getting to our stories, and I got somewhat obsessed about reading and tracking every single thing – I lapped it up, I didn’t want to miss a thing, and was convinced that we needed to log it all lest we missed any of it – in the social media age, if you don’t capture it on the day it’s gone (or at least very very hard to find) tomorrow. We were just starting out and I sensed that we needed to demonstrate this impact to our managers and board to show just how viable the model was, and to hopefully keep their support – financially and in faith.

Initially, I favourited everything on Twitter I could find and then dumped it all into a massive Storify of each week (we publish a new longform story each week, a bit like launching a new book every week). I’d then add anything I saw on Facebook – on our page, but also if I saw any republishes, say, on Digg, I’d be sure to look up their posts on their page, then log every single (meaningful) comment – good or bad – from that. I’d even click on the ‘Shares’ under the post to see if any public shares had any meaningful comments alongside the share. I did the same for every forum and comments thread I could find across the web. For every one of our stories. I called all this ‘going down the rabbit hole’.

I dumped all of these into Storify but also started a spreadsheet on Google Docs to paste in each comment or tweet, links, dates, along with notes if a share, comment or retweet was from someone particularly ‘influential’ (e.g. noting the biog in their profile and follower count). This I felt was a good way of future-proofing the data and also making it meaningful, at a glance, for our Editor, the rest of the team, our Board and anyone else to see how we were doing, and what readers thought of our work, even if they only had a few minutes to glance it over.

I also started somewhat obsessively pinning every republish to our Pinterest boards – one for every story – a nice visual way of tracking republishes, while also maintaining a presence on a popular social network.

We still do this – it’s been extremely useful for everyone: writers, editors, my Editor when he’s writing a feedback report, us when we’re compiling Award entries. It’s also reasonably transparent – anyone can look at our Pinterest or Storify (the spreadsheet, for now, remains team eyes only).

I don’t do this all myself anymore. Frankly, I burned myself out trying – doing all that while running social media, production AND commissioning and editing the stories themselves is impossible. So after a year we took on a freelancer to help.

At the suggestion of a colleague, I tried Upwork, which allows you to recruit people to do web-based tasks all over the world. It’s mostly software developers and marketers – nobody did exactly what we were looking for, so I did a few searches and approached a few listees who seemed to have the skill in web marketing and keyword searches to handle the job. We found someone, and she’s great. Her work is invaluable to us and she’s a key part of our team.

Mosaic is now in its third year and this system of qualitative and quantitative tracking works out for us.

Going forward, I’d love to see some more investment (hint hint boss) in added resource for tracking, and to free up time particularly for analysis so we can really use the feedback and insights to improve our content. I’d love to afford a service like Chartbeat, that can integrate a lot of the quantitative metrics – website and social – into dashboards that can give you better at a glance insights that are actually meaningful (that said, I’ve reviewed a lot of services that people have pitched at us – lots of them are pants and nothing you can’t do if you can just take the time to look at the free metrics Google, Facebook and others give you).

I don’t think there is any shortcut to the qualitative tracking though. Especially when you have a content/publishing model like ours. If we were a commercial publisher, it may be a little easier, given that you would only have to track your own links and hence can tie that into a connected dashboard tracker like Chartbeat better.

Someone said to me recently that our way of doing things is a bit unusual and interesting, hence my motivation to share in this post. Hope it’s helpful to others in someway. If anyone needs me, I’ll be down the rabbit hole.


A few months ago, I found my 2006 Masters dissertation among some old files. Submitted as part of my Masters degree in Science Communication at Imperial College London, it’s about Japan’s history with nuclear science, both as a source of atomic weapons and a solution to Japan’s ever-present energy problems.

Re-reading it, it’s amazing how it holds up nearly 10 years on. Many of its themes are still relevant in 2015. Post-Fukushima 2011, Japan is again in the midst of major public distrust over nuclear power. With 2015 also marking 70 years since the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, and the structure of Japanese science in question following the 2014 STAP scandal, I thought others might find it interesting to read, so I posted it on Medium.

Genshibakudan to Genshiryoku: Japan and nuclear science

The post is my original 2006 text so of course some things will have moved on. I’d welcome any updates, thoughts and discussions in comments.


Last Sunday I attended a Guardian Masterclass on building online communities. On the work dollar of course, and all for the sake of the project we’ve been working on for over a year.

Overall it was a good day with some excellent speakers and interesting coffee break chat (surprising given that we were all clearly missing our usual Sunday lie-in!). My stream-of-consciousness notes are below, and you can also follow more from the live tweets from the day on #socialconf. Continue reading ‘How to build an online community’


The final sessions in my social media series introduced the many new networks on the scene and a closer look at one often forgotten as a social network, yet one of the biggest websites on the planet.

The New Social Networks

New social media channels spring up all the time, but what are they and which are worth dabbling in? This session covered:

  • Google+

  • Pinterest

  • Instagram

  • Foursquare and Gowalla

  • What’s the next big thing? Branch, Medium, App.net etc.

  • What happened to the oldies? Friends Reunited, Myspace, Bebo, Friendster etc.

Crib sheet: http://wellc.me/newsocialnetworks

A Guide to YouTube

A guide to one of the biggest, most influential social networks. It is of course the biggest video sharing/hosting site in the world and actually the second-biggest search engine (after Google) too. Hosted by the Wellcome Trust’s Multimedia Producers Barry Gibb and Chris Chapman, this session gave a practical overview of the platform and many of the social functions people may not know about, as well as a discussion of how people are using it, how we’re using it for the Trust, Wellcome Collection, Wellcome Library and a chance to watch some of the best and most entertaining videos on the web.

Crib sheet: http://wellc.me/youtubecrib

You can see presentations and crib sheets from the entire social media series of talks here.


XKCD questions

Sadly not the questions in our book

Between December and May this year, my spare time has been spent working furiously on a book. The Big Questions in Science: the quest to solve the great unknowns is a popular science coffee-table book looking at, well, exactly what it says. You can read more about it in this feature we wrote for The Observer.

The book is a joint effort between myself and two friends and fellow science writers, Hayley Birch and Colin Stuart, and it’s now available to buy in hardback to decorate your fine shelves, prop up your wonky tables and, of course, entertain and enlighten you with our fine prose.

Shit just got real.

The book came about after the three of us pitched similar ideas through our agent and our publisher, Carlton Books, were interested enough to take a punt. The subject matter is inherently fascinating, giving an excuse to delve deep into questions we ourselves would like to know the answers to. And given how I spend much of my day job editing or in meetings, it was GREAT to exercise my writing muscles, particularly at a decent length and for such interesting topics.

Looking back, it’s been one heck of an experience and I’ve certainly learned a lot about the process of book publishing, my writing and myself. Here are a few of my lessons learned: Continue reading ‘Big questions from a first book’


http://www.aeonmagazine.com/living-together/james-palmer-traditional-chinese-medicinel/

As part of my work on a new long-form publication, I’ve been doing a lot of long-form reading. I’ve been scribbling notes about various articles here and there and figured I might as well start collating them centrally on this blog. So here’s note number one.

I very much enjoyed this piece by James Palmer in Aeon last week. It is pretty long and not exactly narrative based, but more of a long, very interesting essay, taking us on a journey through history, culture, ethics and pharmacology. He has a few anecdotes scattered around from interviewees but on the whole this is Palmer’s thesis (and indeed, it is a little like a dissertation) and an excellent explainer of what is and where it is today.

The difference between a traditional feature, an essay, and a ‘narrative-based’ story (the latter of which is maybe what we think of most as long-form) is an interesting question I’ve been pondering. For me, this feature succeeds because of its breadth; it is in-depth, it has been researched thoroughly and the author clearly has a structure for his thesis. Sure, it’s lacking that ‘story’ spine that might keep people from wandering after the first 1000w or so, but the subject matter and writing is interesting enough, I think, to make it worth your while.




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