Misunderstanding the Medium

As an academic writing a blog who are you trying to reach? This has been bothering me a little having read other posts from in and around Medium. They still have that academic feel, wording and general vagueness that only academic writing can have. In this blog I want to use some of my non-academic experience to help your blog get a little more reader friendly. So step one is to look at:

Who’s Your Audience?

So you are writing a blog to tell people about your research. Who will read it? This largely depends on where you post it, how you tag in and how you write it. A lot of the articles on Medium still have that scholarly tone that people (myself included) feel excluded by.

Ordinary writing — the kind you read for fun — seeks to delight (and, sometimes, to delight and instruct). Academic writing has a more ambiguous mission. It’s supposed to be dry but also clever; faceless but also persuasive; clear but also completist. Its deepest ambiguity has to do with audience. Academic prose is, ideally, impersonal, written by one disinterested mind for other equally disinterested minds. But, because it’s intended for a very small audience of hyper-knowledgable, mutually acquainted specialists, it’s actually among the most personal writing there is. If journalists sound friendly, that’s because they’re writing for strangers. With academics, it’s the reverse.

The reason you’re writing a blog is to inform and entertain. Coming from my experience of video and radio the audience are unlikely to be a specialist like yourself and will be easily turned off by a complex tone. I always try to keep it simple and regularly link to more in-depth posts or journal articles or published research to back up what you’re saying. If someone is interested they will stay to the end if it’s an engaging read/listen/watch. I like to try and get presenters or in this case writers to put more of themselves over, have a laugh about what went went wrong or something you didn’t predict. It makes you feel more human and will draw a reader in. This is a technique used all the time on TV, the presenter isn’t an expert but the viewers don’t need to know. That they like and trust them and that’s more important for engagement, the facts come after, after all if no-one is watching it doesn’t matter how true it is. The difference for you is that you are the expert so all you have to do is engage your audience and a readership will develop.

In my experience you need to know who your readership will be so work out who the story(because that’s what it is now) will affect and target them. That means writing for a specific audience and choosing a site that they’re most likely to see it. This requires really drilling into whatever you’re writing about and picking out the the point you think will get people interested. In news it’s known as ‘the hook’ and it happens all over the internet. It really is about style over substance. When I worked at the BBC the key of any story was to work out what the hook was. As they taught me at the BBC College of Journalism. You need to tell people why they need to read/watch/listen to something and keep it as simple as you can. This video is for radio but it makes the same point.

Controlling the Narrative -

One of the main advantages in blogging is non-specialists can find and read your research. The problem with using academic language is one, they might not read it or two they might get the wrong end of the stick. If it’s the one thing people on the internet do well it’s get the wrong end of the stick.

A little learning is a dangerous thing; drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring: there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain, and drinking largely sobers us again.”

With a blog you can cut through the the excess wording whilst linking through to your actual research and clearly getting the point you want to across. So no matter what your result, you can make that clear while referring back to your methodology as evidence. It’s the way that a news article would tell the story i.e results first as the hook then the methodology second.

In my experience finding stories for the BBC if you make it super clear what your research shows i.e. ‘eating carrots is good for blogging’ a news source will check who you are/if the study was sponsored(that’s a BBC bias thing) if it passes that they’ll pick it up and run what you have used as the main point because to be frank, it’s easy. From my experience I can say that generally journalists are lazy if you give them the hook then they’ll use it. Whereas if you leave them to interpret your work they might just pick something that sounds right to them with no confirmation. Here’s a funny website to underline my point.

http://www.tylervigen.com/spurious-correlations

If the blog is written like a story it has a structure that people recognise and follow. It also shows your progression in your research or what the problem is you’ve been trying to solve. It’s good to open with a question then try to answer it. It shows that you’ve been on a journey and can also endear you to the reader. If something funny happened or you had a blip in your research tell them too, again it makes you more human and if you come across well you are likely to get other kinds of coverage.

Having engaging content about your field accessed by the general funding will raise more awareness and interest about you and your colleagues work which is never a bad thing unless you see yourself as the next Dr. Moreau.

‘Star Trek’ Your Science -

This isn’t just for science it’s for any academia or research but the title was too good to pass up. Basically explain scientifically then for the layman as parodied in Futurama:

Fry: Usually on the show, they came up with a complicated plan, then explained it with a simple analogy.

Leela: Hmmm… If we can re-route engine power through the primary weapons and configure them to Melllvar’s frequency, that should overload his electro-quantum structure.

Bender: Like putting too much air in a balloon!

Fry: Of course! It’s all so simple!”

All jokes aside this formula works in non-fiction too, this falls in with previous entries, it’s all about engagement. If I’m making a video trying to get a complex concept across even if I don’t understand the science it’s important to at least understand the concept. As an example I’m working on a video at the moment about the national grid and some research from the University of Manchester. The science itself about current flows power surges and AC/DC has been explained to me multiple times and I just don’t understand it however what I do understand is that the magic box is a kind of converter that saves power over long distances. That’s what you want to get across not necessarily the detail, think big picture. You can link to a more complex journal entry and if your reader wants more detail they can go there.

Also if you can add labelled pictures it breaks up the text and shows what you mean… But more on that next.

Simple Format -

So we’ve kept the text simple, the content simple and said what you want to say. Now you need to format it so that it’s easy to read on a screen.

“Even so, evidence from laboratory experiments, polls and consumer reports indicates that modern screens and e-readers fail to adequately recreate certain tactile experiences of reading on paper that many people miss and, more importantly, prevent people from navigating long texts in an intuitive and satisfying way. In turn, such navigational difficulties may subtly inhibit reading comprehension. Compared with paper, screens may also drain more of our mental resources while we are reading and make it a little harder to remember what we read when we are done. A parallel line of research focuses on people’s attitudes toward different kinds of media. Whether they realize it or not, many people approach computers and tablets with a state of mind less conducive to learning than the one they bring to paper.”

So I’d start by creating a list of things you want to say and use subtitles (like me). These can lead into each other and break up your text. They also sum up what you’re talking about again to make your topics clear. You don’t have a set word count either so if you can get your point across in fewer words, do it! Whatever format I’m using I find it’s best not to have too much information all in one block, use some insert pictures, change scene, have a brief music break, it allows the audience to absorb what they’ve just been told/read.

Of course this was all done with writing in mind but coming back to the medium in the title. You could video your experiment or create a podcast if it works better just check out what you can do with these different formats. Do what suits you and what fits what you want to say!

http://www.radiolab.org/story/211119-colors/

You’re no longer confined by the rigors of academic writing. You can go outside and do a practical example.

or inside

Cameras can be borrowed and editing taught here. http://www.mediaservices.manchester.ac.uk/ourservices/training/ (that’s lots of my job by the way.) It’s a learning curve but you can really think outside the box and get something interesting and in my experience that’s how you find an audience.

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