Science for the Public and more…

Posts tagged ‘literacy’

Website Article

Middle school boys who are reluctant readers value reading more after using e-readers.

New Books for Reluctant Readers Coming in July…

My reluctant reader series “The Aquitaine Reluctant Reader Series”
will kick off in July with Book 1, “Looking at the Cat; an Eye on Evolution”, written for kids in Grades 9 – 12 who can read but don’t like to read.
Cat Book Cover-3


Writing Science for the Public #3

1-It is about the people. Let’s say that your topic is Chlamydia. I know and you know that you can write something perfectly interesting about Chlamydia without mentioning people, but the truth is the article will be more interesting if includes people. Readers want to hear about people. If your story is about Chlamydia, it is really about Chlamydia and people. If you don’t know anyone with Chlamydia find someone who does, or, perhaps less awkwardly, find out who revealed the biological story of Chlamydia (seems to be this amazing and rarely written about fellow–

2-Your story needs a happening part. If you string together paragraphs of facts, you have not written a story. You have written a textbook and for as much as teachers tell students otherwise, textbooks are boring. Something needs to happen in the story and then either resolve or conspicuously fail to resolve. What happens can be funny. It can be serious. It can be funny and then serious and then funny again, but it has to happen (Conspicuously, I have given this advice in post in which absolutely nothing happens).

3-It is easier to write a simple story. Look, while you are reading this you are thinking of ways around my suggestions. “Oh,” you might think, “I could write a compelling story without mention of people or characters in which absolutely nothing happens. It will be about a rare beetle.” I bet you could. I believe in you. But to do so is to do things the hard way. Just a piece of advice here. If you are just starting in science writing, you might want to avoid always doing things the hard way.

4-Nouns not adjectives. The temptation in writing a story is to use piles of adjectives to describe the beauty, awe, tininess, sublimity, grandness and awkward bumbling of whatever it is you are writing about. Don’t. Use strong nouns and verbs. Write simple sentences.

5—Sound like you. Your voice should be your own. If you are writing what someone else could write, well, you can take it easy and let them do it.

6-Be relevant. Scientists are trained to study marginal topics. Suggest to a PhD candidate that they might focus on a common relevant species and they will, with a natural inevitability, disappear into the rain forest to study something obscure instead. Perhaps it is reasonable for scientists to focus on the obscure; in the margins we hope for big discoveries others missed. It is not reasonable for writers, unless, in that obscure, the reader can see a broader story, a story relevant to millions of people.

7-Tell the readers what they want to know (Pity the reader).Write for the readers. When I talk about ants, people almost always ask, “what should I do about ants in my kitchen?” It took me a decade to realize this was my listener/reader saying, “this is the only way your topic was even remotely interesting to me.” You don’t have to give readers the answers they want, but if the reader has a natural reason for caring about your topic, don’t avoid it. Your goal as a writer is to engage as many people as possible in ways that might affect their lives. This stands in contrast to your goal when writing scientific papers which is, as near as I can figure, to write a paper that appeals to thirty people and, in doing so, avoid affecting them in any real way (lest they give you an unfavorable review).

8-Even if it is not about people, it is about people.

9-If you write about scientists, make them human. This doesn’t mean make them seem ordinary if they are not. Scientists include ordinary people. Now that I’ve said that, let’s be more honest, they also include a fair number of folks incapable of navigating the aisles of the supermarket. Tell it like it is—I know a scientist who walked to work wearing two different shoes and only realized it on the way home (OK, that was me, but I digress)—but even odd scientists have ordinary struggles. By making scientists human you let the readers know scientists have daily struggles, problems buying cars, issues finding the right the schools for their kids. You want your reader to relate to the characters in your story.

10-Know your stuff. You need to know a story better to write about it for the public than you need to do to write about it for scientists. To write about a story for non-scientists you need to capture the big story and explain complex topics in ways intelligible to folks for whom the topics are new. Don’t shy away from complex ideas, but explain them with clarity. Doing this requires you to know the details AND the broad picture. Imagine you are trying to figure out things about the field you are writing about that the experts missed.

11-Tritrophic is not a real word. Your reader does not know the words tritrophic, ecological assemblage, genomics or parthenogenesis. That is not because your reader is dumb. It is because scientists made up those words and never told anyone but other scientists. Don’t underestimate the intelligence of your readers. Readers can be very clever, but it is not their job to know all of the words that you and the twelve people you call colleagues made up.

12-Share your joy. You are writing about science because you like science. Your reader is reading about science because he or she likes science. If you share your joy in a piece of the scientific world the reader may well feel joy too. If they do, they might send you a letter and you will feel joy again (After thinking, “I’ll be dammed, an actual paper letter.).

13-Your story can turn at the end in a way that changes the perspective of the reader. It is a great sensation if, at the end of the story, we see the topic you are writing about in a new light. In a short article, this turn is most easily made in the last paragraph. If you are writing a book, well, you have bigger problems.

14-Delete. Cut mercilessly (says the guy who has just written a 1300 word list). Cut extra words. Cut paragraphs. Be wariest of sentences and paragraphs you love; they have a tendency to stick around even when they don’t help. As Arthur Quiller-Couch said, murder your darlings. Delete whole essays. Winnow. Writing improves with practice and winnowing is part of practice. Fill your trashcans with attempts. Fill them with whole books. Share what is left over, the cut stone of a story, a stone that anyone would agree shines. Then start over, and when you do, remember it is about the people.

Using Correct Grammar

Those grammar classes seem like eons ago. Now we’re writers and we’re not as sure as we used to be. Years of exposure to lazy writing and editing by publishers and the media make things sound right, just because we’ve heard them over and over. As an editor, I’m offering some tidbits that I hope will help you refine your writing.

Phrase vs. Clause
A phrase is a group of grammatically related words that does not contain a main verb. T e wards in the phrase act as a unit, usually functioning as a part of speech. For example:
The girl is in school today, but tomorrow she is going to hunt. Notice that ” in school ” and “to hunt” are phrases functioning as adverbs describing a place or activity. “The girl” is a phrase in the sense that the words go together as determiner and noun, but it does not function as a part of speech.
A clause is a group of grammatically related words that does contain a main verb_
Some clauses can stand alone as complete sentences. Such clauses are called main or
independent clauses. For example: The girl is at home today, but tomorrow she is going hunting.
The two clauses in this sentence are “The girl is in school today” and “tomorrow she is going to hunt.” The joining word “but” is simply a connecting word; it does not belong to either clause. Either clause, therefore, can stand alone, expressing a complete thought:
The girl is in school today. (complete thought) Tomorrow she is going to hunt. (complete thought)
Other clauses are prevented from standing alone because they begin with words that limit their meaning, words like because and when. Such clauses are called subordinate or dependent clauses. For example: The boy quit school because he missed too many classes. “The boy quit school” is a complete thought and, therefore, a main clause. “Because he missed too many classes ” is an incomplete thought and, therefore, a subordinate clause. The “because” leaves us wondering what went before.

COMMON ERROR: A common writing fault is to separate two independent clauses with a comma (with no conjunction after it).
INCORRECT: They have a fly casting class here, the students like it.
CORRECT: They have a fly casting class here. The students like it.
CORRECT They have a fly casting class here, and the students like it.

What’s the Object?
As a part of the sentence, an object is a word that receives the action of an action verb. For example, in the sentence The batter hit the ball, the action of hitting has a receiver, ball. The ball receives the action and is, therefore, called the object of the verb.
There are two kinds of objects: direct and indirect. The word that receives the action of the verb is called the direct object. When the direct object is passed indirectly to another receiver, that receiver is the indirect object. For example: My sister writes me long letters.
The direct object is “letters.” The indirect object is “me.” “Letters” receives the action of writing, while “me” receives the letters. One way to tell the two objects apart is that the indirect object usually comes directly after the verb.
Another way to determine which object is which is to ask these questions about the verb:
1. “Writes” what? Answer. “letters,” so direct object.
2. “Writes” to whom or for whom? Answer: “me,” so indirect object
Some verbs that often take indirect objects are: write, send, tell, give, buy, and sell.

Interrogative Pronoun?
Standard forms of this pronoun include: what, which, who, whom, whose. These pronouns are used to introduce questions: What are the odds? Who left the gate open? Which is mine?
NOTE: The subject pronoun “who” has the object form “whom.” It is the pronoun most often misused in the media today.
The tendency for many speakers is to avoid whom altogether and use who as both subject and object. This is no longer viewed as a serious error. However, using whom where the subject form is called for is an error to be avoided at all costs. For example:
ACCEPTABLE: Who are you calling?
CORRECT Whom are you calling?

INCORRECT: Whom is coming with us to the lodge?
CORRECT Who is coming with us to the lodge?

Demonstrative Pronoun
Standard forms of this pronoun are: this, that, these, those. These pronouns are used to stand for a noun and separate it from other entities. For example:
Is this the one you wanted? land me those.
NOTE: Generally speaking, use this and these to indicate items near the speaker, and that and those for items farther away. Notice that demonstrative pronouns replace the noun. The same words – this, that, these, and those – are also used as “demonstrative determiners” or demonstrative adjectives.” For example: This woods is dark. (Here “this” is specifying the noun “woods,” telling us which woods.)

Relative Pronoun
The relative pronouns are that, who, whom, which, where, when, and why. Like other pronouns, the relative pronoun replaces a noun. Like a conjunction, it serves as a joining word
between clauses. For example:
That’s the man who shot my deer.
The word “who” is a relative pronoun. It stands for “man” and it (inks the main clause “That’s the man” to the dependent clause “who shot my deer.”

Often such sentences begin the article. In other cases, summary sentences
are preceded by one or a few sentences designed to stimulate additional
reader interest in the topic. The opening sentences are known
as the “lead.”
Leads tend to follow one of four major formats: the simple
statement, the bullet lead, the narrative lead, and the surprise
or paradox lead.
Some of these leads allow the writer considerable room
for creativity.

The Simple Statement and Bullet Leads
The first lead is a simple but dramatic statement of the major finding,
usually in a single sentence, such as a simple statement that “The Zika Virus Can be Sexually Transmitted”.
A more interesting lead, but one that is more challenging to write, is
called the Bullet Lead.
Actually, it consists of three bullets, which are always
followed by the general summary statement. For example:
• We all know people who have trained their dogs to fetch the daily
newspaper without tearing it.
• Similarly, we all know that horses can be
trained to respond to the slightest movement of their riders and
• We all know that goldfish can be trained to come to the front of the fish bowl at
the sound of a bell.
Now it turns out that even octopi (Octopus vulgarus) can be trained to perform certain simple tasks and that they actually learn those tasks more quickly from each other than from a human trainer.
If the bullets are fired successfully, by the end of the third “bullet”, the
reader is wondering how the individual bullets are related and where they
are “leading.”

Just at that moment, the skillful writer answers those
questions; if done properly, the reader wants to read more.

The Narrative Lead
The narrative lead tells a story of some sort, and then follows up with the
summary sentence:
Sitting at the bottom of a large glass tank is a 2-pound octopus. The
octopus has been trained for several weeks to avoid balls of one color
and to pick up balls of a different color. Every day for 6 hours he has
been rewarded with food for choosing the right balls, and punished
with mild electric shocks for choosing the wrong ones. Now, he sits
idly in the tank, his eyes apparently following every movement of
the researchers as they prepare to set up the next experiment,
his mantle cavity filling and emptying in a consistent respiratory
The researchers bring over a tank containing another octopus,
one that was freshly collected that morning from the warm and inviting
waters just outside the marine laboratory. The two octopi quickly crawl
toward each other in their respective tanks, peering through the glass
with apparent interest. “Now watch this,” one of the researchers says
to the newcomer, as she puts the trained octopus through his morning
paces. The newly collected octopus watches, and seems genuinely
interested in what the other octopus is doing. Now the researchers offer
the same choices to the new octopus. Remarkably, after watching only
four trials, the observing octopus chooses the correct ball over the other
one in every one of the trials.
The surprising finding that octopi can learn from watching
each other was recently published in the research journal Science
by two biologists working at laboratories on the Italian coast.

The Surprise or Paradox Lead
This lead tries to arouse the reader’s attention by making a surprising or
paradoxical statement then following up with the summary sentence.

For example:
Biologists, for years, have spent many tedious hours training animals
to perform simple tasks, by rewarding the desired behavior and
punishing the undesired behavior. Now, it seems at least some
animals may learn far more quickly by simply watching each other than
by being trained by humans.
Two Italian scientists, Professor Graziano Fiorito and Professor
Pietro Scotto, announced in a recent issue of the research journal
Science, that the common octopus can not only be trained to distinguish
between objects of different colors, but can in fact learn to make these
distinctions even more quickly by simply watching each other.

Query Letter Mistakes

Cheesy lead. Don’t be cute. Skip the rhetorical questions. The “What if you were stuck on a sailboat in a hurricane with a mysterious killer” teasers get old fast. Better to lead with the facts; otherwise your reader may feel as if you’re trying to manipulate him or her to create more sensation than pure fact warrants.

Addressing the Editor. Do Not begin the query with “Hey…” It is disrespectful and may stop an editor on the spot! It reeks of unprofessionalism and childishness.

Bobbled blurbs. The biggest problems we see with blurbs are 1) too many characters and secondary characters when only the main character should be the emotional hook, 2) a description that’s more thematic than plot-driven (i.e., this book is about peace and love), 3) the author attempts to tell the whole story, including the ending, when he or she should use the blurb as a teaser instead.

Appearance. The letter looks bad, smells, is printed on cheap paper or photocopied, etc. We also receive e-queries that are poorly formatted (all caps, colored and silly fonts, goofy pictures in the signature line) or that lose their formatting once they are sent. TIP: Do yourself a favor and test your e-query to make sure it keeps its formatting by sending it to a bunch of your family members and friends to see what it looks like in their inboxes. Then you can send it to agents.

Mentioning prior manuscripts (and/or certain self-published books). If you’ve written three unpublished book manuscripts in the past, best not to mention them. Otherwise the agent in question may be intimidated by your prior projects, thinking, “If I take on his/her current project, the writer will probably pester me to represent all those previous books that, for whatever reason, didn’t sell.” The same goes for self-published manuscripts, which agents will look at the same way as unpublished manuscripts UNLESS you have significant accolades for your self-published book.

The multiple personality bio. Often writers will inadvertently begin their bios in first person, but wind up in third. Be on the lookout for pronouns gone wild! Also, some bios will begin in present tense, but then end in past. And, as always, it helps to have a strong bio.

Groveling. It may seem like it makes sense to acknowledge your own humility by pointing out a lack of experience, but resist this urge. Confidence wins hearts.

TMI. While it’s always good to convey your own unique personality in your bio, be careful not to include too much information. If your novel is about sailors, it may help to include your background in the Coast Guard. Be personable and interesting, but do so with care.

Listing publishing credits that aren’t really publishing credits. Be careful that the publishing credentials you’re listing are not part of poetry contest scams or anthology scams. Including bad credits suggests you don’t know the market (and therefore don’t know good writing).

Copyright. Industry standard is to not include the copyright symbol on your work.

Cover art. If you include cover art, you show a) that you don’t know how the industry works (since writers get almost no say over their covers), and b) that you might just be the kind of high-maintenance writer who wants complete control.

If you flatter, mean it. Agents can often see straight through the “I greatly admire your agency” bit; they know a generic form letter compliment when they see one. If you’re going to take the approach of flattery, be specific in your praise.

Some common phrases that authors should NEVER use in query letters:
This is the first book I’ve ever written! If this is true, you don’t need to say it; better to position yourself as a person who knows the biz (which means you must be a person who knows it!).

I’ve been writing since I was five. Writers who feel compelled to explain that “I’ve been writing since I was X years old” or that “It is my greatest wish to get published” inadvertently declare to editors, “I am a newbie.” It’s presumed that you’ve been writing since you were X years old and now want to get a book published. That’s what every writer wants.

This would make a great movie. Almost everyone thinks his or her book could be a great movie. You want your query letter to ask your agent to do one thing and one thing only: represent and sell your BOOK—not a screenplay, not a series of action figures, not your foreign rights. Let the publisher in question decide if your book is screen worthy or not.

This book will appeal to readers of all genres. Editors want to work with writers who understand that each genre appeals to a very specific demographic. When you say, “This appeals to everyone,” an agent will read, “This appeals to no one in particular.”

My friends/parents/teachers like my writing. We often read how new writers get a favorable response to their writing from close ones. But unless your mom or dad is a renowned literary critic, leave off any amateur praise.

Oprah will love this book. If the story is solid and the writing is strong, there’s no reason an author should feel obligated to proclaim that a book is the next Harry Potter. Don’t promise what you have no control over. Your work should speak for itself.

Grammar Essentials #1

Problem Words/Phrases
Here is another set of words and/or phrases that can cause problems with your writing.

  • As to whether. Use whether; it is whether or not. If you are not showing an alternative, use if.
  • Basically, essentially, totally. Try the sentence without them. Minimize “ly” words.
  • Equally as. Use equally important or as important as, but not equally as important.
  • Got. Try to avoid it. I have got to must begin working on it now. I have got three pairs of jeans.
  • In order to. Particularly annoying to me. Use to.
  • Lots or lots of. Avoid these when you can use many or much. Lots of something is considered plural. Also, a lot of requires three words not alot of.
  • Orientate. New employees become oriented, not orientated.
  • Plus. This word should not be used as a conjunction. Use and instead.
  • Point in time. Use at this time or at this point or now.
  • So as to. A simple to will do.

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