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Self-publishing; Is the Stigma Disappearing? Should It?


            Self-publishing has always had a stigma attached. Why is this? Mostly because we were taught in school that anything published has been thoroughly checked and edited by “those who knew more than we did, specialists of some kind.” That may have been true of our textbooks, which were written and edited by specialists in their fields.

As we became adults and, at least some of us, became teachers, writers and editors, we tried our hand at publishing and found out how hard it was to attract the eyes of a publisher, let alone land a publishing contract. Some of us continued to butt our heads against that publishing wall until we were, at least, moderately successful. Some gave up, thinking it wasn’t worth the effort. The third segment saw the modern availability of publishing technology as a way to go around the traditional publishing roadblock. It afforded low cost publishing (CreateSpace and many others), free way to get public attention (Amazon—you and several million other authors) and you kept all the profit and didn’t have a garage full of inventory and shipping to handle. A sweet deal, right?

Not so fast. You are a specialist in the subject you are writing about, right? You researched the topic extensively beyond your bookshelf and the local public library, right? (No offense to public libraries here.) You had someone besides your best friend or your grandmother edit your work, right? You have a marketing and business plan, which goes beyond Amazon, right? You have a brand, right? A what?

Let’s look at these issues in the order they are listed:

  • You are a specialist in the subject about which you are writing. You don’t have to have an advanced degree in the topic about which you are writing unless you a claiming your work to be the final word on the topic. Be sure you acknowledge somewhere your limitations.
  • You researched the topic extensively beyond your bookshelf and the local public library. There is nothing wrong with using the resources you have on hand—just don’t stop there. Your local librarian will give you suggestions as to where to get more information on your topic. Beware of the internet. Use it with caution. Much information is there, unfiltered and unchecked—anybody can put anything there, whether or not it is valid.
  • You had someone besides your best friend or your grandmother edit your work. Your best friend and your grandmother are fine people and they have your best interest at heart. However, they are probably not editors and, even if they are, they are biased to see your work as better than it actually is. Choose someone, better to ask two or three people, who are experienced writers, editors or English teachers to read your work critically. You should welcome criticism—it means you are on the way to having a quality piece of work.
  • You have a marketing and business plan, which goes beyond Amazon. Amazon is great at what it does. It makes works available to anyone who can get near a computer and has a few bucks to buy a book. But that’s as far as it goes. How will anyone know your book is there, except your family and friends who have heard you talk about it every chance you get? They won’t. You are competing with at least a hundred million other titles, admittedly not all on your topic, but that won’t make your book any easier to find.

Your marketing plan will provide a roadmap for you to follow to get attention for your book and should include some or all of the following:

  1. Your website,
  2. Your blog,
  3. Your other social media sites (Facebook, twitter, Tumblr, Instagram)
  4. More traditional materials, such as bookmarks, business cards, postcards, flyers,
  5. Radio and TV spots,
  6. Other signings and speaking engagements.
  • What is this brand of which you speak? Your brand is your personae as a writer, specifically as the writer of your particular book on your particular topic. You must make yourself known by what you have written. Everything in the list immediately above works together to brand you. Acknowledge it, work with it, use it.

Does this sound like more than you are capable of doing? It may be. It is a lot of work. Even the large publishers require more promotional work from their authors than they used to. It’s a fact of life.

Now, what about the stigma? It isn’t as bad as it once was. Does that mean self-published works are better than they were at one time? Yes and no. Yes, some experienced authors are going the self-publishing route. What they learned from being associated with higher quality editing and their natural maturity as writers has paid off, for them as writers and us as readers.

Yet, in large part, one often can spot a self-published book within the first page or two. Layout is strange, sometimes disjointed with lots of white where there should be print; typos, spelling and grammatical errors appear with distracting regularity. (CreateSpace does not edit the work). Yes, you do see typos in works published by the large publishers but nowhere near as many.

There you have it, my take on self-publishing. You self-publish at your own risk. If you are hoping for the next best seller, better get a large publisher.

Published in: Outdoors Unlimited August/September 2016

Finding a Reliable Source Near You

The quintessential scientist, Carl Sagan, once said, “We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.”
Never has it been more crucial for the lay public to be scientifically literate. That’s where outdoor writers, using science, come in. In nearly all fields, outdoor writers deal with scientific facts from time to time. It is extremely important that writers get the facts right! Outdoor writers are often perceived by the public as authorities on fish, wildlife, and environmental issues. The writer has a responsibility to be accurate, as well as interesting and entertaining. The credibility of the writer will be judged on the accuracy as well as the readability of his/her work. The writer who has a reputation for accuracy and readability will sell more articles.
The goal is to make your product as scientifically accurate as possible, while still interesting and entertaining. “Where does the writer find the information necessary to produce an accurate yet interesting article?” You need to find experts.
Experts, “Who needs ‘em and why do we need ‘em?” you might ask. The short answer is: “We all do.” We call on experts all the time in our daily lives. Every time we visit our family physician, go to a hair stylist or take our cars to the repair shop we are seeking the services of an expert. Why shouldn’t we consult an expert when we’re communicating science to the public? Few of us as writers have the expertise necessary to explain adequately how cancer cells invade surrounding tissue or how an e-mail message travels on the internet.
In general, an expert is described as someone who is recognized by his or her peers or by the public as a reliable source of knowledge, information, and/or abilities. Just the fact that someone hunts, fishes, or photographs wildlife does not mean that person is an expert on fish and wildlife; it may mean, however, that a person is an expert on where to hunt, fish or find wildlife to photograph or what equipment is best for a particular site. We need to consult experts in the natural history and biology of the animal we’re writing about. How do you distinguish among real experts, pretenders, and ambitious individuals who want to use you to publicize their work and ideas? Finding an expert is not hard. Finding a credible expert with the proper credentials is a different matter.

Experts; Why do we need them?
One reader questioned a 2010 Smithsonian article on “Our Earliest Ancestors” presenting evolution as a fact, and not a theory. There is an equal body of scholarly work that supports the creation theory (i.e., The Institute for Creation Research). My problem with the article is NOT in its publication, it is in its presentation as absolute fact, which is not the case. What would prevent Smithsonian from presenting BOTH theories objectively, and allowing the readers to come to their own conclusions? Would that be any less scholarly?
What is the confusion here? Evolution as fact or theory…

What is the difference?
We know what a fact is, right? “The sun rises in the East”, that’s a fact. You can’t argue it—it happens all the time. But, what is a theory?
In technical or scientific use, theory, principle, and law represent established, evidence-based explanations accounting for currently known facts or phenomena or for historically verified experience: the theory of relativity, the germ theory of disease, the law of supply and demand, the principle of conservation of energy. Often the word “law” is used in reference to scientific facts that can be reduced to a mathematical formula: Newton’s laws of motion. In these contexts the terms theory and law often appear in well-established, fixed phrases and are not interchangeable.
Where we run into trouble: In both technical and nontechnical contexts, theory is often used synonymous with hypothesis, a conjecture put forth as a possible explanation of phenomena or relations, serving as a basis for thoughtful discussion and subsequent collection of data or engagement in scientific experimentation(research) to rule out alternative explanations and reach the truth. In these contexts of early speculation, the words theory and hypothesis are often interchanged “this idea is only a theory” when it’s barely a hypothesis.
Pasteur’s experiments helped prove the hypothesis that germs cause disease. Certain theories that start out as hypothetical eventually receive enough supportive data and scientific findings to become established, verified explanations. Then, and only then, does the hypothesis become a theory, the thought/hypothesis has evolved from mere conjecture to scientifically accepted fact.
Conventional wisdom also can be a big problem when presenting science to the public. Yes, even scientists can be guilty of accepting something as fact when it is not fact, or is an interpretation of facts that still have substantial uncertainty related to them. This problem has become particularly troublesome with respect to environmental issues. Ecology and environmental issues related to ecological matters generally involve greater uncertainty than the so-called hard sciences (physics and chemistry). An example is the statement that “fire is an ecological necessity”. This statement is accurate only if a particular stage of ecological succession must be maintained. In the absence of fire, succession will proceed in a different direction. It is more accurate to say, “Fire is natural, but it is not absolutely necessary”. Finding reliable sources that can and will distinguish between organizational policy or conventional wisdom and scientifically valid information may be difficult, but it is well worth the effort.
The credibility of the communicator, the media and, ultimately, the scientific enterprise itself, is at stake in our coverage of risks to human health and the environment. Many readers and listeners look to the media for some guidance in understanding the risks that we face and how to deal with them. Sometimes the best we as communicators can offer is the simple truth that science currently has no clear answer, so we need to learn to live with uncertainty. This fact, in itself, is not easy to communicate. We owe it to our audiences to provide more sophisticated, balanced reporting that goes beyond the “fear factor” approach. It is extremely important that writers get the facts right, and that they interpret these facts appropriately!

Who and Where are These Experts?
Colleges and Universities are full of ‘em. Government agencies, such as the County Extension Agent, and state agencies such as the state fish and game agency and even high school teachers can be experts. Successful business people can be experts, though this expertise may have been gained the hard way—by trial and error, not considered research.
A word of caution however, be careful when relying on specialties. Not every aquatic biologist is an oceanographer. In this age of interdisciplinary research, the boundaries between fields are often blurred. And always, remember that a scientist speaking may not be speaking as a scientist. Rely on them only when they are speaking within their area(s) of expertise. Really good scientists will tell you when they are expressing personal opinions or when your question is outside of their area.
Now that you have a few good sources, how do you interpret the scientific information to make it understandable and interesting the public? First, be sure that you understand the topic and the information you have collected. If you don’t have a complete understanding yourself, you will not be able to communicate the information accurately. Being a good science writer doesn’t require a college degree in science, however, it does require some healthy skepticism and the ability to ask good questions about things that can affect research studies and other claims. To separate truth from trash, you will need answers to these questions:
1. Was the study done, or claim made, on the basis of evidence only? How was the study designed and conducted? Was it laboratory research, field collections or observations?
2. What are the numbers? Was the study large enough to reach believable conclusions? Are the results statistically significant? That phrase simply means that based on the scientific standards, the statistical results are unlikely to be attributable to chance alone.
3. Are there other possible explanations for the study’s conclusions?
4. Was the study conducted free of any form of bias, unintentional or otherwise?
5. Have the findings been checked or replicated by other experts? And, how do the findings fit with previous knowledge on the topic?

What You Need to Know about Science
You must understand five principles of scientific analysis to find answers to these questions. They are the basis of scientific inquiry.
1. Some Uncertainty is Acceptable. Science looks at the statistical probability of what’s true. Conclusions are based on strong evidence, without waiting for an elusive proof positive. But science is always an evolving story, a continuing journey that allows for mid-course correction. This can confuse the public, especially when preliminary information is reported as fact. Scientists then are accused of “changing their minds or flip-flopping.”
2. Probability and Large numbers. The more subjects or observations in a study the better. A commonly accepted numerical expression is the P (probability) value, determined by a formula that considers the number of events being compared. A P value of .05 or less is usually considered statistically significant. It means that there are 5 or fewer chances in 100 that the results could be due to chance alone. The lower the P value, the lower the odds that chance alone could be responsible. Science writers don’t have to do the math, they just have to ask researchers: “Show me your numbers.”
3. Is There Another Explanation? Association alone does not prove cause and effect. You must be able to distinguish between coincidence and causation. A chemical in a town’s water supply may not be the cause of the illness there. A study’s time span can be very important so that normal cycles are not confused with study results. Ask the researcher and yourself: “Can you think of any alternative explanations for the study’s numbers and conclusions? Did the study last long enough to support its conclusions?”
4. The Dimensions of Studies. For costs and other reasons, all studies are not created equal. Old records, statistics and memories are often unreliable, but sometimes used. Case studies involving only one or two subjects usually are not considered a basis on which to draw broad conclusions. Far better is a study that follows a selected population for the long term, sometimes decades. Ask researchers in all scientific fields: “Why did you design your study the way you did? Is a more definitive study now needed?” Nevertheless, always bear in mind, exceptional claims require exceptional evidence.
5. The Power of Peer Review. The burden of proof rests with researchers seeking to change scientific conclusions. Science is never accepted until confirmed by additional studies. Science writers should look for consensus among studies.

In Summary
Above all, have fun. Science is intriguing, funny and essential to everyday life. If you write too loftily, you lose some of the best stories and the ones to which your readers most relate. You must:
• Know your topic. First, do some old-fashioned library research.
• Find an expert.
• Schedule a face-to-face interview if possible. Phone conversations and email questionnaires are OK if the expert is not local.
• Be sure you understand the FACTS before you begin to write,
• Check again with the expert, if you feel unsure.
Being a non-expert will not make someone a good science writer. But it’s not the kiss of death either. If you pay attention to detail, ask good questions, and aren’t afraid to admit how little you know, you can actually turn your ignorance to your advantage. I’ve found that if I can get an expert, often my husband— who has a doctrate in zoology, to explain something to the point where I can understand it, then I’ll be able to explain it to anyone else.
Remember: your credibility will be judged on the accuracy as well as the readability of your work. The writer who has a reputation for accuracy and readability will sell more articles, as well as provide greater service to the public.


Further Reading

Altimore, M. 1982. The social construction of a scientific controversy: Comments on press coverage of the recombinant DNA debate. Science, Technology & Human Values 7: 24-31
Ananthaswamy, Anil. 2011. Why I Write: Writing about Science—A Way to Pay Attention to Nature.
Blum, D., M. Knudson, and R. M. Henig. 2006. A field guide for science writers; the official guide of the National Association of Science Writers. 2nd edition. Oxford Univeristy Press, New York, NY.
Crettaz von Roten, F. 2006. Do we need a public understanding of statistics? Public Understanding of Science 15(2): 243-249.
Clarke, George “Woody”. 2009. Justice and science: trials and triumphs of DNA evidence. Rutgers University Press, Piscataway, NJ.
Coyne, Jerry A. Science video
Dingwall, R. and M. Aldridge. 2006. Television wildlife programming as a source of popular scientific information: a case study of evolution. Public Understanding of Science 15(2):131-152.
Duke University. 2000.
Gardner, Daniel. 2008. The science of fear; why we fear the things we shouldn’t—and put ourselves in greater danger. Dutton, New York, NY.
Gould, S. J. 1999. Rock of ages: Science and religion in the fullness of life. Ballantine Publishing Group, New York, NY.
Hilgartner, Stephen. 2000. Science on Stage: Expert Advice as Public Drama (Writing Science). Stanford University Press, Palo Alto, CA
Laudan, L. 1982. Commentary: Science at the bar — causes for concern. Science, Technology, and Human Values 7(4):16–19.
Lewenstein, B. 1992. The meaning of ‘public understanding of science’ in the United States after World War II. Public Understanding of Science 1:45–68.
Losse, J. 1993. A historical introduction to the philosophy of science. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, New York, NY.
Miller, S. 2001. Public understanding of science at a crossroads. Public Understanding of Science 10:115–120.
Nickum, Mary. 2009. Experts: Who needs ‘em and Why? Outdoors Unlimited May, 2009
Nickum, Mary. 2009. Anatomy of a Science Article. Outdoors Unlimited April 2009.
Nickum, Mary. 2008. Sell Biology 101; Accuracy, readability form backbone of bankable science article. Outdoors Unlimited 69(1):1, 6.
Nisbet, M C, D. A. Scheufele, J. E. Shanahan, P. Moy, D. Brossard and B. Lewenstein. 2002. Knowledge, reservations, or promise? A media effects model for public perceptions of science and technology. Communication Research 29:504–608.
Pardo, R. and F. Calvo. 2002. Attitudes toward science among the European public: A methodological analysis. Public Understanding of Science 11:155–196.
Peters, H. P. 2013. Gap between science and media revisited: Scientists as public communicators. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 110 Suppl 3:14102–14109.
Prewitt, K. 1982. The public and science policy. Science, Technology & Human Values 7: 5-14.
Taleb, Nassim Nicholas. 2007. The black swan: the impact of the highly improbable. Random House, New York, NY.
West, Berndadette, M. Jane Lewis, Michael R. Greenberg, David B. Sachsman, and Renee M. Rogers. 2003. The Reporter’s Environmental Handbook. Rutgers University Press, Piscataway, N J.
Wynne, B. 1992. Misunderstood misunderstanding: social identities and public uptake of science. Public Understanding of Science 1:281–304.
Wynne, B. A. Irwin and B. Wynne, eds. 1996. Misunderstood misunderstandings: Social identities and public uptake of science. Pages 19–47 In Misunderstanding science? : The public reconstruction of science and technology. Cambridge University Press, London, UK.
Wynne, B. 2002. Public understanding of science. Chapter 17 In Jasanoff, S., G.E. Markle, J.C. Peterson T. J. Pinch, eds. Handbook of science and technology studies, revised edition. Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks, CA.
Yankelovich, D. 1982. Changing Public Attitudes to Science and the Quality of Life: Edited Excerpts from a Seminar. Science, Technology & Human Values 7: 23-29.

Additional Websites Council for the Advancement of Science Writing National Association of Science Writers


Basic Rules for Writers

Are there simple basic rules for all writers? I’ve been asked that question many times. There are books written to help writers write. Some are very good. The Chicago Manual of Style and A Handbook for Scholars are invaluable resources. Others are grammar books, which are useful but don’t get to the “nitty-gritty” of what is really required of a writer who wants to make a living writing. These rules are made by writers for writers and are meant to be encouraging as well as instructive.
Rule No. 1 Determination
Determination is the quality of being determined to do or achieve something; resoluteness. You must first make a decision to write. This sounds simple enough. Most writers have made that decision. But, there is more to it than just deciding to write. What to write and how are next. The decision of what to write is based partially on your knowledge. Most writers who are knowledgeable about fishing will be unwilling to tackle an article about the development of cancer tumors. Determination must be tempered by knowledge. The often repeated writer’s adage, “write what you know,” is applicable here.
Resoluteness, however, is a useful word when discussing determination. To make your resolve tangible, set goals. These points will assist you in your goal-setting exercise:
• Be specific about what you want to achieve. Instead of saying ‘I want to finish an article by Fall’ state ‘my article: Fishing in the Arctic will be completed by October 1, including all editing and photography’.
• Break this goal into smaller chunks…’baby steps’ of say 500 words per day. Be sure to schedule work with photographs concurrently.
Not taking this step leaves you wide open to missing your deadline. Giving yourself an achievable goal means you are more likely to reach it. The results must be measurable, otherwise how do you know you’ve achieved what you set out to do?
• Is the goal attainable? Don’t set your sights too high. Always work within your own abilities, otherwise you will become disheartened. Keeping ahead of your goal allows for all those ‘life’ situations that you may, and probably will, encounter.
• Always give yourself an end date. This gives you a specific time-frame in which to work.
If you are resolved to write a quality piece, which most writers are, you have observed the first rule for writing. Your written goals will provide you with a ‘roadmap’ for the next rule.
Rule No. 2 Discipline
The second rule is harder than you think. Writing requires discipline. Most writers’ advisors say “write something everyday.” It doesn’t have to be submission quality. Writing a letter to your son or daughter away at college, writing in a blog or writing ideas for future stories all count for this task. The main idea here is to cultivate a regimen for daily work. Make time to write. This can be difficult if you have a full time job that is not writing related. If evenings and weekends are the only available time, other family commitments must be taken into account. Look to writers’ blogs to exchange ideas as to how other writers have accomplished this seemingly insurmountable feat.
Writer’s block is a well known malady for writers. If you just can’t get to the next paragraph or sentence. Take a break, if that doesn’t help, listen to your favorite music or change writing venues. Try a coffee shop or a library. Having resources close at hand might help, too.
Rule No. 3 Focus
A writer must focus. If you jump from one topic of interest to another several times when writing a story, the outcome will appear jumbled and without direction. The same is true if you attempt to write while personal issues are distracting you. No writer can do his/her piece justice when struggling with unrelated issues.
Here are three questions to answer to help you focus:
1. Who is the intended audience/reader of my piece?
2. What is the single most important point of my piece?
3. If the reader thought about my piece one week after reading it, what would their dominant impression/recollection would be?
After deciding to write, you must decide what to write; then, set a writing schedule for yourself. Make sure that your goals are attainable. Writing takes discipline. You should write something every day. If you have a chosen topic and a deadline goal, work toward that goal. If there are days when you can’t work on your piece, write something anyway. When setting out to write, be sure you can focus on the job. Don’t let yourself be distracted by outside events or demands. Scheduling and adhering to that schedule will help you to produce a piece within the designated timeframe. Determination, discipline and focus will give you tools to produce a quality piece.

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