Monthly Archives: May 2014

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

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Beyond Grammar & Punctuation: Why You Need a Copyeditor

Beyond Grammar & Punctuation: Why You Need a Copyeditor
by Erin Doherty

I recently edited a novel. The author was clearly educated and had a good grasp of standard English grammar. She wrote in complete sentences, didn’t seem to have many misspellings, and generally used punctuation correctly. At first glance, it may have seemed like a copyeditor wouldn’t have much work to do.
But grammar and punctuation are not all that copyeditors pay attention to: we also look for consistency, awkward or convoluted phrasing, redundancies and repetition, factual errors, legal issues, and formatting.
Consistency is a big part of whether people perceive your writing as professional or high-quality; they may not realize that it impacts their perception, but it does.
• Does the author favor toward or towards? Both are correct, but you should pick one and stick to it.
• Serial comma or no?
• High-tech is always hyphenated
• Journal entries are always block-quoted and italicized.
Awkward or convoluted phrasing:
You want your readers to pause to savor your eloquent turns of phrase or to chew on your thought-provoking idea. You don’t want them to pause because they’re confused about what the heck you’re trying to say. When this happens, I’ll read it out loud to myself, try to figure out what the author is actually trying to say, and offer a possible revision. If I’m really lost, I may even call up the author and talk it out.
Redundancies and repetition:
• Thesauruses are your friend. If you only ever use tapping to describe someone’s typing, you will probably want to mix it up a little with typing or clicking throughout the book.
• Five sentences on a single page started with “According to.” Let’s revise a little to avoid that.
• Seven a.m. in the morning—no. Choose one or the other (seven a.m. or seven in the morning).
• Completely destroyed or end result. Destroy already means “to cause something to no longer exist,” so you can just say destroy—the completeness is part of the definition. Result already means “to proceed or arise as a consequence, effect, or conclusion,” so adding on end is redundant. Sometimes an author may feel that the adjective adds emphasis, but generally cutting such adjectives will result in clearer, stronger writing.
Factual errors:
• Oops, you misspelled the name of that Spanish architect.
• Actually, you can’t see that park from that café because it’s two miles away (for a work set in a present-day, real city).
• This character is dead, so you should use a past-tense verb to describe his actions (unless we’re talking ghosts: ghosts scoff at verb tenses).
Legal issues:
Dumpster, Realtor, Teflon, Kleenex, Walkman, Google: while these words have come to define the type of object they are (trash receptacle, real estate agent, non-stick material, facial tissue, portable cassette player, search engine), they’re still registered trademarks and as such, need to be capitalized.
And that lovely quote you used from The God of Small Things? Yeah, that’s copyrighted material, and you may need permission to use it. A copyeditor will alert you to this, and if they’re knowledgeable in this area, they may also help you figure out if you need permission and help you get it.
This is probably the least glamorous part of copyediting, but it’s necessary. Are there two or sometimes even three spaces between sentences? Buh-bye, spaces, we only need one of you. Did you use tabs (or, heaven forfend, the space bar) to indent paragraphs? I need to eliminate those and use the margins instead. Are all your chapter headings the same size and font? What about your section breaks? Did you accidentally change font type or size in the middle of a paragraph? Are all your quotation marks curly or straight?
As venerable editor and writer Arthur Plotnick said, “You write to communicate to the hearts and minds of others what’s burning inside you. And we edit to let the fire show through the smoke.” Confusion, inconsistencies, and errors distract readers and can make them think less of you.
Copyediting lets the reader focus on what you’re saying.

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Publishing, Then and Now–Class Outline

Short History of Publishing
A. Gutenberg and before
B. 1690 – Publick Occurrences, the first English-American newspaper, debuts.
C. 1731 – The first general-interest magazine, The Gentlemen’s Magazine, is printed in London. The magazine ended in 1907.
D. 1776 – Thomas Paine anonymously printed Common Sense. The self-published book sold 100,000 copies within three months and became the best-selling work of the 18th century. With the advent of digital technology, however, self-publishing has been made incredibly easy.
E. 1800s – The “penny press” arrives in the U.S. Newspapers were available for just a penny, allowing the masses to consume this information for the first time instead of just the elites. By reducing the barriers to read news, citizens began writing letters to the editors with more regularity. Michigan State University’s Brian Thornton said no first letter to the editor has been officially recognized, but that they increased with the penny press.
F. 1899-1967 – Magazines explode, with several of today’s household names making their first appearances. National Geographic, Reader’s Digest, The New Yorker, Newsweek, Seventeen, Playboy and Rolling Stone all release their first issues during this time period.
The Big Six: Who are they and what are they?
A. The Big Six are:
1. Random House – Random House, the world’s largest English language general trade book publisher, is a subsidiary of media conglomerate, Bertelsmann.
2. Penguin Group – is collectively the second largest trade book publisher in the world, behind Random House.
3. Hachette Book Group – Hachette Book Group USA (HBGUSA for short) is owned by French company, Hachette Livre.
4. HarperCollins – This house, under the News Corp umbrella, is based in midtown Manhattan and publishes a lengthy list of bestsellers.
5. Macmillan – Macmillan/McGraw-Hill, a division of the Educational and Professional Publishing Group of The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.
6. Simon & Schuster – a major trade house based in NYC that goes back to the early 1920s and was home to one of the industry’s most famous editors, Maxwell Perkins.
B. The book publishing industry is traditionally divided into the following sectors:
1. Trade: Most of the books you find at the bookstore and intended for the general public, often divided into “adult trade” and “juvenile trade.”
2. Professional: Books specific to a particular industry or even a particular company.
3. Textbook: Books specifically targeted at students. This sector is divided into “el-hi” (elementary and high-school publishers) and “college.”
4. Scholarly: Specialized books, primarily published by the university presses.
5. Religious: Books published by religious organizations for their members or potential members.
The Small Independent Publisher
A. What is a small publisher? – An independent publisher is any publishing company that operates on a traditional business model – where the money flows to the author – but is not owned by another company. That is, an independent publisher is not an imprint, nor an arm of another company.
B. Small presses are also defined as those that publish an average of fewer than 10 titles per year, though there are a few who manage to do more. We usually described these as publishers with annual sales below a certain level. Commonly, in the United States, this is set at $50 million, after returns and discounts.
Why Could an Independent Publisher be Right for You?
1. They’re open to riskier content – what do we mean by that?
2. They are willing to take the time to work with an author – How?
3. They’re specialized.
4. How do you find these publishers?
a. Search the internet
b. Check with bookstores and libraries
c. Ask other writers whom you know.
5. Qualities that might make an Indie Publisher attractive:
a. Plenty of author control – the author agrees to all changes
b. Print on demand – there are no storage issues
c. No agent is required – in fact, most agents won’t work with indies
d. Higher royalties – you’ll make more money on book sales
e. Contract is straight forward and simple to understand – you won’t need a lawyer to interpret it
f. Best of all, it’s not self-publishing – so there’s no stigma attached, no money up front.
On the other hand,
6. Independent publishers may NOT be the answer to your publishing needs if:
a. You want your book to be on the table closest to the front door of Barnes and Noble, this is definitely not for you.
b. You are working through an agent,
c. Your book contains color photos or illustrations.

Where do we go from Here?
A. Electronic publishing
B. Kindle, Nook, Smashwords, EPUB
C. eBook Readers

Writeshop topic – What do you think is the future of the printed book?
Have you been wanting to publish your writing but just don’t understand where the publishing world is coming from and where it’s going? Bring your interest and your questions to this writeshop and join us on a quick trip through the history of publishing and bookmaking to the current and beyond. This is the first in a series of writeshops to get you on your way to a career in writing and publishing.
Saturday, May 17 9:30-10:30 am.
Cost: $25

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Negotiating a Book Contract

Negotiating a Book Contract
Jane Friedman

Negotiating a book contract is a lot like buying a car—there’s some give and take, not everyone will get the same deal and sometimes you have to pass on the sunroof to get the deal done. It’s helpful to have an agent, of course, but not everyone has that luxury. So how can you, a first-time author, make sure you’re getting a fair deal?
Most companies have a standard contract, or boilerplate that they use. Nearly all of these standard contracts have language that favors the publisher, so it’s up to you to haggle out a better deal. Assume that everything is negotiable, though keep in mind what’s flexible in one publisher’s contract may not be so flexible somewhere else.
Topics most often open for negotiation:
• Royalty v. flat fee
• Anticipated royalty %
• Anticipated advance
• Expenses to be built in
• Second use rights (including electronic)
• Free copies of book
• Cost to author to buy copies
If there are certain areas that are non-negotiable, the publisher will tell the author that. Accept it and move on. Also, if you have questions about anything, ask. Contracts are complicated and often need explaining.
Before navigating the minefield of book negotiation, it’s essential that you read up on publishing contracts. The Author’s Guild offers several tips on how to negotiate a fair contract ( If you’re a member of the National Writers Union, you can hop onto their site ( and get extra advice. Plus, there are several good books on the topic—read as many as you can.
Should you involve a lawyer? I asked Writer’s Digest Books acquisitions editor Jane Friedman and she says it’s OK to ask a lawyer for advice, but often they can be a real headache if they’re not familiar with publishing law. “They may ask for terms or stipulations that are unreasonable,” Friedman says.
As long as you’ve done some homework, you’ll be in good shape when hammering out your book deal. The more times you go through the process, the better you’ll get. And one day, if you’re lucky, you’ll be able to get that sunroof.

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