What is your (science) blogging writing style, Chris Patil?

chrisandattilaI have to interrupt my 23andMe streaming cause there are more interesting things are goin’ on. Chris Patil of Ouroboros has already been a blogterviewee (Part 1, 2, 3) on Pimm. He then shared his detailed views on aging and life extension technologies, but I always wanted to ask Chris about his approach on blogging as it was obvious from the launch of Ouroboros that he has a style and angle on the aging literature that goes far beyond the usual and sometimes dead boring “this journal published this and that journal published that” science blogging subgenre. We all need to find new and experimental ways in science blogging to make it more than just simply echoing the peer review literature and a sharp focus, good arguments and neat English definitely helps, so below you can read the secrets of Chris in blue. I also encourage you to try to mimic him to the amount of one blog post as a blogging homework. (The picture was made by Bora of the Clock fame at Berkeley, California this August when there was a science blogger party one day before the SciFoo Camp. Chris is on the left. The other guy is an unidentified science blogger.)

It’s a challenging question. Like speech mannerisms or your own personal walk, style is something that emerges from a lot of little decisions that happen below the level of explicit consciousness. As I’m writing this, I’m wondering, ‘Is this in my style?’ It’s like listening to my own voice on tape. Nonetheless, I shall try:

My own history in science writing goes back to college, when I wrote a weekly Q&A column for the Stanford Daily (‘The Science Bug’; I had inherited it from an earlier staffer and passed it along to someone else when I left; years later, my younger brother took up the job). The audience was mostly other students, i.e. bright and educated but not necessarily scientists, so the main challenge was providing necessary factual and conceptual background without sounding like a lecturer — the readers were getting enough lectures in their coursework, and I knew that an overly didactic style would turn them off.

Unlike a reporter, I had a great deal of freedom to explore different styles, and eventually I found one that really felt like me which is not to say I didn’t have influences. I worshipped Cecil Adams (of the famous syndicated Q&A column The Straight Dope) at times perhaps veering across the line into outright imitation. From him I learned that questions don’t really want “answers”; they want “stories“, with a beginning, middle and end. You have to take the reader somewhere, from familiar ground to unfamiliar ground (and, sometimes, safely back again). I also admired (and emulated) Adams’ use of acerbity and wit to establish authority and keep the reader entertained while they are being educated. Another major influence was the comic writer Dave Barry. From him, I learned about using punctuation and sentence structure to control the cadence of writing. In reading his columns you can really hear him talking; I try to achieve the same effect, even in very technical writing on my blog.

My blogging style is somewhat similar to the style I used for my old column, with several major differences. I’m not answering questions anymore, so choosing the starting point of each column relies more on my own judgment, especially on my assessment of my readers’ general knowledge. Also, I rely less on humor to hold interest, and since I’m writing for other scientists I allow myself to use technical language without providing definitions. But I still try to tell a story in every column, and I still put a lot of energy into crafting sentences that sound like me, that resemble things I might actually say out loud. My hope is that the conversational and collegial tone will be refreshing to readers who are constantly inundated with the dry passive language of the primary literature, and that that will keep them coming back.

Earlier:

Maxine Clarke

Deepak Singh

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