“It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.”
Blog posts and social media are the new methods by which scientists are capable of sharing their discoveries. As such, science blogs have gained in popularity and number in recent years. Some of these blogs do a truly admirable job of grabbing their readers’ attention and communicating science in an effective and entertaining way. However, there are a plethora of other blogs that fail to attract readers, either due to poor content selection or design flaws in the blog itself. Here I wanted to highlight some of the weaknesses that steal away a blog’s potential.
Upon commencing this project, I attempted to examine as many “types” of science blogs as possible. By this I mean that I selected math blogs, physics blogs, crazy biologist blogs, blogs about being a woman in science, blogs on invasive species, astronomy blogs, science policy blogs….you get the picture. They were selected from a list of top science blogs curated by Nature magazine. While each had its own distinct flair, there were definitely some that rose above others either in content or design (and a rare few that rose above the others in both). Here are a few tips for making your science blog easy to read and enjoyed by all.
- This isn’t content per se but if you want people to read your blog it helps to have an interesting blog name. Several of my favorites I discovered during this exercise are Mike the Mad Biologist, Science Sushi and The Quantum Pontiff.
- Science blogs are not personal blogs. Science blogs tell readers about new scientific discoveries or your opinions regarding science policy, communication, etc. They are not the place to tell everyone that your kid is an honors student, your dog is sick, or you got a new car – unless that’s relevant to the larger scientific context of your post. If your family had a conversation about Marine Protected Areas over Thanksgiving dinner, then by all means feel free to include some turkey and gravy in your post. Otherwise, keep science in the science blogs and personal details in personal blogs.
- Use humor when possible. After the Tim Hunt/”Women are Distracting” debacle (if you’re unfamiliar, read more here), lots of blog posts and articles came out slamming Sir Hunt for his antiquated view of male/female relationships in a scientific setting. I came across one particular gem of a response entitled, “I’m a female scientist, and I agree with Tim Hunt” by Allie Ruben, a geology PhD student. First off, the title was fantastic. I immediately had to know why a woman in science would support such misogynistic statements. As it turns out, Ms. Rubin’s satirical look at women in science made me laugh from start to finish. “Tim Hunt is correct in asserting that women are distracting to men in a lab setting, which greatly affects their productivity,” she asserts. “Last month, my labmates and I had to burn our female coworker at the stake for witchcraft because we saw her holding an unwrapped tampon. Between building the stake, lighting an adequate fire, and waiting for her to die, we lost an entire day that we could otherwise have spent working.” She handles a difficult subject matter with humorous finesse, reminding us that nothing is too sacred to be made funny.
- Make sure that what you’re saying is accurate! The purpose of a science blog is to share new and interesting science. Make sure that if you include your opinion, you make sure that people can tell it’s your opinion, not a scientific fact. Muddying the waters will only make it more difficult for people to understand science and trust what scientists are trying to tell them in the future.
“First of all, Sir Tim’s comments are based on his personal experiences, and are therefore incontrovertible. Three hundred and fifty years ago, Isaac Newton saw an apple fall and decided that gravity existed. Three weeks ago, Tim Hunt saw a woman cry and decided that all women are unfit to be scientists. Science is based on observations, which are the same thing as universal proof. Even I know that, and I’m just a woman whose brain is filled to capacity with yoga poses and recipes for gluten-free organic soap. Once, I was lured into a trap in the woods because I followed a trail of Sex and the City DVDs for three miles into a covered pit. Do you really think I could do something as complicated as thinking about science?”
Excerpt from “I’m a female scientist, and I agree with Tim Hunt” by Allie Ruben.
- Black words on white backgrounds may be old fashioned and boring but there’s a reason that presentations have been given in this color format for generations – it’s easy to read. If your color scheme makes it hard to read your blog, no one is going to bother. I noticed this as an immediate problem with On Being a Scientist and a Woman. The green background with white lettering was distracting and difficult to follow. Similarly, Invasive Species Weblog has a light green background with dark green text that was incredibly hard on the eyes. Stick with simplicity here.
- On the flip side, if you can incorporate color in a non-distracting way, DO IT! Put titles in a different color font or include lots of pictures. Discovering Biology in a Digital World does a great job of this. There are multiple 3D renderings of DNA, enzymes, toxins, etc. They even have a “Molecule of the Month” page with beautiful images of the microscopic
compounds that allow life to flourish.
- The popular blog site ScienceBlogs has a set format where the home screen contains the header and a short teaser for each article, rather than posting the entire article. This allows the reader to see many posts at once, often going back weeks or months, all on one page. It is also less cumbersome than looking through the entire text of multiple posts to find the one you’re looking to read. I recommend this “abbreviated” home page approach for a sleek and easy to follow home page.
- If you’ve been blogging long enough to have a lot of posts, add an archives tab. It will save everyone a lot of time and trouble when it comes to finding that article down the road. You can also include a “categories” section in case people want to read specifically about certain topics. See Blog Around the Clock for good examples.
Looking for more? Take a look at Kjell Reigstad’s blog post: “The Principles of Design: Font Choices” for making smart decisions regarding typography.