Wading through the waffle

When thinking about how to introduce the concept of putting together clean, crisp, readable copy to my blogging students, it occurred to me (flash of inspiration if you will) that several news articles I had done this week were notable for one reason.

They all came from source material that was lengthy or dry or incredibly technical.Bill Burris

Not perhaps unusual for a journalist specialising in medicine and science.

But there did seem to be more chopping and simplifying than usual.

Which brings me to my tip of the week – be ruthless.

Deciding what to leave out can be just as vital as the text that ends up in your final copy.

It is tempting to be precious about every clever metaphor/explanation/quote.

But the readers will not thank you for waffling on.

This week’s haul started  with a bit of molecular biology from a team of US scientists who had worked out the nitty gritty of how zinc can help the immune system fight infection.

Crafted from a 1,200-word press release going into some pretty high-level scientific detail and a 25-page Cell Reports article with the snappy title ZIP8 Regulates Host Defense through Zinc-Mediated Inhibition of NF-kB, this was not straightforward.

In fact very little of the scientific detail even included in the press release made it to the final version.

This was all about a novel concept with a little bit of context.

Then there were the results of a trial comparing treatments for stroke where the main problem was trying to explain the concept of intra-arterial device-based approach for clot removal to the non-vascular surgeons in the audience.

And a sigh of relief as a slightly more simple paper crossed my desk showing that GPs are pretty quick at picking up cancers – unless you have a hard to spot type of cancer.

Chop, chop, chop

Yet complex science papers are not the only time I get to practice cutting out reams of text.

The next day started with a survey from a cancer charity who were launching a report on patients who lack support from families and friends.

I had a well written press release and report to work from.

But piles of statistics.

No one wants to read a long long list of survey results and so there I go again, choosing which is most important, finding new ways to present figures, and chopping through the bits that can be excluded.

Last but not least was an exclusive story on doctors missing signs of being underweight in children – one I found in a medical journal.

Researchers do not write for the general public and use lots of strange phrases that would not spring to mind when chatting about study results down the pub (as I have been known to do).

It means coming at the information in front of you from a completely different point of view, with the reader always at the front of your mind.

All this shows one thing, whatever source material you are working from, always look for better, snappier, shorter, clearer ways to say what you need to say.

Whether it is news or views, the rule remains the same – be ruthless, tell the story, and above all, keep it simple.

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What type of blogger are you?

So my intrepid band of student bloggers are on the starting line ready to go.

They all have an idea for a topic – related somehow to student life – they want to write about.

Credit: Maria Reyes-McDavis

The next step is to get them up and running.

With that in mind, I am going to offer some thoughts on what I think blogging is for.

I have to admit, I was a somewhat of a sceptic when blogging first became the latest cool pastime.

And I still do not believe on any level that blogging will replace or poses any real threat to traditional journalism.

But it does have several important functions.

1. Reportage

Eyewitness reports are a vital part of journalism and with traditional hacks increasingly chained to their desks or without the budget to travel to far off lands, a blogger can provide that all important firsthand account of an event.

This has been shown to great effect in recent uprisings in parts of the world the media cannot easily access or where stringent censorship is in place.

And of course, the blogger can put themselves in grave danger by telling their story.

Reading this sort of writer makes me think that the media could often do a lot better at getting to the heart of a story, and without blogs and social media there are those who would have barely any voice at all.

2. Shared experience

The first thing that comes to mind for me under this category is the mummy bloggers.

Often stereotyped in the media as bored middle-aged women used to being at the cutting edge of whatever world they once worked in, I am actually a huge fan.

There is nothing that isolates you from your old life/friends/reality quite like having a tiny human to care for and while you are completely obsessed over your new responsibility, few others care at all.

Mummy blogs basically create a community of people going through the exact same, crazy, head-wreaking, life changing experience as you.

As someone who often read mummy blogs on my phone in the early hours, while trying to get a unsettled baby to sleep, I would say do not knock it until you find yourself craving a connection with someone who knows exactly what you are talking about.

Also under this heading would come all bloggers writing about life experiences – divorce, illness, bereavement, etc, etc.

3. How to…?

The most obvious how to blog that comes to mind is the cook trying out recipes.

But this category is incredibly broad.

For anything you want to know how to do there will be someone teaching you how. Off the top of my head – dog training, make-up lessons, knitting tea cosys.

4. Professional promotion

I probably come under this category, having set up a blog partly as a teaching tool but partly as a way of having my very own opinion column.

As a freelancer, I do not often get the chance to do analysis, comment or editorial style writing.

Blogging gives me the chance to do all of the above.

Researchers and academics are among those who commonly use blogs in this way.

5. Campaigning

Then there are the bloggers who are using their site as a platform to promote a certain political view or to raise awareness of an issue.

According to this piece in the Guardian, feminist blogs are booming.

One of the most famous bloggers from last year was a young schoolgirl posting images of her school dinners to highlight the fact that Jamie Oliver may not have had the impact many claimed.

While a lighthearted take, it raised awareness of an important issue.

Bloggers can often shine a light on topics forgotten about or ignored by the mainstream press.

6. Unique perspective

Do you have an interesting tale to tell?

From the paramedic, whose blog became a bestselling book, to the researcher turned escort which led to the TV series Diary of a Call Girl, bloggers with an individual take on life can stand out from the crowd.

It does not have to be a completely unique experience like the man who won the ‘Best job in the world’ competition to be a caretaker on a paradise island, blogging about his adventure.

Even the seemingly day-to-day can be intriguing if you have a quirky take on it.

7. The reviewer

From music to film to books, if you want an independent opinion of the latest release then the blogosphere is where you need to be.

For anyone wanting to go down this route, it is hard to stand out.

The key, it would seem, is having a different insight, perspective or covering stuff that does not normally get picked up by the mainstream reviewers.

8. Hyperlocal

A group of Sheffield University students won the Guardian Student Media Awards best website last year for their take on independent people, places and organisations in the Steel City.

These types of blogs have in some cases proven pretty successful and build an audience by creating a niche guide, tips or insights into a community.

In fact such is the interest in hyperlocal media that last year Nesta announced a £1m funding drive.

Seems counterintuitive when journalists lament the death of the local paper but there you go, maybe we are coming full circle.

Where will the next generation of bloggers take it?