Tag Archives: writing

Successful Science Article Pitches

Article and book pitches — both successful and unsuccessful — can give you a small insight into an editor’s selection process and the sales-side of a writer’s mind, as well as help you learn to write more effectively. As such I’ve started to collect sites featuring proposals and pitches.

A recent addition to this list is the pitch database from The Open Notebook; a collection of writer-submitted pitches for science articles that have been accepted for publishing in many of my favourite places, such as Ars Technica, Atlantic, Lapham’s Quarterly, This American Life and Wired.

Of particular note is a pitch from David Dobbs, writer of the Neuron Culture blog. Pitching Atlantic editor Don Peck, Dobbs wrote an extensive pitch for The Orchid Children that led to the publication of a fantastic article, The Science of Success. Those who follow Dobbs’ blog will know that this in turn led to a book deal for The Orchid and the Dandelion, Dobbs’ forthcoming book.

On Titles, or: Titles: Is There an Optimal Solution?

As a co-editor of the open-access journal Theoretical Economics, Jeff Ely has seen his fair share of academic papers and their associated titles. Inevitably Ely has constructed a theory on how to title a paper (or anything else, for that matter) for maximum exposure, impact and intrigue.

In his hilarious tongue-in-cheek article detailing this theory, Ely offers his priceless advice on how to decide on an academic paper’s title. The conclusion: keep it as short as possible (one word, preferably), avoid colons and avoid questions.

A paper titled Law and Finance is guaranteed to be the seminal paper in the field because if it were not then that title would have already been taken. You can go ahead and cite it without actually reading it. By contrast, you can safely ignore a paper with a title like Valuation and Dynamic Replication of Contingent Claims in a General Market Environment Based on the Beliefs-Preferences Gauge Symmetry even if you don’t know what any of those words mean. The title is essentially telling you “Don’t read me. Instead go and read a paper whose title is simply Valuation of Contingent Claims. If you have any questions after reading that, you might look into dynamic replication and then beliefs, preferences, and if after all that you still haven’t found what you’re looking for, check here for the low-down on gauge symmetry.”

Two pieces of advice follow from these observations. First, find the simplest title not yet taken for your papers. One word titles are the best. Second, before you get started on a paper, think about the title. If you can’t come up with a short title for it then it’s probably not worth writing.

The absolute worst thing you can do with your title is to insert a colon into it. […] As in, Torture: A Model of Dynamic Commitment Problems. Or Kludged: Asymptotically Inefficient Evolution. In the first case you have just ruined a seminal-signalling one-word title by adding spurious specificity. In the second, you just took an intriguing one-world title and turned it into a yawner.

The second worst kind of title is the question mark title. “Is the Folk Theorem Robust?” This says to the reader: “You picked this up because you want to know if the folk theorem is robust. Well, if I knew the answer to that I would have told you right away in the title. But look, all I could do is repeat the question, so you can safely assume that you won’t find the answer in this paper.”

via @TimHarford

Learning storytelling from a Sitcom writer

What is a story? How can you tell better stories?

There is a wealth of knowledge and research into story telling, story structure and techniques for enhancing narrative. The classic text is The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell, but this tome has been is criticised for being dense and academic. Syd Field‘s book Screenplay has influenced the writing of many recent movies, but Field has been criticised for never producing a successful script himself.

If only a successful writer would set out clearly and accessably the theory behind writing a good story.

Enter Dan Harmon the creator of the superb TV series Community. He learned his craft developing short episodes for the internet TV station Channel101. Channel101 runs a monthly screening of low budget (or zero budget), five minute episodes. They’re often over the top, vulgar, and hilarious. Check out (not at work!) the ridiculous Laser Fart, the viral sensation Chad Vader, and the teen drama pastiche The ‘Bu.

Despite the silliness of the episodes they exhibit a compelling writing style that Harmon attributes to his understanding of storytelling. Harmon wrote a series of articles to teach perspective submitters to Channel101 how to write a well structured story. The basis of these articles is a series of eight elements that should be included in every story. The eight points are:

  1. You – Who are we? A squirrel? The sun? A red blood cell? America? By the end of the first 37 seconds, we’d really like to know.
  2. Need - something is wrong, the world is out of balance. This is the reason why a story is going to take place. The “you” from (1) is an alcoholic. There’s a dead body on the floor. A motorcycle gang rolls into town. Campbell phrases: Call to Adventure, Refusal of the Call, Supernatural Aid.
  3. Go – For (1) and (2), the “you” was in a certain situation, and now that situation changes. A hiker heads into the woods. Pearl Harbor’s been bombed. A mafia boss enters therapy. Campbell phrase: Crossing of the Threshold. Syd Field phrase: Plot Point 1.
  4. Search – adapting, experimenting, getting shit together, being broken down. A detective questions suspects. A cowboy gathers his posse. A cheerleader takes a nerd shopping. Campbell phrases: Belly of the Whale, Road of Trials. Christopher Vogler phrase: Friends, Enemies and Allies.
  5. Find – whether it was the direct, conscious goal or not, the “need” from (2) is fulfilled. We found the princess. The suspect gives the location of the meth lab. A nerd achieves popularity. Campbell phrase: Meeting with the Goddess. Syd Field phrase: mid-point. Vogler phrase: Approach to the Innermost Cave.
  6. Take – The hardest part (both for the characters and for anyone trying to describe it). On one hand, the price of the journey. The shark eats the boat. Jesus is crucified. The nice old man has a stroke. On the other hand, a goal achieved that we never even knew we had. The shark now has an oxygen tank in his mouth. Jesus is dead- oh, I get it, flesh doesn’t matter. The nice old man had a stroke, but before he died, he wanted you to take this belt buckle. Now go win that rodeo. Campbell phrases: Atonement with the Father, Death and Resurrection, Apotheosis. Syd Field phrase: plot point 2
  7. Return – It’s not a journey if you never come back. The car chase. The big rescue. Coming home to your girlfriend with a rose. Leaping off the roof as the skyscraper explodes. Campbell phrases: Magic Flight, Rescue from Without, Crossing of the Return Threshold.
  8. Change – The “you” from (1) is in charge of their situation again, but has now become a situation-changer. Life will never be the same. The Death Star is blown up. The couple is in love. Dr. Bloom’s Time Belt is completed. Lorraine Bracco heads into the jungle with Sean Connery to “find some of those ants.” Campbell phrases: Master of Both Worlds, Freedom to Live.

They sound simplistic. But in the article Harmon dissects well known movies and Channel101 episodes explaining how they conform to this structure.

Story Structure Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6.

As a member of a public speaking organisation I frequently tell stories in front of an audience. Reading these articles has changed my approach to story telling. Rather than beginning with a blank page I plan the progression of my story using Harmon’s eight points as subheadings, and attempt to give the correct emphasis to every point.

For more insights from Dan Harmon you can check out his website or twitter. And I highly recommend his appearance on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast (bad language a plenty).

How to Internet: Publishing

As you get better at the internet, you’ll likely start to feel a desire to share something with the world. Thankfully, the internet is awash with technologies that make that easy and painless.

Outside of Facebook, the can-be-used-for publishing platform that most civilians are likely to have heard about is Twitter, which hardly qualifies as a publishing platform. If you’re ever looking for an old tweet, you’ll quickly realize that the medium is built to be short-lived. That’s not an inherently bad thing, but anyone who has the compulsion to record their thoughts in a public way probably doesn’t want to do so on such an ephemeral platform. Add to that the character limit and I would contend that anyone trying to use Twitter for much more than fooling around is acting foolishly. So, one wonders, how do I publish things in a public way so they can be found later?

My answer, at least for any word publishing (I’ve never tried to publish lots of photos, video, or audio, so I can offer no expertise) is to use either Tumblr or WordPress (either flavor).

Lloyd has a Tumblr, which I like, and it illustrates one of the central strengths of Tumblr. For pulling together disparate media types and publishing them quickly, I don’t think a better tool exists. And even though it was really built for that, there are other ways to use Tumblr. More than a few hip designer-types use it for blogs very much like this one.

But compared to WordPress, Tumblr’s features for a complete personal blog are somewhat lacking. It’s certainly not terrible, it’s just not as awesome and adaptable as a self-hosted installation of WordPress. Lone Gunman is online because of a self-hosted WordPress installation, as are my sites. Self-hosted WordPress offers a wealth of features Tumblr doesn’t have, like automatic post revisions, full category and tag support, and the ability to access your posts in thousands of different way with just a little PHP know-how.

But if you’re just getting started, self-hosted does have the serious downside of requiring you to have and maintain your own server space. That’s where WordPress.com comes in, it’s more directly comparable to Tumblr—only requiring you to create a log in for it to work—but it also offers features like post revisions, as well as a great full-screen writing view, and a bevy of things not mentioned. (If you’re interested, I recently made a longer write-up of the Tumblr vs WordPress.com question.)

Lest we forget, there are also a number of tools other than those two, both free and paid. Notable free ones include: Google’s Blogger (which, after what feels like a decade of neglect, finally has an interesting-looking future), Posterous, Joomla, LiveJournal, and Drupal. Some paid ones are Typepad and Moveable Type (technically free or paid), Squarespace, and ExpressionEngine. In both categories there are certainly even more I can’t think of. I don’t have enough experience with any of those to have much guidance about them, but if you don’t like Tumblr or WordPress, they’re all certainly viable options.

Really, though, the importance of the tool you use to publish pales in comparison to the way in which you use it. An active Tumblr may be marginally worse for long-form writing than WordPress, but it’s vastly better than a disused WordPress site. And that’s hard work that I don’t nearly have the ability to cover this week. If you’re looking to actually get some help with that, please allow me to recommend Merlin Mann’s ouvre, and particularly this little riff about making the clackity noise.

What you should write about, when, with what frequency, those are all non-trivial questions, but I’d again emphasize that they pale in comparison to the importance of doing work rather than thinking about it.

And a final point: writing, especially on the internet, is hardly the quickest path to fame and fortune. If you’re only interested in publishing stuff on the internet for that reason, get out now. The probability you’ll find more than heartbreak and frustration down that road to fame is lottery-winning small.

I don’t mean to end on a crushing note. There’s huge value in internet publishing beyond its minute potential for saving you from ever needing “a real job.” But for a while I thought it would have that potential for me and it didn’t. Instead, what I got was an unexpected community of people to learn from, and a chance to work with people like Lloyd. People interested in making good stuff on the internet, even if it never gets us anything. That’s the reason to try your hand at web-publishing: it’s a beach-head onto the wider world of substantive accomplishment and relationships in a way that no Twitter account or Facebook page is. But it hardly guarantees you of anything but a modest square of sand.

Robert Gottlieb on the Art of Editing

The author-editor relationship is an intimate one, and Robert Gottlieb, editor of many well-loved books and of The New Yorker for five years, knows this more than most. One of the best insights into this relationship comes courtesy of an interview with Gottlieb in The Paris Review where the ‘questions’ are actually anecdotes provided by some of the writers with whom he has worked over the years.

With comments from the likes of Joseph Heller, Doris Lessing, Michael Crichton and Robert Caro, the one thing that particularly struck me in the interview is how Gottlieb continuously describes how to be a good editor, one must also be a good reader, writer and author.

He’s humble about the craft, too:

The fact is, this glorification of editors, of which I have been an extreme example, is not a wholesome thing. The editor’s relationship to a book should be an invisible one. The last thing anyone reading Jane Eyre would want to know, for example, is that I had convinced Charlotte Brontë that the first Mrs. Rochester should go up in flames. The most famous case of editorial intervention in English literature has always bothered me—you know, that Dickens’s friend Bulwer-Lytton advised him to change the end of Great Expectations: I don’t want to know that! As a critic, of course, as a literary historian, I’m interested, but as a reader, I find it very disconcerting. Nobody should know what I told Joe Heller and how grateful he is, if he is. It’s unkind to the reader and just out of place.

A quote I missed on first reading the interview (but saw highlighted on his Wikipedia entry) is this brief comment regarding his approach to editing:

You have to surrender to a book. If you do, when something in it seems to be going askew, you are wounded. The more you have surrendered to a book, the more jarring its errors appear.

Many (all?) of The Paris Review’s The Art of… interviews are online and worth spending some time with. Gabrielle from The Contextual Life provides a highlight of some of the best interviews, dating back to Ernest Hemingway’s 1950s interview.

via @RebeccaSkloot