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So you want to write better science blog posts…
Andrew Maynard   Sep 24, 2014   riskscience.umich.edu  

Anyone can blog about science.  But it takes effort and diligence to blog well.

When I was teaching the Mind The Science Gap blogging course at the University of Michigan, it became clear early on that, no matter how enthusiastic or knowledgeable you are, there are some basic guidelines that can help make the difference between a great piece and a train wreck (thankfully we never had any of the latter).  Over time, these developed into the Mind The Science Gap Good Practice Guide for writing Science Blog Posts.

The Good Practice Guidelines provided pointers and advice on the practicalities of researching and writing posts that aren’t going to mislead or frustrate the reader, or embarrass the author.  I was reminded of them last week while reading concerns over a post on the enthusiastic but sometimes controversial I F***ing Live Science website.  And because they seem potentially relevant to more than a bunch of public health students, I thought I’d post an updated version here.

Of course, these are hardly comprehensive – if you have other additions, or links to further resources – please add them in the comments below.

MTSG Good Practice Guidelines for Writing Science Blog Posts (updated)

  1. Avoid extrapolating beyond the evidence.  Where you feel speculation is justified, make it very clear what you are doing, and why.
  2. Where possible use multiple sources of information.
  3. Read around your subject – never present a single paper/report as authoritative without cross referencing it to other work in the field.
  4. Remember that different sources should be weighted differently according to their relevance, robustness and authority. A blog post carries less authority (usually) than a peer review paper for instance. And media pundits are rarely as authoritative as established researchers.
  5. Always spend a few minutes Googling your subject to make sure you are not repeating what others have written about, or you are not missing an important angle. This is especially important if there is significant history to your subject you are otherwise unaware of.
  6. Always cite your sources.  Always.
  7. If you use images, always make sure you have permission to use them, and acknowledge your sources appropriately.
  8. Remember that an image is part of your narrative – make sure that it enhances rather than detracts from the story you are telling.
  9. Never write as if you are an expert in a subject, unless you are. This usually (but not always) means having a MD or a PhD in a relevant area, together with experience. Rather, write as in intelligent and informed reporter of someone else’s work.
  10. Avoid the temptation to give advice like the plague, unless you are in a position to take responsibility for what happens when people follow it.
  11. If there are controversies or differences of opinion surrounding your subject, report then fairly.
  12. Ask someone else to read your drafts – all writers are myopic when it comes to their own work.
  13. Re-read your drafts multiple times – typos don’t enhance your message or your reputation (surprising, I know).
  14. Before pressing “publish” ask “is everything I have written defensible from the current state of knowledge?”
  15. If you want to express your opinions in a piece, make it very clear that these are your opinions. Remember, your role as a communicator is to act as an honest and independent conduit between the reader and the information you are writing about.
  16. And at the end of the day, remember that honest errors can be corrected in posts – as long as you acknowledge them rather than hiding them.

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Andrew Maynard is Director of the Risk Science Center at the University of Michigan School of Public Health.



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