9 Powerful Lessons (and Confessions) of a Science Blogger

9 Lessons & Confessions of a Science Blogger

2015 was my first year as a professional science blogger. I’ve been writing for years in a slew of other fields, but this was the first year where I focused on building my brand as a niche blogger. I invested in my website. I revamped my corporate name. I had a new logo designed. I created business-only social media channels and promoted my work. In short, I treated myself like a professional business — and I learned a TON. Here are my 9 biggest lessons and confessions of the year:

1. Data Matters

Sound obvious? It wasn’t to me, not when I was starting out. I mean, I knew I was writing about quantifiable facts and I would need to source those facts. But what I didn’t know was how the process of finding those sources would change my approach to research. Before, I would cite a news report of a scientific discovery and call it a day; now, I cite the press release or paper written by the scientists. Call me naive, but if The Huffington Post or TIME shared the results of a scientific study or a chart, I assumed they drew the same conclusions as the study. Nope! Turns out studies are rarely that conclusive – and fewer still have media-friendly outcomes. So I became a stickler for primary sources and learned to read the data… and found even better stories in it. Booyah.

Added bonus: that data-centric approach also affected how I thought about EVERYTHING. I read a review about a blender I wanted to buy, and when I saw several users complain about its inaccuracy in crushing ice I immediately clicked over to the manufacturer’s page to scour the technical details about the motor. Analyzing data is helping me win at life!

LESSON: Review the data at its source. Let it drive your conclusions.

2. Scientists Quantify EVERYTHING

Scientists don’t speak the way you and I do. I don’t mean that as a pejorative, and I don’t mean because they use academic words; I mean that scientists regularly use words that you and I use in completely different ways. For example: what you and I consider a theory is a statement in need of proof, but a scientist considers a theory a certifiable fact because it’s already got lots of proof. Big difference. For another: you and I would consider Copernicus’ theory that the Earth revolved around the sun originating in 1532 when he wrote the manuscript, but a scientist would consider that theory originating in 1543 when he published it. Another big difference.

Scientific language is rife with all kinds of misnomers like these:

Science Terms Table

CREDIT: AMERICAN GEOPHYSICAL UNION

Figuring them out gave me an enormous leg up in my writing. Before, I got bored and frustrated reading scientific stuff because it’s larded with dependent clauses and passive voice, like this research paper gem: “It will be possible to process rice and produce high-grade silica in a single location with little or no carbon footprint.” That stuff just looks like bad writing to me. Reading it makes my skin crawl. But, when I learned to take a step back and view those phrases as scientific qualifiers rather than grammatical errors, I felt like I’d unearthed the Rosetta stone. Scientists use phrases like “it will be possible” and “in a single location” to explain that they can do what happened in the experiment only under the exact environmental conditions of the experiment. That realization gave me proper context for everything I read, and helped me keep focus in my writing. Even though the grammar gives me agita.

Added bonus: because I was able to do this, I earned an enormous amount of credibility with my sources AND editors. Win-win.

LESSON: Learn the language. Be a translator.

3. Share Your Stuff

Since this was my first year as a science blogger, it was also my first year promoting my content. Like I said in the intro, I treated myself like a professional business, and that meant talking about what I do. That was hard because I’m not the type of person who likes talking about herself. Kinda ever. But, as I was busy sharing other articles that I thought were cool, people kept asking me: “Aren’t you writing anything?” “Where can I read it?” In the process of solidifying myself as a business, pitching clients, and working out monthly burn rates, I’d completely forgotten that I have a whole network of friends and family who love me and want me to succeed — and who actually want to read my stuff. So, I took to promoting my own work about 20% of the time and sharing cool stuff I had no relation to 80% of the time. The ratio seemed to work, and it was really neat to see distant relatives and heretofore unknown science geek friends share my stuff. It was also super neat to see complete strangers pick up on it and excitedly engage with it, and me, across the web. That’s the exact opposite experience I had as a gaming blogger, where I got crucified for saying pretty much anything. But that’s another post.

In short, I had no idea I had an audience. And all I had to do to find it was share my content.

D'oh

 

CREDIT: 20th CENTURY FOX

Granted, I’m still not great at this. While I’ve gotten great at the initial social media onslaught (and Buffer makes the scheduling super easy), I’m not so great at re-sharing my content. Doing that one thing would bring more traffic to my site than sharing it once. It would also generate more pageviews over time. Basically, sharing content repeatedly over time = business growth. I’m shooting myself in the foot by not doing that. That’s why I’m going to try to stick to this graph next year:

Social Sharing Timeline

CREDIT: KISSMETRICS

LESSON: Share your stuff. More than once.

4. Whore out Your Credibility

I had pieces in both TIME and Popular Science this year – the latter of which I’d been working to get into for 3 years. I spoke to an astronaut – which made my 5-year-old self apoplectic with glee (seriously: I can almost die happy now). I spoke to other high-level people at NASA – including the Press Secretary, with whom I am now friends (because she’s wonderful. And AWESOME). I had an amazing, successful year. But that success did not lead to more gigs. Or higher profile gigs. Or anything at all.

Because I did not whore it out.

That was my single biggest failure this year. I’m kicking myself in the butt about it as I type this. In accordance with re-sharing my content, I need to be more shameless about discussing my successes and using them to knock down the doors of better clients. I plan on pinging colleagues who are better at this than I am to figure out a plan, but for now I recognize that I need to do better. Which is partially why I’m writing this piece right here.

LESSON: When you’ve got it, flaunt it.

5. Friends Are Everywhere

See: I have a friend at NASA. I made that friend by making a friend at a networking event. I made lots of friends this year, and they all turned out to be awesome – and amazingly helpful in different, unexpected ways. A social media analyst I pinged for help? Introduced me to the most helpful networking group on the planet. The receptionist at my coworking space? Gave me killer feedback on a web series that won multiple awards (see what I did there, with the success-whoring? I’m learning!). Random awesome lady I met a friend’s book launch? Hired me to write for one of her clients. An award-winning data scientist? My new bestie:

Me and Deb

We’re adorable. Even though we’re blurry. CREDIT: LAURIE VAZQUEZ

Awesome people are everywhere. Be open and helpful, and you’ll find them. Simple as that.

LESSON: Make friends with everyone. You never know who will help.

6. Opportunities Are Everywhere

I always think I know where to look for stories – research papers, university news, pestering NASA. Yet, I am constantly surprised by where I find them. Like in a room full of physicists.

I spent a Saturday at the first ever Physics Hack-A-Thon back in the fall. Initially, I went only because it was held by a client and participating seemed like a good way to keep up the business. But what I found as I worked with researchers and science advocates to turn big ideas into crowdfunding campaigns was a hotbed of untapped stories. My new bestie’s experience in learning physics after forgetting algebra led to an article about how critical thinking skills can help you win at life. A researcher’s frustration with university funding led to an article about how universities allocate research dollars (coming soon!). A CubeSats builder’s experience pitching Silicon Valley led to an article about the tech world’s interest in space data – which ended up getting scrapped because investors are too busy to talk to little old me. But still: I got a whole bunch of story ideas just by doing a thing for a few hours. For someone whose livelihood depends on ideas, that’s priceless.

LESSON: Do things. And keep your eyes peeled.

7. Don’t Waste Time on People Who Don’t Matter

A paying client is not necessarily a good client. Again, seems obvious. But when you’re a freelancer and you’re having a lean month because a client’s check is late or a story fell through, the desperation of paying the rent sometimes overrides your better judgement. In this case, it means taking on clients you probably shouldn’t. You know the type: hyper complimentary of your work until you share your rates, unclear about their expectations, unhelpful with their criticisms, infrequent with their communication. Clients like that make me want to stress eat Oreos.

I eat enough Oreos. Believe you me.

oreos

These things are basically crack. CREDIT: MONDELEZ INTERNATIONAL

While my responsibilities as a freelancer include teaching clients how to work with me, I’ve learned that clients I need to handhold through the process are usually more trouble than they’re worth. And not everyone responds to my kindness and check-ins the way I’d hope. I’m learning to let those folks go and focus on the clients who can get me work. That’s an infinitely better use of my time – and an enormous panacea for my sanity.

Even though I need to let go of a guaranteed paycheck. And to figure out a cash flow solution to replace it. My wallet is sad now. Time to eat Oreos!

LESSON: Don’t leave yourself vulnerable to subpar clients.  

8. Blogging

Blogging is the thing that I do to earn a paycheck. I write content. I interview sources. I publish in respectable, established outlets. I draw readers and followers. I create social media posts and images. I promote. I read a ton of things to get better at it. Every. Single. Day. I am a professional.

Why the hell didn’t I do this before?!

D'oh

Wow I’m a lot like Homer. CREDIT: 20th CENTURY FOX

I consider myself an aspiring film and television writer, so wearing the mantle of blogger is still strange to me. It’s been uncomfortable to own blogging as part of my identity, and makes me feel like a failed creative. But it’s also helped me think of myself as a professional and helped me own my skill and talent as a brand.

I never expected to find confidence in writing about science online.

I’m really happy I did.

LESSON: Own who you are.

9. I’m a Real Writer

Again, I tend to think of myself as an aspiring film and television writer (or failing, depending on the day). And I do work on those projects. But the bulk of my time is spent writing words. I convince strangers to pay me to write words for a living.

I’m a writer. And it only happened when I said it did.

I don’t doubt my skill or talent. I know I have it. And I work to improve it. But that doesn’t even matter. What matters, again, is that I own it. I stopped waiting for approval from others to confirm what I already do on a daily basis.

And so should you.

LESSON: Seriously: OWN WHO YOU ARE.

Woo_hoo

CREDIT: 20th CENTURY FOX

Which lesson will you use in the new year? Let me know in the comments below!

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7 Productivity Lessons Learned While Cat-Sitting

Social Media2

I am not a cat person. I don’t understand them, I’m allergic to them, and I think they’re creepy ’cause I can’t hear them move. I don’t think they like me, either, and that was completely fine by me – until I decided to cat sit for my boyfriend’s mother. Even though I am allergic. And the cat’s name is Trixie Stardust.

 

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This is how much I love my boyfriend’s family.

All that said, after spending some time with Trixie, I’ve learned some surprisingly useful things about productivity:

1. Cat Naps

Naps are wonderful. 20-30 minutes of napping can improve everything from mood to performance – but try telling me that when I’m exhausted and on deadline. As I yawned 2 hours from deadline and prayed for my fingers to type faster, I looked over at Trixie napping on the couch and thought “That looks like a great idea.” I curled up on the opposite side of the couch and did the exact same thing. The cat looked at me for a moment, perplexed, then went right back to sleep. I woke up 20 minutes later with a refreshed brain and felt better than I had all day – and, of course, nailed the deadline. Thanks, cat!

2.  Don’t Worry About Unimportant Stuff

Cats have few responsibilities. As I fed, cleaned, and took care of the cat, I noticed that Trixie spent all her time either sleeping or grooming. That made me think that she wasn’t wasting time on things that weren’t important to her. It reminded me not to waste time on stuff that distracted me from my work (Facebook, Twitter, vacuuming after the cat). Also, I don’t have to waste time on the mundane tasks associated with freelancing — billing, email outreach, source notification — if I don’t want to. There are people who can take care of that. Just like how I took care of the cat.

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     3.  Spend Just Enough Time on Everything

I feel like I never spend the right amount of time on anything. From spending too little time searching for gigs to spending too much time researching space technology for a story, I always feel like everything takes too long. The cat has no such qualms. Trixie does everything for just as long as she feels like doing it. Want a petting? Nudge my arm! Want me to stop? Bite me! (that was a narrow miss; I learned to stop sooner after that). Want a nap? Collapse on the couch. Basically, if this cat indicates what she wants when she wants it, then I can do the same. I can spend just enough time researching something, then close the browser window. I can set a timer to research potential leads. The only thing I can’t do is flounce my tail majestically.

     4. Trust the Right People

Trixie did not take to me right away. Since I work from home, that meant she had to get used to seeing me all the time – and vacuuming after her, because I am allergic. After a few days of sulky glances, she gloomily accepted me as a sort of walking natural disaster and let me pet her. After that, well:

Writing Cat

Turns out that what the cat was really doing was sussing me out. Watching me. Noticing that I fed her, cleaned her box, and petted just when she wanted – even though I broke out the Big Bad Vacuum. Trixie took the time to get to know me by my actions before trusting me, and that’s a great rule of thumb for building any relationship. Itching for a promising new client to respond to your pitch? Wondering if that praise from an eager client is too good to be true? Wait it out. It may seem counterintuitive – especially if you need the work – but the way a client responds to you is more indicative of a working relationship than any amount of glowing praise. Take however long you need to figure someone one out. Protect your space. You can even purr with contentment if you want.

     5.  Keep Your Eyes on the Prize

Trixie does the weirdest thing: sometimes, she sits in front of the door and just stares at it. But when I came through that door after making a grocery run, she trotted over to me and purred up a storm. Turns out the cat wasn’t crazy. She was focused on the people who would walk through that door and make her happy. Seeing the cat do that reminds me that I need to keep my own goals in sight be they professional (writing for NASA) or personal (going to the gym 3x a week). I need to stay focused on those goals. Even if it looks super weird.

Trixie Door

     6.  Tell People What You Want

Cats meow in different ways to communicate their needs. I’m learning the difference between Trixie’s “Pay attention to me!” meow (her most common) and her other meows. Particularly the sad ones that make me think we’ve adopted a crying baby. The cat is communicating clearly and telling me what she wants when she wants it. I try to exercise this same skill with clients, and cat-sitting has given me both a good reminder of its importance as well as ample opportunity to practice. Especially with clients who don’t.

     7.  There’s always an escape route

Trixie hates the vacuum. HATES it. Spins in circles and darts to the furthest end of the apartment whenever I turn it on hates it. The thing that amazes me about her behavior — other than how funny I find it — is that she always finds a new path through the apartment. No matter how many times I shoo her off the couch or away from my desk, Trixie will find a shortcut that I never noticed was there. She’s a regular escape artist — and that reminds me that there’s always an escape route. No matter how trapped I may feel by a client or a gig, or even by being stuck in an apartment with a cat that makes me sneeze, there is always a way out. I just have to look. And, possibly, run away from the vacuum.

I still don’t consider myself a cat person. But I’ve grown to love this little furball. And I think the feeling’s mutual: I’ve woken up more than once to find her purring happily against me. Despite the fact I do things like wake her up to take a picture of her napping because I find her expression hilarious:

IMG_20151211_142424

I know I shouldn’t love teasing the cat. But, during a break, it really is the most productive use of my time.