07 July 2010

Losing the scientific lede, continued

So, in spite of having pretty consciously tweaked the science blogging community when I wrote, in Monday's post
Blog posts are best when they're less than 700 or 800 words long, and their contents are readily summed up in a headline and only slightly expanded upon by the first paragraph. Think newspaper, not magazine articles. Do people read posts longer than that? Sure they do. But the longer a post is, the more possibility there is that some fraction of the readers will quit reading before the end, and maybe even pass on links or comments based on that incomplete understanding. I realize I'm not in the majority of online science writers in taking this position, but I think this better reflects how the average online reader reads.
I nevertheless managed to miss when Bora Zivkovic gently tweaked back over Twitter:
Do you agree? Losing the scientific lede: http://bit.ly/94zroM by @JBYoder compare: http://bit.ly/cJj3vs Long is fine.
But I did notice a larger-than-usual traffic spike associated with the post, and, being pretty sure of the source, I thought I'd just add to what I said previously, in light of the quite coherent and reasonable defense Bora makes for long-form posts.

In Bora's older post, the point is not so much that blog posts should be long, but that blogs are a good venue for science communication because posts can be long:
Context - there is no space for context in a short article. Yet it is the context that is the most important part of science coverage, and of science itself - remember the "shoulders of giants"? Placing a new study within a historical, philosophical, theoretical and methodological context is the key to understanding what the paper is about and why it is important, especially for the lay audience. Even scientific papers all provide plenty of context in the Introduction portion (and often in the Discussion as well) which is sprinkled with references to earlier studies.
I strongly agree that context is important, and I also agree that blogs are great at providing context—but because a post can link to context, not necessarily provide it itself.

Much of my feelings about what a good blog post should look like are determined by two things, both of which are more aesthetic than empirically justifiable. Both are also related to my all-but-minoring in English as an undergraduate: I am a devoted follower of Strunk and White, and I wrote for the campus paper and took courses in newspaper writing. So I try to follow the inverted pyramid to some approximation, and when a post starts to spill below what displays in a browser window without scrolling down, much like this one, I start to worry that I'm not omitting needless words.

It's my own online reading experience that short posts, which communicate a single scientific result, work better than longer posts trying to synthesize lots of different results. Again, that's mostly an aesthetic judgment, but as I said in Monday's post, I think that short posts are more likely to be read to the end, and less likely to result in distortions as a post propagates across social media (or, rather, only has the distortions I've introduced myself!).

Of course, maybe that's a moot point. If a reader mischaracterizes my post in a Facebook update, but includes a link to it, everyone who clicks through will see that the post said something different. Right? Well, again, when they do click through, I suppose I'd like them to be able to take in the point of the post quickly, and understand what it actually says without needing to read all the way to the end.

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