The relief of submitting a complex writing assignment

Being overly empathetic, I have a tendency to engage a little bit too strongly in my writing assignments. Sometimes, it may seem that my life hangs in the balance. And the more complex the article is – regarding e.g. facts, connections, background as well as social, professional and political considerations – the more I attack it like a sinewy prizefighter in an MMA tournament.

I’m a bit ambiguous here

On the one hand, my personal doctrine is to go all the way in, no matter what assignment, mission or relationship is handed to me. This virtuous and emotional commitment is well illustrated by an extraordinarily passionate performance of this certain (extended) Canadian band.

On the other hand, it may put some stress on my system. People keep pointing out this to me, but either I have not understood it yet, or I have decided not to listen. Something in me believes that you and I are gonna live forever.

Anyway, it’s always a joy to press Send and hand over the tamed and managed complexity to the editor.

Silence falls in the study.

And so I feel safe and alive for a while in the ”vacuum created by the arrival of freedom”.

Illustration: Writer by Ivan Koulikov (1875–1941)

Communication of Science: Out with the old and in with the new!

This post was originally published in Swedish at the Vetenskap & Allmänhet website. “VA is an independent Swedish non-profit membership organization that works to promote dialogue and openness between researchers and the public.”

I harp on about it all the time, so I may as well carry on here too: The research community today is weighed down by a communication culture that is not only unnecessarily restrained but in many ways outdated.

In part, I’m talking about the forums where researchers get together to present data and discuss results (peer-to-peer scientific communication). Here are some examples: text-heavy layout in scientific journals, overloaded research posters, and general lack of boldness and imagination when it comes to how to deliver a powerful presentation.

And secondly, I’m talking about the dialogue between researchers and the world (science dissemination). Here, a devoted vanguard of educators are doing an amazing job, but at the same time too many researchers still undervalue and neglect EPO (Education and Public Outreach).

Now I’m not saying that things are as bad in Sweden as they are elsewhere. In fact, when you raise your gaze and peer out over the world, a clear pattern emerges: the more hierarchical, tradition-bound and prestige-oriented the academy is, the duller and more austere is its culture. To illustrate this, here’s a little story that reached me from a former communist country. The old professor, who was very influential in his country’s scientific community, was not interested in learning about presentation techniques; He believed that data and results should speak for themselves. He even implied that communication training is a way of obtaining illicit advantages.

Unfortunately, it’s not just former Eastern bloc professors in gray gabardine who oppose progressive ideas. The American researcher and communicator Adria Le Boeuf – who has tirelessly engaged in outreach activities such as improvisational theater in Lausanne – wrote the following in an article (link below): “In research, we are accustomed to the driest possible presentation of results: the scientific paper. When findings are presented clearly, in simple language, with a hint of storytelling or charisma, many scientists feel practically manipulated.”

Despite all this, I’m not particularly worried about the future. Students and younger researchers have grown up in a completely different world. They find it natural for explanatory graphics to replace text (visual abstracts, for example) and for research posters to consist of headlines for interesting projects rather than complete information. They have studied TED/TEDx presentations on YouTube and understand the value of a passionate and individual lecturing style. Many of them see their bachelors, masters or Ph.D. as a platform for career roles where communication is at the center – from entrepreneurship right through to science journalism.

In fact, I would like to say that it is a privilege for all of us to find ourselves in this period of upheaval – out with the old and in with the new!

Olle Bergman, freelance writer and lecturer; project leader of Crastina – “the new wave of communicators of science”. (Translation from Swedish by Michael Hinton)

Lamenting the wordiness of learned people (Crastina Column, April 2017)

Being the project leader for Crastina, I introduced  the theme of April & May – ”short & punchy” – with this column. Its main message can be summarised by paraphrasing Coleridge: “Text, text, everywhere, Nor any message to get.” 

Exhibit A: The Decalogue, or Ten Commandments, hugely impacted the world since the 7th century BC.

And yet it was printed (according to tradition) on just two stone slabs.

Exhibit B: The article Molecular Structure of Nucleic Acids: A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid by Francis Crick and James D. Watson hugely impacted the world since 25 April 1953.

And yet it filled just one page of the scientific journal Nature.

Exhibit C: The online document The Manifesto for Agile Software Development hugely impacted the world since February 2001.

And yet, it has fewer words than the text that you are currently reading.

These three texts are the result of extended observation, analysis and thinking. But they all manage to convey ideas concisely. To make these ideas easy to grasp, the creators removed any material that could obscure the reader’s view.

We can learn three things from this:

  • Time spent by the sender, is time saved by the receiver.
  • Superfluous information hides core content.
  • Concise writers have to be brave: to make a point is to take a stand!

Unfortunately, many professionals are moving in the opposite direction, helped by electronic writing tools. As the pace of modern life increases, so does wordiness. Brevity and clarity take time; lengthiness and murkiness is a sign of haste. Every ten minutes a writer saves, the reader loses.

Here are a few ways to avoid wordiness:

  • Make sure you know your subject. If you don’t, read more.
  • Before you start typing, define a first version of your main ideas. Maybe with a pencil and a notebook?
  • There are always things you can remove from your text. Kill your darlings.

Shakespeare once wrote that “Brevity is the soul of wit”. I agree.

And I am done here – full stop.

Regarding style in popular science

After reading the unusually well-written prose of the science blog Espresso Science, I made the following reflection:

pexels-photo-102100Producing readable copy with no apparent style always works.

Being the nimble wordsmith, skilfully forging exquisite prose may very occasionally work wonders and give your message extra oomph. But most likely, stuffing the text full of various style elements from the book of rhetoric will make the reader’s mind wander and lead it astray in a wondrous forest of daydreaming, far from the sunlit pastures of the actual content.

What we really should aim for as writers, is well-crafted texts with just a pinch of deliberate style to create a personal voice.

A symbol rising from its East Prussian grave

The excellent band Kent is suddenly announcing their last album with a magnificent video, showing the Swedish winter bleakness in all its glory.

There is a disturbing detail in this video which must have escaped the attention of the producers: the white flag with a black cross. I assume that it has been their intention to show a black and white representation of the Swedish flag.

But for anyone familiar with German history, this flag is something completely different: it’s the banner of the Teutonic orderOrdo domus Sanctæ Mariæ Theutonicorum Hierosolymitanorum.

Anyone who is familiar with the historical, ideological and political connotations of the narrative of the Teutonic order (and their military disaster at Tannenberg in 1410) will be very confused by the use of the symbol in the video; I would say that it hurls it along a totally different trajectory.

The inverted pyramid disciplines your thinking

I have always thought of the inverted pyramid as an editorial technique which makes life simpler for both writer and editor—a pragmatic way to serve a front-loaded text to a reader who refuses to wait or concentrate.

But then I stumbled over this excellent article by Chip Scanlan from the Poynter Institute where he writes:

It’s also an extremely useful tool for thinking and organizing because it forces the reporter to sum up the point of the story in a single paragraph.

So true – as soon as you have run your notes and source texts through the Five Ws machinery your text will write itself. The lesson to be learned here is that five minutes of focused thinking can replace one hour of aimless writing agony.

Kitten Covers, Batch 1: Low-Life by New Order and Pablo Honey by Radiohead

http://thekittencovers.tumblr.com/post/12151314451

Low-Life by New Order

I was a great fan by Joy Division, but never really fell for New Order during their heyday. The music definitely has some atmosphere, but the song writing isn’t great on most of the tracks, nor is the singing. The use of melodica was a wonderful part of the song Your Silent Face from the album Power, Corruption & Lies, but here I find it superfluous most of the time.

Number of stars: **
Will I include it in my living music library? No.

Pablo Honey by Radiohead

Sounds a lot like a band trying to imitate Radiohead, Smashing Pumpkins and Nirvana; there was a lot of them around in the late nineties. Creep is a great song, but as we have seen from YouTube, it really needs an exceptionally talented singer. (It’s actually a very primitive song, with four chords being repeated over and over again.) To me Pablo Honey represents a proto-Radiohead—the caterpillar which eventually will be the butterfly with two marvelous album wings: The Bends and OK Computer.

Number of stars: ***
Will I include it in my living music library? Creep + perhaps some other song.

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The Kitten Covers Tumblr blog presents legendary albums where the people of the original artwork has been replaced by kittens. As I thought the concept was genius, I decided to write short reviews of all these classic albums.

The rules are simple: I have to listen through the entire album (but if a song disturbs me, I may skip it and go to the next). There is no need to focus entirely on the music; most probably, I listen while working, doing my chores or driving.

* = Ehem, definitely not my cup of tea.
** = Well, once perhaps—but not again.
*** = OK, I could listen to this again. Maybe.
**** = Great music. Ought to give it a closer look.
***** = Wow, this belongs to my living music library.

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The Kitten Covers – a musical journey

The Kitten Covers Tumblr blog presents legendary albums where the people of the original artwork has been replaced by kittens. As I thought the concept was genius, I decided to write short reviews of all these classic albums.

The rules are simple: I have to listen through the entire album (but if a song disturbs me, I may skip it and go to the next). There is no need to focus entirely on the music; most probably, I listen while working, doing my chores or driving.

* = Ehem, definitely not my cup of tea.
** = Well, once perhaps—but not again.
*** = OK, I could listen to this again. Maybe.
**** = Great music. Ought to give it a closer look.
***** = Wow, this belongs to my living music library.

 

Batch 1: Low-Life by New Order and Pablo Honey by Radiohead

http://thekittencovers.tumblr.com/post/12151314451

Low-Life by New Order

I was a great fan by Joy Division, but never really fell for New Order during their heyday. The music definitely has some atmosphere, but the song writing isn’t great on most of the tracks, nor is the singing. The use of melodica was a wonderful part of the song Your Silent Face from the album Power, Corruption & Lies, but here I find it superfluous.

Number of stars: **
Will I include it in my living music library? No.

Pablo Honey by Radiohead

Sounds a lot like a band trying to imitate Radiohead; there was a lot of them around in the late nineties. Creep is a great song, but as we have seen from YouTube, it really needs an exceptionally talented singer. (It’s actually a very primitive song, with four chords being repeated over and over again.) To me Pablo Honey represents a proto-Radiohead—the caterpillar which eventually will be the butterfly with two marvelous album wings: The Bends and OK Computer.

Number of stars: ***
Will I include it in my living music library? Creep + perhaps some other song.

Batch 2: Country Life by Roxy Music and Homogenic by Björk

http://thekittencovers.tumblr.com/post/12151408908

Country Life by Roxy Music

Wow, glamour and romance which takes me back to my highschool (swe. gymnasium) years in Helsingborg. It’s like meeting a still beautiful and charming friend from your teens and think “why did we lose touch when I like her so much?”. This music has influenced so many other acts – Duran Duran, A-Ha and The Killers, to name a few. We definitely need more romance in music!

Number of stars: *****
Will I include it in my living music library? Yes

 

Homogenic by Björk

She’s so talanted. She’s so original. She’s definitely opening up a door to how mainstream music may sound in the future. My brain founds it interesting, but how come it doesn’t affect my heart more than a spoon of water affects a teflon surface? I have no idea. It’s like jazz: I can respect the genre, but it doesn’t have any emotional impact on me.

Number of stars: ***
Will I include it in my living music library? No.

 

Batch 3: Return to the 36 chambers by Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Outlandos d’Amour by The Police

http://thekittencovers.tumblr.com/post/12151430798

Return to the 36 chambers by Ol’ Dirty Bastard

I apologize to all the hip hop lovers out there, but this is just unbearable for me. In this genre, the only artist that I have come to appreciate is Eminem.

Number of stars: *
Will I include it in my living music library? No-oo!

Outlandos d’Amour by The Police

Text

Number of stars: *****
Will I include it in my living music library? Yes/No

http://thekittencovers.tumblr.com/post/12151456852

Nevermind by Nirvana

Text

Number of stars: *****
Will I include it in my living music library? Yes/No

 

Kiss by Kiss

Text

Number of stars: *****
Will I include it in my living music library? Yes/No

A glimpse from a non-rationalist world

During my talk for a group from a faith-based organisation I do what I always do: I claim that LOGOS (fact and logic) is the only legitimate way to persuade other people. It may be true that ETHOS (the sender’s trustworthiness) can help us assess the credibility of the source, but people making rational decisions should try to steer away from PATHOS.

While saying this, I note that the group leader squirms in her seat. It is apparent that she doesn’t agree. I choose to not go further down this path and continue talking about the five Ws or something. Yet, I am a bit fascinated that I am apparently visiting a place where rationalism may be questioned. In my life as a communicator, this is really rare.