Facts, no Fiction

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Popularizing science has become increasingly popular among researchers. Not only is it important to share the knowledge, but it may also help to find funding, if the general public comes to understand the significance of the research. A professional science journalist is driven by the love of science and telling about it. Popular articles on scientific research help us to understand the world and ourselves.

Lazy Fox by Maija Karala (Eurwentala at DeviantArt)
Lazy Fox by Eurwentala (at DeviantArt) a.k.a. Maija Karala.

It is a form of art to write about science. How do you simplify complicated issues and talk about them in a language everybody can understand?

-A good article on science evokes interest in a reader. The article mustn’t alienate readers and it souldn’t feel too difficult to understand. The balance between facts and popularization has to be just right. You should avoid difficult terms, but not difficult topics! science journalist Maija Karala says.

Otherwise a good article on science is like any good article. A great beginning will draw in the reader, narration and humour will keep him/her captivated. Don’t bore the reader! The reader should understand the significance of the topic and why the article was published after reading it.

Maija began writing on science in 2009, when she launched her blog Erään planeetan ihmeitä. She had given up her dream of becoming a researcher after having firsthand experience of scientific work at the third year university courses.

Writing, on the other hand, seemed to fit perfectly. Her stories found their way from the blog to newspapers and magazines. Now Maija has been published in Helsingin Sanomat, Keskisuomalainen and Aamulehti, among others.

Too much or too little knowledge?

The most challenging part of a science article is the facts. It is a problem when the writer doesn’t know the subject and it is a problem when she knows the subject like the back of her hand.  When you are too familiar with a subject, It might be difficult to limit the scope of the article or to concentrate on writing a beautifully flowing text. When the subject is unfamiliar, it might be challenging to explain it to others in a simple manner.

Maija prefers not to write about topics that raise a lot of passions in the society. She thinks it’s challenging for her to stay neutral enough in that kind of situations. Maija has a regular column in a newspaper in Uusikaupunki. She has written there about wolfs as well as cormorants – both very controversial subjects. However, the articles have been published without a murmur.

Spiny and Angry by Eurwentala
Spiny and Angry by Eurwentala (at DeviantArt) a.k.a. Maija Karala.

No Scoops for a Freelancer

Sometimes a science journalist can hit a real scoop. Maija received information about the deinotherium found from Suomusjärvi from her contacts before the official press release. However, in the end the press release came to the newspapers before she could finish her story and it was published as a small new’s article. It’s hard for a freelancer to compete on delivering actual news without the immediate flow of press releases that arrive at the newspapers.

If you want to read Maija’s science articles, visit her two blogs:

Erään planeetan ihmeet

The Humming Dinosaur

 

Susan

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One of a Kind

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Non-profit magazines have one major advantage – they are free of the commercial reality. Thus, they can present topics that have no place in the publications of big media companies. When real professionals and experts combine their skills, non-profit magazines can develop into true gems. One excellent example is Herpetomania, magazine published by the Finnish Herpetology Association. I had the pleasure to chat with Maija Karala, the editor-in-chief of Herpetomania on what it’s like to produce a unique non-profit magazine.

Herpetomania magazine cover
Herpetomania is the single magazine on herpetology, i.e. reptiles, amphibians and their study, in Finland. The magazine publishes both scientific and popular articles, news, travel articles and information about the association. Herpetomania is published four times a year. It was founded in 1992.

Maija Karala has been the editor-in-chief since the beginning of 2015. She started in the magazine by writing single articles, then moved on to do a regular news section. She was asked to take on the editor’s position several times, but accepted only, when it was turned into a paid position.

Voluntary work is very common in non-profit magazines. However, in the course of a magazine’s development, at one point the association needs to decide whether it is publishing a real, quality magazine and paying for professionals to do it, or whether it will continue on an amateur level and accept the uncertainty that follows. Herpetomania is entirely financed by association’s membership fees. Advertisements are accepted, but not actively sold.

Maija has enjoyed her work as the editor-in-chief of Herpetomania. Her job includes all the stages of the making of a publication. Two proofreaders and a writer of English abstracts help her.

-It’s really nice to do the magazine, I’ve been given full control over it. We have a pleasant and skilled group writing articles on regular basis. In addition, we have an extremely committed graphic designer, who’s been with us for a couple of decades already, Maija says.

Herpetomania article

Very often non-profit magazines suffer from the lack of writers. Maija was warned beforehand on how difficult it is to collect the articles from voluntary contributors.

-Fortunately it wasn’t quite that difficult. Popular articles have proved a bit more of a challenge, as I have less contacts on that field. Scientific articles have been easier to obtain for me.

Maija hopes to find at least one all-around journalist into her editorial group, to write interview based stories. The current contributors don’t have the possibility to do that type of articles.

Freedom and Responsibility

From the viewpoint of an editor-in-chief the pros and cons of non-profit magazines could be crystallized into two factors: freedom and the work-remuneration ratio. It is very tempting to have the freedom to do a magazine in your way, although there are a bunch of challenges in that process, the kinds the colleagues in big media companies can hardly imagine. Non-profit magazine editors work almost always with voluntary contributors and have responsibility over all stages of production (often the layout and ad sales included).

While planning issues, recruiting writers and ensuring the sufficient flow of the correct type of articles, an editor also trains and motivates contributors, proofreads, edits, balances the ratio of ads and articles, decides on the editorial line and communicates with the printing house.

No wonder Maija says the biggest challenge in the role of an editor is the amount of responsibility. It is a complicated process to produce a publication and it involves a great number of people. If something goes awry, the editor-in-chief is the one taking the responsibility. Fortunately, the efforts usually result in a published magazine.

-The best moment is when you get the freshly printed magazine in your hands and you have once again pulled it through! It is also rewarding to receive positive feedback from the readers, although any kind of feedback is rare, Maija says.

Susan

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Anatomy of an Article

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An article is like a living creature. It will flourish if it’s taken care of and suffer if some of its parts are neglected. All parts of a good article work in unison. But if the left hand doesn’t know what the right is doing, the feet get tangled and the head is spinning, then things don’t look too bright. So, keep your articles fit and firm.

Anatomy of an Article

Head: Title

Without the head one doesn’t survive. Neither does an article. The title can make the story fly or sink it into the bottom of the troubled media waters. A good title is catchy, witty and descriptive – and it doesn’t misdirect the reader. You know all those tabloid titles that promise a hurricane and deliver a stir in a glass of water. That kind of disappointments will eat your readers, so better not fall into the tabloid trap.

Heart: Lead

There’s no end to the importance of a good lead in a press article. The lead contains the main point of the article, attracts the reader to consume the whole story and what’s most important – is not redundant with the main text. The lead brings up the juiciest bit of the story, but leaves the reader still wanting more.

Right Hand: Beginning

The beginning tells what the story is about and why it matters. Go straight to the point here. Numerous articles I receive for the publications I’m editing start with background information. No, no and no. Please don’t make the reader yawn.

Left Hand: Subtitles

The subtitles are an often neglected part of an article. Many writers don’t seem to know what they’re for. However, subtitles are an integral part of the anatomy of an article. They divide the text into bite size pieces and thus facilitate reading. They should also tell a story of their own to those who only skim through the article. A good subtitle will catch the attention of a lukewarm reader and get him hooked.

Body: Main Text

The main text tells the story. Here you should include all the necessary parts that make your point and illustrate your angle to the topic. An interesting article is fit and nicely trimmed. Depending on the media, the allowed word count may be quite limited. Don’t flesh out your story unnecessarily. E.g. in a tabloid size newspaper no extra fat is allowed – the leaner and meaner the story, the better. An article is not supposed to tell everything about a topic, it’s supposed to make a point.

Knees: End

Time to wrap it up. The end is the last chance to make an impression on the reader. If you can make him go weak at the knees with your writing, he’ll certainly remember at least one thing from you article. So save one savoury bit for the ending of your story.

Feet: Captions

Together with subtitles, captions are the most misunderstood part of an article. If the article has wonderful pictures, they’ll easily draw the attention away from the main text. This is where great captions can lure the reader back to the main text. They are equally important with mediocre or worse pictures and can save the article. Make captions tell something extra you didn’t put into the actual article – it’s your bonus for the reader.

Susan

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