Friday, July 11, 2014

The Science of Serving

So far this summer, I've worked on my blog, created a LinkedIn, and watched plenty of new movies with family and friends. I've also been waiting tables at a small café about 20 miles from my house, a summer activity that's taken up a large part of my time lately - I've worked the past 8 days in a row. With all the time I've spent making small talk with strangers and writing down breakfast and lunch orders, I thought it would be fun to write a blog post that combined my summer job with my long-term career aspiration: science writing.

Working at a restaurant, especially one that includes a gelato shop and coffee station, requires me to keep a lot of different people and things in my head at one time, and it's easy to get confused. However, as I've worked longer hours and more time at the restaurant, I've found it easier to memorize orders and keep everything straight. By now I can make a latte, brew a new pot of coffee, scoop and ring up two ice creams and take out a table's order within a 10-minute time span. Some of the café's more experienced servers can move even more quickly than I can, and it occurred to me that becoming a skilled server might involve training or rewiring your brain in some way, which would make for a great blog topic.

So I looked it up, and found nothing. Surprisingly - or maybe not that surprisingly - no one seems to have done a study on how servers' brains work (i.e. how they memorize orders and juggle all the different aspects of restaurant function at the same time). I think "The Science of Serving" sounds like a great idea for either an investigative article or a scientific study, but it doesn't seem to have happened yet. I can't explain how my brain is different as a result of working in a restaurant, but I know I've managed to train myself to work more than a week in a row without complete exhaustion. The scientific links to serving aren't as obvious as the links to say, cooking, but I do think there's something to the idea.

When I wrote my first blog post for NUScience, I had trouble coming up with an topic. The blog manager told me that everything is science on some level, so I could write about whatever I wanted. My post ended up being about music therapy, but with that logic, I could have just as easily written about the science of being a server. If I can take an order, scoop gelato and brew coffee all at the same time, then couldn't I be a server, a journalist and a scientist at the same time too? That kind of combination is easier said than done, but I'm certainly doing my best.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Why Word Count is the Bane of My Existence

Since elementary school, I've embraced all kinds of writing - journal prompts, stories, persuasive essays, and the like. I don't think I've ever gotten a writing assignment that I haven't wanted to do, and most of the time I enjoy all parts of the writing process: drafting, editing, and turning in the final product. I've always felt confident in my writing skills; however, I'll admit that I'm one of those people who just can't stick to the word count. No matter how  scattered I think my idea is, I never fail to write more words than needed, whether that number is 100 or 1,000.

Estimating very roughly, I'd say that I've written about 3,000 papers in my life, a number I'm sure will grow exponentially as my college career continues. If I write an average of 500 extra words for each essay, that means I've written 1,500,000 unnecessary words in my lifetime, or 3,000 pages. Considering the couple of hours it takes to cut down a 3,000 word monstrosity to a more respectable 2,000 word piece, I imagine I could save myself weeks of time if I could quit writing when I hit the word count. But I can't seem to stop myself from going over. I've always got more to say. Like, I can't help but write too many sentences. I always have one more thing to add.

There are two factors at work here. First, I have the common problem of trying to squeeze too many words into one sentence or paragraph, which any reader of this blog has probably noticed already. Run-on sentences are easy enough to shorten during a rewrite, but I have more trouble cutting out whole sentences or paragraphs, a necessary step when I'm more than 50 words over where I should be. I tend to get attached to my ideas, and so have to seek out an objective editor to suggest where to cut down. I always manage to get to the word or page count that was assigned, but I can't help but think my life would be easier without the extra work.

Still, the wordy, sometimes rambling tone of my first drafts is a part of my writing process, and I'm not sure that it's bad for my career. I like to get all my thoughts out on paper before I think about the word count, and although it might take some extra time to get each paragraph just right, I know that I will get to the heart of what I want to say. And it's a known fact that too much material is better than not enough.

That being said, especially in journalism, I need to know how to be concise. Paragraphs in news articles are often only two sentences, and the pieces themselves rarely run more than a couple of pages. After spending high school crafting 8-sentence paragraphs and 10-page papers, learning to write like a journalist was something of a struggle for me. By taking Journalism 1, reading news websites and writing articles for the campus newspaper, I'm made significant progress in my ability to write succinctly. I'm sure my first drafts will always run an extra page and that my blog posts will often be a paragraph longer than I intended, but I'm pretty confident I can conquer my fear of the word count.

Friday, June 6, 2014

A Big Step, But What's Next?

About a week ago, I experienced arguably one the most important breakthroughs in my college career so far - I had a piece published on Northeastern's iNSolution blog, run by none other than Angela Herring. The article featured my friend Dan Humphrey and his work in the James Monaghan research lab, where the researchers explore the regenerative abilities of axolotl salamanders. I'd been working on the article since mid-March - well, actually, I'd been thinking about it since I interviewed Angela in February and asked if I could write for her - but in March, I went to interview Dan at the lab and began work on a first draft.

After I sent in my draft, I stopped worrying about the article for a while and instead focused on my classes, which were drawing to a close. Later, Angela sent the article back to me with some edits, but I barely was able to give them a once-over before it was time to take my final exams and head home for the summer. I sent in my revised draft in mid-May without high expectations - since the summer semester at Northeastern had already started, I figured my piece wouldn't be relevant anymore, but I hoped to at least get some feedback.

For that reason, I was surprised and delighted when Angela wrote back a couple of weeks later saying she was ready to post the new version of the article later that day. By the time I got home from working at my waitressing job, she'd put the piece up on iNSolution, complete with a very flattering bio and a link to this blog. I was extremely excited and proud of my accomplishment, as were all of the family and friends I relayed the news to.

Having my work published on iNSolution makes me feel like I'm on my way to becoming a legitimate science writer, which, coincidentally, is how I referred to Angela back in February. However, it also makes me realize that I have a lot more work to do before I can really become "legit." For one thing, I've yet to establish a routine where I post on this blog regularly, nor do I have a strong online presence on other outlets. In addition to having my article mentioned in the daily "News at Northeastern" email, the iNSolution blog post was also mentioned on Twitter. Anyone who clicked on the link to my Twitter account would have seen that I only use it to follow celebrities and other interesting people, when I could be using it to self-promote.

So I think that's my next step: move forward with my blog and my online profile, and in general learn more about what it means to be a "legit" science journalist. Angela has invited me to cover student research more often starting in the fall, another development I'm very excited about. By that time, I hope to have built my online presence enough so that if and when I get mentioned again - whether it's on the research blog, in the daily university email, or on Twitter - I'll be ready.