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How to be a (music) science writer

Hello, Dear Reader

I had an email today from a former student, Suzie. She said:

I am emailing to ask your advice on getting into science writing as I would like to start communicating some of the ideas and research findings involved in the field of music psychology to a wider audience“.

By Derek Bruff
By Derek Bruff

Great! The more people writing about music and science, the better. Of course my first piece of advice is try a blog – I have found my blog to be a fun and rewarding activity these past 3.5 years (yes Dear Reader, it has been that long).

Writing a blog gives invaluable experience in writing for a wider audience. Blog writing has helped me to find my voice, a mode of expression that is more akin to the way I wanted to write about science compared to the  highly stylized way that we must adopt when writing a formal science report or journal papers.

Don’t get me wrong, I have come to enjoy writing papers over the years. I like communicating with colleagues and sharing my ideas and findings. I am keen to contribute to the development of my field in any way possible. I am aware however, that virtually none of my papers will ever be read by the public. Even if they were keen to read the papers they will find that most of them are behind journal pay walls.

So I can completely understand Suzie’s desire to communicate more directly with the public about new findings in (music) science research. After all, it is the public who fund the majority of science research in UK universities so they deserve to know what they are getting for their money.

Quill_(PSF)So, my step one is to try a blog. Even if this is just a temporary step (don’t worry dear reader, I am not going anywhere) it will help you to practise your writing style and to develop a recognized voice in your field. If you are not going to invest in going down the road of traditional journalist training (i.e. a degree) then you would be wise to put in the effort to develop your skills and your name in this way. Your name in particular is something you need to get out there.

 

I can also advocate taking time to work as an intern, in magazines or newspapers (online or print). Write a piece and send it to editors who manage publications that have a previous history of interest in music science. Make is SHORT – these people get lots of submissions and are hugely busy so will not read anything long winded. And make it punchy – give something to attract their eye.

You could also learn a huge amount by interning in a science communication environment. A couple of years ago I took two weeks of my holiday to work at the Science Media Centre in London.  The SMC “provide support for scientists to engage with the media when their area hits the headlines, offering expertise of a team with over 10 years’ experience in science media relations”.

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As an intern at the SMC I got first hand experience of how science is covered in the media.

I got to meet all the major science correspondents, to chat to them and see how they work (I could not speak to Alok Jha though – serious hero worship meets failure to speak moment). I saw the preparation and action of a press conferences, studied press releases being prepared, and witnessed how press relations experts trained scientists to best communicate their findings. The experience was brilliant.

Paperback writerIn the end, I believe you need experience. It takes time and effort to learn how the world of science communication works and to find your voice within its rapidly developing landscape. I am still early in my journey even after 3 years – as a full time researcher it is hard to find the time to devote to writing. Having said that I have spent all my weekends for the past year writing my first book – so if you love writing in this style then it is a pleasure that you will be drawn to again and again!

So my best advice is to get started. Now. Today. Find a (music) science topic or controversy that really interests you and write 500 words about it for the public. See what emerges and send it to some trusted friends/colleagues for feedback. Listen to their comments, without taking them personally. Evaluate how you feel honestly and seriously; are you enjoying this experience? Keep writing and then when you feel you have a collection of good pieces, send them out there to the right forums for consideration.

I wish all budding (music) science writers the very best. I look forward to reading your thoughts!

 

My dream job and the new term

Hello All, and a very happy September,

It seems mad that a month has passed since ICMPC 12 in Greece. My e-book is still  freely available if you would like a personal overview of the conference. But as memories start to fade of the glorious Greek sunshine and stimulating research talks it is time to think once again about the start of term.

 

I am aware that my colleagues in the USA have already begun the hard work of a new academic year. Here in the UK students will hand in their masters dissertations next week so there is a marking period of about 2-3 weeks before term starts again. The new Music, Mind and Brain masters students (class of 2012-13) will arrive in the last week of September and we are looking forward to meeting them all!

I am making the most of this somewhat quieter period to answer a few overdue emails, one of them from a high school student in the US called Jessica. She had contacted me for help with an assignment; she had to interview a person who had her ‘dream job’. 

I was extremely flattered by the approach and it reminded me that yes, somehow I did get to my dream job and that makes me a very lucky person. Even if I don’t get to do it forever I got the chance to try it out and for that I am grateful.

Jessica prepared a very thorough interview which took place over Skype, asking me about my working hours, salary, training, testing procedures, and the scope and scale of my everyday job.

Even if you are not fortunate enough to have a Jessica on the end of the line I can thoroughly recommend this type of self interview as it brought into focus some important points. She asked me what I did not like about my job and I realised that much of what I said was actually in my own power to modify.

Why had I not done that before? I think I was just used to getting my head down and pushing through without questioning if there was a better way. We all do it. Now I have verbalised those issues I can get on with rectifying my working patterns.

She also asked me a wonderfully obtuse question that I will present to you now. ‘Have you heard the famous question, “if a tree falls in the middle of the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?” I would like to know what you think’. Muse on that for a while!

 

The interview was a great kick start to the change of academic seasons and I am looking forward to getting on with new challenges. My first is a new series of experiments with the amusics – it is great to see them again! Then we will move into the first series of behavioural experiments as part of the earworm grant. I will be updating the earwormery (earworm collection site) as well, but we are still very much collecting data though the questionnaire on that site so feel free to take part and pass it on :-)

Then of course there is a spot of catching up to be done. There have been some really interesting papers released over the summer but I have had my head stuck in my own (August is very much a writing month for me) so I need to open up and look what has happened in my absence.

In particular I like this new study that questions the musical nature of birdsong. Also this great review of the role of music in everyday life by Patrick Rentfrow.  And a quick glance through the Psychology of Music upcoming articles reveals some real gems on the way.

Good luck everyone; let’s do 2012-13 with some style!