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Wednesday, 2 September 2009


In summer months, the lack of real news can drive a journalist crazy. But you can always rely on ABSW-L members to be pedantic over the finer points of science writing, bringing some light relief to idle minds.

Actually, July and August brought remarkably serious discussions to ABSW-L.

There were long threads discussing the best way to present your CV, as well as copyright contracts, pitching etiquette and how best to break an exclusive. Perhaps it was the World Conference of Science Journalists, bringing dual worries of the credit crunch and the 'death of print journalism' to our minds. Nevertheless, you can never expect the seriousness to play too heavy on the minds of ABSW-L members. Summer is the slow, 'silly season' after all.

So our ears pricked up when one afternoon Jon Turney opened a post with "I have a regrettable habit…". Jon was not, unfortunately, about to come clean about his more salubrious expenses, He was instead drawing our attention to an article on that most heinous, and common, crime of the writer: the cliché.

"I have a regrettable habit of writing "shedding light", knowing I ought to expunge it, then not getting round to it before publication," wrote Jon. "Must try harder."

Simon Hadlington added his sins."Shedding light – guilty; holy grail – guilty; missing link - probably guilty; silver bullet - possibly guilty." Claire Ainsworth added "Achilles Heel" to the list of those that should not be written, and Kat Arney admitted she has a "terrible habit of "paving the way..." for anything and everything".

"Why are all scientists 'leading'?" wondered Diane Stillwell, a term that press officers are particularly guilty of. "'Normal' scientists do experiments in their sheds. Leading ones get clean white coats and posh labs," answered Lucy Rogers, tongue firmly in cheek."Is this why we say 'shedding light'," chimed Hayley Birch, adopting the same pose. "By the time you qualify to be a 'leading scientist' your lab coat stays clean because you are never in the lab," said Mike Kenward. While Ed Yong vowed to "excise "leading scientist" from future write-ups in favour of the non-cliched phrase 'mediocre lab-monkey'".

But it's not just writers who reinforce the cliché. "I'm pretty sure I've used 'holy grail' in a quote from a scientist," said Hayley, and, as if to labour the point, her next interviewee did the same thing (Hayley, incidentally, keeps a word amnesty column on her blog). Julie Clayton wondered how many scientists undergoing 'Media Training' get schooled in the use of such terms.

But are these clichés actually so bad, asked Simon. After all, clichés are 'universally understood' shorthand. Hayley agreed that the use of sports fields and buildings can be a useful shorthand size comparison (there are even websites to help you make those conversions. Hat-tip to Ed Yong for those).

"'Shedding light' isn't actually misleading," said Ed, "it's just a little tired. And regardless of whether they're misleading or not, you could argue that good writers/communicators should try to avoid cliches as a matter of course."

Speaking of tired terms bounded around too much, list members also pondered on the actual purpose of a 'White Paper'. It's document widely used to peddle a line, said Mike Kenward, with the IT industry particularly enthusiastic about their use.

"I always understood a White Paper to be a policy document - something that outlined policy, together with the supporting facts, typically from a government dept, that preceded action in the form of a Bill," said Simon Hadlington. "Now the term appears to encapsulate just about anything: a guide, marketing guff, etc. I find this inexplicably depressing."

"There's also a green paper isn't there?," wrote Mike Nagle. "Comes before the white paper I think. Kind of an opinion gathering exercise." Yes, said Mary Rice, though it doesn't always lead to a White Paper. "In the 19th century there were also Blue Papers, which were very long versions of White Papers." "And don't forget red paper," said Ed. "Used to wrap up all the outcomes from the preceding green, blue and white papers."

"It sounds like the green, blue and white papers should end up wrapped in black plastic," said Justine Davies, clearly as tired as the rest of us at wading through large pdfs of the things. As Lucy Rogers put it, "Surely they need touch-paper at the end?"

Mun-Keat Looi
TSR News Editor