UK science blogger interview: Jennifer Rohn

Jennifer Rohn is a cell biologist at University College London. In her spare time, she is also a novelist, freelance science writer and communicator, broadcaster, sci-lit-art pundit and editor of the science-culture webzine LabLit.com. She has blogged at Mind The Gap on Nature Network since 2007. Jenny leaves reporting of the facts and figures of scientific research in the capable hands of her science blogger colleagues. Instead, she prefers to focus on issues of the scientific profession, using her blog to reveal what her day-to-day life in the lab is like – the good, the bad and the ugly.

So, starter question, do you have a specific audience (or set of audiences) in mind when you blog?

Because I am writing about my life as a scientist, I try to pitch it so that anyone can understand it. I am sure that a large portion of my audience currently consists of fellow scientists, given the Nature Network environment, but I do hope that as my blog becomes more well known, I will reach beyond that inner circle. On the other hand, it almost doesn’t matter if anyone is listening; I have kept a paper diary since I was a child, and for me blogging is an extension of that. Although I try to write in a way that will please other people, I ultimately do it because I love – and even need – to write for myself.

Can you remember what first inspired you to make the move from personal “paper diary” to blog?

I was actually a very late adopter of the whole Web 2.0 thing. I didn’t really consider it until I was approached by Nature Network and asked if I would blog for them. At first, being pretty time-poor, I was against the idea of yet more writing commitments. But the more I thought about it, the more attractive the idea seemed. I do a lot of freelance writing, and one of the most frustrating things about it is, after taking great care to perfect exactly what you want to say, having to see your writing slashed and rearranged by editors and sub-editors, some of whom don’t really share your sense of craft or style. It suddenly dawned on me that having a blog, I could be the master of my own literary domain. It was a great feeling of freedom!

You mentioned the “inner circle” of Nature Network. (a) What do you feel are the advantages of that community of readers/ other bloggers? (b) Do you have any ideas/ plans for ways other audiences might come to your blog?

I think the only way that the social internet is made bearable is by its propensity to consolidate into small communities; much like a real flesh-and-blood conference, beyond a critical mass of participants it all gets unwieldy and impersonal. It doesn’t matter to me how many readers read my blog — the more the merrier — but when it comes to direct interactions, I would be much happier interacting with a close-knit group of a few dozen regular commenters rather than hundreds. The more comments a blog attracts, the higher it seems the chances of getting nasty. But if you have come to know your community, people behave much more like they would face-to-face: that is, with the normal codes of courtesy. Also, I like to respond to all comments personally, and if there were too many people it would be impossible.

I would like my blog to be more widely read, though. Recently there have been a few blogs that have touched a nerve and spread via Twitter — my organization of “Spoof Simon Jenkins Monday“, for example — and this has really increased traffic my way, exposing my blog to people who wouldn’t normally come across it. So Twitter has become an excellent way to amplify any important messages my blog may be sending out.

Do you think your experience as a blogger has had an impact on your approach to other writing?

Blogging has definitely honed my style. I’ve written a lot of fiction, and I’ve written a lot of science news, and blogging is somewhere in the middle: like news reporting, you need to capture your audience quickly and to be very brief (I really think a good blog post shouldn’t be longer than 300-400 words), but like fiction, you want to express something elusive and emotional in the most original way you can. Blogging has helped me to experiment more with humor, which I find has helped with certain scenes I’ve been working on in my third novel. Above all, blogging has really exercised the basic craft: I can now knock off a fairly polished blog post in under fifteen minutes, and I find that writing everything else has also sped up accordingly. It’s almost as if that part of my brain is just permanently primed and ready for action.

Finally, can you tell us your favourite blog?

My favorite blog is Confessions of a (former) lab rat, because it’s got a righteous anger and rebellious edge that I wish I could muster. I’m always a little afraid of causing offence, but Confessions never shies away from being controversial or — when the need arises — even a bit rude.

This is one of a series of four interviews with UK-based science bloggers. You can find links to all the interviews (and more) here.

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