Gemma Milne, science and technology writer and researcher and author of Smoke and Mirrors joins Stew Fortier to discuss pursuing your curiosities, not compromising your personal brand, and the inherent necessity and risk of hype.
The interview summary below was prepared for Compound Writing, a paid invite-only community of online writers. Apply here
1. If something is interesting to you, it’s probably interesting to other people.
Gemma understands the struggle that many writers face in deciding what to actually write about. Her advice? Follow your interest and don’t overthink it.
“If you’ve only discovered an interesting topic recently, it means that other people have still not discovered it. And there's still a role to be played for talking about these ideas. You're going to place them in different contexts, and you're going to make these connections that no one else will, or you'll just reframe, and that's still extremely powerful and useful and interesting.
I have to remind myself that I am not so special that I'm the only person on this planet that finds this interesting. There's obviously other people that find this interesting.”
2. Assume that your readers are smart and curious.
In her unwavering dedication to her curiosity, Gemma is not afraid to cover a fascinating subject, no matter how unrelatable it is.
“Journalism can be quite guilty of this as an industry, specifically science journalists and technical writers -- this idea that readers won't be interested in a topic because it’s intellectual, it's just too difficult, or the science is not directly relevant to the average reader on an average day, so therefore, they wouldn't be interested.
They think ‘well, it doesn't impact their commutes or their immediate health, so why would they be interested?’ How patronizing is that? People have the ability to be interested in things that don't immediately impact what's right in front of them.”
3. To write something great on a topic, immerse yourself in it first.
Gemma leaves no stone unturned in her quest to uncover the most fascinating topics to cover in the fields of science and technology.
“My research process is probably just reading as many different angles of attack on a thing as I can get my hands on, and, and also, not just reading things, but sitting in conferences and webinars and watching videos, listening to podcasts, etc. I’m just trying to get as many different kinds of takes and angles as I possibly can”
4. Hype can be a tool for attention, but don’t conflate it with understanding.
Gemma’s first book, Smoke and Mirrors, explores the intersection of science and the media, specifically focusing on the social phenomenon of hype.
“Everybody has different ideas about what hype is and a lot of people associate it with fake news, disinformation, and misinformation. I'm actually more interested not in deliberate lying, which disinformation, misinformation, and fake news is, but rather, lost context messages that can result in misinformation.
This is really what hype is. I think hype is a tool that is used for attention not for understanding but attention that sometimes when it's taken out of context can result in accidental misunderstanding.”
Gemma believes these principles can be applied to any media vertical, not just science and technology. As a writer, it’s critical to avoid participating in hype to the detriment of the overall quality and ethical value of your work.
5. Stay true to your personality, even if it means your readership will be smaller.
With Gemma’s intellectual and academic background, it is not surprising that her personal brand revolves around thorough research methods and deliberate, astute writing.
“I do think that there is a hunger out there for more in-depth, thoughtful content, which has always been there. This is not new for 2020, but the hunger is there, and depending on what you want to do with your life, you don't necessarily need to succumb to the easier, snackable, simpler stuff.
Instead, accept the fact that you’ll probably have a smaller audience, and that’s okay. I think it's just trying to remind myself that, to me, personally, I care more about being right and the stuff being good, than it being read. But that might not be the same for everybody.”
6. If good editing isn’t already part of your writing workflow, invest in it.
Gemma has come to appreciate firsthand the transformative power of great editing:
“When I was writing Smoke and Mirrors, I thought the publisher was going to tear my book apart, do tons of editing, but they didn't. They essentially did a line edit, and I was actually really disappointed because I wanted better editing. Luckily, I had this external editor, and she really tore apart the book over the course of a week. Her thing was really focusing on what my point was and what I was trying to say. She asked me over and over again until I finally got my point across.”