A Perfect Subject for Halloween: Technical Ghostwriting
You work in public relations? We live in your world.
With one exception. Brain cells are on 1000% full illumination when our scientist and engineering clients talk to us – and our own brain cells often quiver in fear, admiration and simple astonishment at the incredible brainpower on display in our conference rooms during any typical week.
So, we thought it would be helpful to share how can any PR pro can draft a 2,000-word article on behalf of a scientist or engineer….on the pros and cons of using molecular engineering to develop solutions in fields of immunotherapy and synthetic biology. Or a series of blogs showing the complexity of continuous manufacturing in oral solid dosage powders, while remaining approachable…??
Sounds complicated, right!? It is, don’t get me wrong. However, scientists and engineers need us. Their finest qualities – including extreme attention to detail – can get in the way of their own career goals. Scientists often need to get published in scientific journals (thousands exist!) to get ahead, but like everyone, they often have limited time and a typically left brain hesitation to believe themselves capable writers. However, you CAN help encourage any engineer or scientist with technical ghostwriting!
Below is a handy step-by-step guide on how to tackle very technical writing for non-technical people. Follow the guide below and see ghostwriting on behalf of brainiacs and learn to expand your PR reach!
#1 Research: No Paranormal Activity Here, Just Old-Fashioned Work
Any public relations professional knows that research is a critical aspect of the job. Once you receive a writing assignment, research the company’s website, review background materials, read other articles about the company and familiarize yourself with the specific topic you are writing about. Make a vocabulary list, and be prepared to expand it as you learn more. You will use this preliminary knowledge to move forward in drafting your article.
#2 The “Ghost” of the Article Starts to Appear: Outline It!
Before you speak with the article’s author (aka the expert scientist or engineer – on the subject), it is important to organize your thoughts and have a structure ready for the article. During the research phase, you should have enough material readily available to draft an outline. Believe it or not, work with the classic “intro, body, conclusion” style outline – even if at this point, some of the terminology is giving you fits. Just believe that reading and getting completely organized will give you more available brain room to listen during the interview. Highlight the areas where you need additional information (and there may be a lot of yellow marks on that page at this point).
#3 Interview Your Scientist/Engineer: Tape and Transcribe!
This is your opportunity to get a true feel for the author’s tone and voice. Whether you are conducting a phone or in-person interview, for these highly technical subjects, it is critical to record the conversation, with permission of course. Scientists and engineers will (always!) use jargon that you are unfamiliar with. This is your chance to ask them to explain in greater detail and get the spelling correct. (Sometimes you may want to just let the talking continue and look things up later on! ) Take your notes and your audio recording, and come up with a complete transcription.
Side Note: If you have a particularly reluctant subject, you may want to suggest that he/she record himself explaining his subject matter.
Today, it is simple to use the iPhone’s Voice Recorder or another recording device. Then you can get any one of several services
(We like Instant Conference,Transcribe, Tigerfish, Scribie] to transcribe the interview).
#4 Your First (And Certainly Not The Last) Draft
Now, the real work begins. Listening over and over to a scientific interview is very different than discussing a new sandwich style or fashion trend. Look up every unknown word, say them out loud, cross-reference the words with other phrases used by your author-client, and then formulate your first draft. Take advantage of the comments tool and mark areas where you need clarification. Often times we send the draft off to another “set of eyes” who can proof for typos and check the overall flow.
#5 Refresh & Refine
Using the comments from a peer, further refine the draft. Naturally, you will read it through a few more times yourself until you feel comfortable with this version. This next draft will go to the author (who will surely have comments). Prepare your author for the idea that 2-3 rewrite drafts are perfectly normal.
Appeal to their egos – most scientists and engineers are very well aware that their material is extremely technical and they may not feel that anyone else can do it justice, so if you get pretty close, that’s a great accomplishment!
Just seeing their own words presented back to them in an organized way is generally very gratifying, and if the areas you didn’t understand are clearly highlighted, ready to be addressed in a follow-up call, that’s much, much better than glossing over the information – it might imply to a scientist that you didn’t feel this information was important. Nothing worse than that.
Side Note: Don’t be discouraged when your draft comes back from the author with lots of dreaded… track changes. This is OK! You did the bulk of the work and many McDAY clients admit that they would have procrastinated for days until their pens finally hit the paper. Using the McDAY Metric, we can see how much groundwork we did for our clients.
Side Note: At McDay, we developed the “McDAY Metric” which measures words delivered versus edits we receive back. Here’s how it works:
1. Calculate number of words in your first draft.
2. Once you receive edits back from the author, use the “Review” tool to measure how many words have been changed.
3. Subtract the original word count from the number of words changed.
4. Take the original word count and divide it by the new number and you have your percentage… aka a McDAY Metric!
#6 Review and Finalize
Once you receive the final draft back from the author, go through and make the appropriate changes and save as final. Send the final version back to the author to have them approve all the changes. Get their titles correctly recorded! All those PhDs and M.S. need to be perfect.
Finally, your ghostwritten technical article is ready to turn into the publication!
Job well done.