personal blog

little red riding hood and the wolfRelated to my earlier post about science jargon, this week I came across a discussion of just what a science writer's job is when faced with such jargon. Explain it, or replace it with plainer but less precise language?

(The discussion was on an NASW mailing list, and let me tell you, these lists can be hilarious. Once a flamewar broke out, inspiring after several weeks the suggestion that perhaps people should be somewhat polite to each other on the list. That message started a barrage of emails from various participants about how we like flamewars, and if we can't insult each other while making ridiculous arguments, what is the point of a mailing list? And then there's the guy who regularly writes about how metric is the inferior measuring system because "base 12 arithmetic" is more in tune with the laws of nature, but I digress.)

One writer claimed that:
When "proper jargon" and "plain English" don't mean the same, then "proper jargon" ought to be used.
...and that the writer should explain exactly what the jargon means, bringing the reader up to speed, so that the rest of the piece can be written with the specialized terms.

(One reply led to another, with each side accusing the other of protecting scientists' egos at the expense of journalists' and vice-versa. Each side also blamed the other for the scientific illiteracy of the populace at large. These lists give me endless amounts of entertainment.)

I find it lots of fun to explain concepts, but I'm a writer trying to tell a specific story, not a tutor helping a student cram for a test.

What if somebody is telling you the story of Little Red Riding Hood and you don't know what a wolf is? Should the storyteller really have to tell you all about wolves? How much information do you need?

While an aside about Canis lupus could be fun[*], a simple explanation would suffice to get on with the story - "The wolf is somebody who wants to eat Little Red Riding Hood." That wouldn't tell you much about wolves, but would give you 100% of the what you need to understand the story.

Remember what I said last time about jargon being, to a specialist, shorthand for "all the things I've ever learned about this word"? A paragraph or two defining QTLs will not make the term as significant to the reader as it is to a researcher who has spent years learning about and working with them.

And so if I'm writing a story that involves QTLs, I might leave off the term entirely and say that "such-and-such disease is caused by many genes. This research team has identified one of them and is hot on the trail of another." That tells you what you need to know about the disease, its basis, and the progress the research team is making - and now I don't have to try to make the reader understand the subtle difference between a QTL and a gene.

Of course, I'm relying on previous writers to have explained the concept of a "gene" well enough that the reader already knows what one is.

In many cases, the jargon is an artifact of the current technology that's in use and our tentative understanding of the subject. Genes are forever. Particular techniques for genetic mapping, not so much.

When deciding whether to explain a term or gloss over it, I consider both factors: Is it important to this story? And will it be important to the reader? (When you put it that way, it sounds so obvious!)

[*] I really liked the random educational chapters in Moby Dick, but it seems I'm in the minority.
lolcat: I'm in ur bed / sortin ur paprworkHere is how I do my taxes, as a freelance writer. I am not a tax lawyer or an accountant or an IRS employee, so trust me at your peril. Be aware that if you owe more than $1000 in self-employment taxes (corresponding to roughly $10K of income) you're supposed to pay it in advance and settle up at the end of the year.

So, I'm a freelancer. I do a job for a client, then I send them an invoice. They send me a check. Later, as tax time approaches, I get a flurry of 1099-MISC forms in the mail.

A 1099-MISC is an "information return." I think of it as being like a W-2 except nobody cares about it. (You don't send your 1099s in with your taxes; they're just for your personal record-keeping.)

You should have all your 1099s by the end of January, and you'll only get them from clients that (a) paid you more than $600, and (b) remembered that they're supposed to send you a 1099.

So when I sit down to do my federal taxes, here is what I do:

Form: scratch paper
Firstly, I take my pile of 1099s (one from each client) and add up all the totals. Then I look into my own records (which I keep in gnucash) and add any income that I didn't get 1099s for.

Then, the other side of the business: I add up my deductible expenses. The easy things are office supplies, services you paid for, business-related travel, all that miscellaneous stuff. The less easy things?

* I don't claim a home office deduction, even though we went out of our way to rent a house with an office for me. The rules are too strict, and not worth it.

* Computers aren't regular expenses, since you pay for them in one year but use them for several years. So, you need to figure depreciation. You can either spread the cost of the computer over several years OR you can do it under Schedule 179 (thanks Tom!) which lets you deduct it all the first year. More about that in a minute.

Form: Schedule C - business profit or loss
Now, on Schedule C, I put my gross income (as above) and I list my expenses. For me these include:

* office supplies

* travel (I went to a professional conference)

* "other", listed on the back - the registration fee for that conference (it counts as professional education)

* depreciation, for my computer. For this I fill out form 4562. I deduct the full amount this year, in Part I, and I won't worry about it next year. You could also spread the cost out over several years, which is the traditional way to do it, and I think you can do that as listed equipment in Part V.

So, having recorded your income and your expenses, you subtract the one from the other, resulting in your profit. This is the number you'll carry over to the next form.

Form: Schedule SE - self-employment tax
Next comes figuring your self-employment tax. (Your employer has to pay part of your taxes, and your employer is you.) You write down your profit, and 15.3% of 92.35% of that number is the tax you pay. You get to deduct half of it, too. This form is quick and painless.

Form: 1040 (not EZ)
And now it's time for the fun part. If you or your spouse have any W-2 income, that goes under "wages, salaries, and tips". The 1099 from your bank (showing the pocket change you earned from your savings account) is for the "taxable interest" line. Then there's a line for "business income", which is the profit from your Schedule C, and then the catchall "other income" which is where you'd put any non-business related 1099 income, or anything else you acquired (like, in my case, jury duty compensation).

Later in the 1040 is a spot where you can deduct half of your SE tax, so make sure to fill that in. The rest is just like normal. On the back there is a line asking specifically what your SE tax came to, so include that too. Then do the math and see if you get a refund!

Oh, and don't forget your state and (if applicable) local taxes. Consider them an exercise left to the reader.

vintage monopoly card: poor tax

photo by OhioProgressive on Flickr

I print out the forms and do my taxes by hand. it's kind of fun. I have a compulsion to fill out forms that are in front of me, which may also explain why I like crosswords. Admittedly if there were a New York Times Sunday Tax Form, I'm sure the novelty would wear off pretty soon (then again, I bet Will Shortz could design a tax form that is clever and enjoyable to fill out.) As is, if I'm looking for a numbers puzzle, I enjoy this more than Sudoku.

To writing by Beth on 2009-04-07. 0 Comments
I'll keep updating this post as my nanowrimo progress - you can also catch me on twitter or nanowrimo.org.

What follows is my svn commit log for the story.

The background: Lizzie Dodge, a notorious criminal, was offered a one-way ticket to a newly discovered earth-like planet named Eos instead of life in jail. She smuggled her teenage daughter Sarah in with her, and they joined a small miserable village of about two dozen people. They live in the desert, in an orbit-locked planet with boring weather and boring geography, but eventually things get interesting. The daughter, Sarah, is the main character.

How the story is going so far:

committing!! almost 4,300 words
Lizzie wanders off. Helena takes Sarah on a tour.
Sarah ponders Eosian rocks
Sarah learns that the habitable strip is really narrow.
wc 6,536 - Sarah harvests algae

wc 7058: Helena begins telling the story of the woman who chased the porcupine to the Sky World.
wc 9024: sarah hears bedtime story, sleeps and wakes up, mom returns

wc 10,518 : Lizzie takes Sarah to the cave. Sarah learns about the Ox. I add a Table of Contents and proper chapter breaks.
wc 10,788 - just talking about Stinky the cow

wc 11,025
wc 13,582 - sarah learns about the land claims and what Helena is in for. And she's mad at her mother.

wc 14,905 - sarah and helena start spinning some wool
wc 17,113 - the story of the man with no story
wc 17,576 - getting ready to kill off the mom ... getting cold feet ...
wc 20,200 - food is moldy, sarah gets sick while village faces famine

wc 20,800 - Sarah rolls around in her cave and vomits
wc 24,096 - Millard (a red shirt) just died

wc 24,520 - rambling thoughts about food
wc 25,468 - history of agriculture on the planet AND I BROKE 25K BABY
wc 27,021 - Sarah gets better, wakes up, learns what has happened so far

wc 30,310 - Millard's funeral and Helena tells a story in which Death is a character
wc 33,889 - mountains and desert plants. Sarah meets and tames the purple tentacled space plant.

wc 35,193 - they pass through the mountains and see the glittering alien valley below. And there is a village. WTF.
party wanders slowly toward the new village.

wc 44,294 !!! Ending all plotted out.

50,015 - Pioneer Village has suffered an earthquake and the people who were sleeping in tents are just fine. But Lizzie lives in a cave made of soft rock that, like silly putty, snaps under high stress.
wc 52,197 - sheriffs from New Hope City are sniffing around the village. They notice something interesting about the geology...

wc 54,403 - NHC sheriffs discover culmenite and begin negotiations. This could change the face of a(nother) world.

wc 56,100 - city people take over, sarah & crew sneak over to the city. Helena starts telling the story of the Country Mouse and the City Mouse but falls asleep halfway through.

wc 59,427 - our gang is in the town trying to figure out what to do. Miles & Isac are getting in trouble again. But oh, what trouble.

wc 63,727 - THE END.

To writing by Beth on 2008-11-22. 0 Comments
No picture today, but here's a few recent writings: a blog post about Michael Pollan's new book, a little something on rainforest restoration and a couple cover stories (one, two) for a local paper. Some serious controversy in that last one, let me tell you, because up to a few months ago most people hadn't realized the village even had a government.
To writing by Beth on 2008-03-28. 0 Comments
In the interests of bringing better reading material to you, my loyal audiencemembers, I'm participating in the Rediscover your Blogging Groove project - a week of posts in assigned formats.

Here's where I need your help: one of the posts is Answering a Question. So, ask me a question! It could be about something boring like me or my blog, or it could be tangentially related to a subject I know something about, or it could be totally random and silly. (Those might be the best kind).

What do you want to know?

Post questions in the comment thread or ask them privately here.
To writing by Beth on 2007-07-21. 2 Comments