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Guidelines for Mercury Contributors

Formed in 1889 by a small group of northern-Californian professional astronomers, the Astronomical Society of the Pacific (ASP) is a non-profit organization whose mission is to increase the understanding and appreciation of astronomy by engaging scientists, educators, communicators, amateur astronomers, and the public, to advance science and science literacy.

In its original incarnation Mercury, the member’s magazine of the ASP, was first published by the Society in 1925. Reborn in 1972, Mercury is now read by about 2,500 ASP members and at more than 200 school, university, and public libraries, observatories, and other institutions around the world. The ASP serves the professional community by publishing the technical journal Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, as well as the ASP Conference Series. In contrast, Mercury serves the Society’s broader goal of communicating astronomy to the general public. Mercury is published quarterly in PDF format; electronic back issues, starting with Winter 2007, are available to ASP members.

Article Content

Members of the ASP include professional and amateur astronomers, educators, students, and motivated non-scientists. Because of Mercury’s broad audience, articles written for the magazine must be accessible to non-scientists while containing in-depth, accurate information — in other words, non-technical astronomy-based articles of general interest.

If possible, articles should appeal to readers’ personal experiences and draw broader conclusions about how science in general, and astronomy in particular, is conducted. Recently we’ve published historical tales, narratives about ongoing research and recent discoveries, astronomy-related travel pieces, accounts of interesting personalities in the world of astronomy, and stories with a focus on educational outreach. We do not publish research articles or articles discussing theoretical concepts that are not part of mainstream science. We generally do not publish observing stories (though there has been the occasional article focused on a special event such as an eclipse), and we don’t do book reviews.

You don’t need a PhD to write for Mercury. Our recent authors have ranged from members of the general public to historians, teachers, post-docs, and yes, the occasional PhD. The ASP does not endorse anything our Mercury authors say, but we believe in challenging readers and making Mercury a vigorous part of the marketplace of ideas.

Level of Articles

We encourage writers to read past issues to get a sense of Mercury’s style (a sample issue is available). Mercury strives for a conversational tone. As you write your article, envision yourself sitting next to a stranger during a long airplane flight. The stranger asks about your interests, and after you tell him or her that you’re an astronomer or are interested in astronomy, the stranger asks you for more detail. The stranger is intelligent and inquisitive, and may have a basic knowledge of science and astronomy, but he or she does not have a formal education in astronomy. Write the article as if you are speaking to this person. And remember that most readers will be reading your article in their leisure time.

To help communicate science to a broad audience, here are a few guidelines:

1. The first three paragraphs (the “lead”) must grab the attention of readers and entice them to read the entire article. The lead must be written in non-technical language, and it must establish the theme of the article. The lead can be short in details and specifics; those can come later. If the reader is bored or confused by the lead, it is unlikely that he or she will read the rest of the article.

2. Use active voice as much as possible, and avoid passive voice. This means writing, “Astronomers discovered a new planet” (active voice) rather than “A new planet was discovered by astronomers” (passive voice). Along the same line, use active verbs as much as possible, and avoid using the most boring verbs in the English language — the various incarnations of “to be” such as am, is, are, was, and were.

3. Vary the length of sentences, but keep most sentences short and simple. If you find yourself using many commas, semi-colons, colons, and dashes in a sentence, break it up into two or more shorter sentences. Few sentences should exceed 30 words in length.

4. Keep paragraphs short. Each paragraph should communicate a specific idea, and the beginning sentence of most paragraphs should act as a topical sentence for the paragraph as whole. Rarely should a paragraph exceed 150 words in length.

5. Use analogies relating to everyday life to explain complex ideas. In a Mercury article about frame dragging (an extremely complicated effect of general relativity), the author used the following analogy to great effect: “To visualize frame dragging, imagine a bowling ball with something sticky on it. The ball pulls at a sheet as it spins. A marble rolling on the sheet not only curves around the ball, it also gets pulled forward a bit. Likewise, with frame dragging the region of space-time around a neutron star feels a tug.”

6. Avoid jargon, needlessly complex terms, and lists. Acronyms are okay, but the first time you use one, spell out what it means — except for well-known ones such as NASA. After that, use just the acronym itself.

7. Try not to leave unanswered questions lingering in the minds of readers. If something is not known, say so.

8. Think about what the typical reader is likely to know. Do not explain basic concepts while leaving more complex ideas unexplained. Make sure to introduce concepts in a logical order, so the readers are grounded in broad, basic concepts before moving to more difficult ideas.

9. Try to inject your personality as much as possible into your writing. Be creative, be yourself, feel free to inject humor, and try to have fun as you write the article. If you have fun writing the article, there’s a good chance the reader will enjoy reading your piece.

Queries

We do review unsolicited manuscripts, but if you have an article idea, e-mail the editor first. In your e-mail, discuss the basic idea for the article, its general content, its relevance to our readership, and your relationship to the subject matter. The editor tries to respond to all correspondence within two weeks.

Length of Submissions

Features in Mercury generally run 2,000 to 2,500 words in length, include seven or more illustrations/images, and often contain at least one sidebar (which is included in the word count). Regular columns are 700 words long and usually include an image; guest columnists are always welcome. We require electronic submission and prefer articles in Microsoft Word format, though we will accept plain text. Please do not intersperse images throughout the text; send them separately. You can email the document, along with attached illustrations, to editor {at} astrosociety.org

Illustrations

We ask that you provide, help obtain, or at least suggest photographs and illustrations. This ensures that the illustrations are what you intend. We require images in electronic form as either JPEG or TIFF files. Image files must be a minimum of 500k in size, and preferably larger. Also, please tell us where the images are from, so that we can obtain permission to use them (if necessary), and we can properly credit the photographer or illustrator.

Fees

We do not pay for articles or images. Writing for Mercury is a labor of love and good exposure for your ideas.

Rights

We ask that contributors grant the ASP worldwide first-appearance, non-exclusive print and electronic rights on any article submitted, and that you permit the ASP to republish your article in any of our other print or digital publications (including our website) at any future date. However, the rights are non-exclusive, and you keep the copyright on your article. (In English, this means you give us the right to publish your work in Mercury or any other ASP publication, but you keep the right to publish it everywhere else. All we ask is that you let us publish it first.) If we receive an inquiry about reprinting your article, we forward the request to you (since permission to reproduce the article is not ours to give). We have found that this simple arrangement avoids hassles; our concern is simply to protect ourselves legally. You also agree that the work you submit is original and does not violate copyright laws.

Deadlines

First drafts of all features are generally due three months prior to their publication date in Mercury. Those publication dates are late January, late April, late July, and late October.

Editing

When you submit an article to Mercury, we assume that you agree to work with the editor in preparing it for publication. Editing occurs in two stages. First, the editor reads the submitted draft and makes suggestions for a revised draft. On occasion, the editor may ask an anonymous outside reviewer for advice. Sometimes a major revision is not needed, in which case the editor proceeds to the next stage.

The manuscript is then copyedited for grammar, spelling, flow, style, length, and so forth. The editor adds titles, subheads, and captions as required. We will make every reasonable effort to send you the final, edited version of your article while there is time to make changes. However, during the layout process, the editor sometimes must make changes in order to fine-tune length, eliminate widows/orphans, correct errors noticed at the last minute, or make adjustments for article length. These changes are usually minor, and we do not provide authors with a preprint version of their article.

Spelling, Grammar, and Style

Please run your article through a spell checker before submitting it. Make absolutely sure that all proper names are spelled correctly. Mercury articles do not use footnotes or include formal bibliographies. If acknowledgment has to be given, work it into the body of the article or the author’s biography. Mercury uses both Imperial and metric units. Spell out the names of measurement units the first time they are used; abbreviations afterwards are fine. Take care not to overstate precision. Normally, two significant figures suffice.

Biography

Following every article is a one- or two-sentence biography of the writer, written in third-person. It can include the writer’s research interests, a personal anecdote or factoid, and an e-mail address if the author desires to include one.

Contact

Should you have questions about a current or future submission, please do not hesitate to contact the Editor, Paul Deans, via email at editor {at} astrosociety.org