Almost all research communication projects start out with clear and accessible writing. Whether you are working on a newsletter, exhibition or public event, you have to be able to write well about the topic at hand. That is why the ability to write about science in a way that the general public will understand and appreciate, is such a sought-after skill.
Writing about research is simultaneously challenging and rewarding. Similar to other forms of communication, good writing starts with good planning. Before you start to write, it is important to think about what motivates you to write the specific piece. Is it to educate, inform or entertain? Are you trying to impress potential funders or attract students? Or are you aiming for some media attention? Some reflection before you start will help to explore (and meet) your communication objectives.
From scientific article to press release
Research communicators often have to take scientific writing, such as an article submitted to a journal, and turn it into a popular piece. This can be a real challenge, but it gets easier with practice.
A good idea, when faced with this challenge, is to start at the end: Skip the background and methodology of research and start with its implications and benefits. This applies to all kinds of engagement, whether through writing, on the radio, social media or any other platform. Popular communication is the exact opposite of scientific writing where the background is given first, with findings and recommendations at the end.
When writing a popular piece based on a journal article, chat to the author(s) of the journal article if they are available. This does not have to be a formal interview, but a discussion about the scientist’s motivation for doing the research and the highlights of the findings. When described verbally by the scientist these comments make for strong pull quotes to include in your article. Sometimes the back story behind the research is as interesting as the findings.
Re-writing jargon-laden science-speak into plain language is like untangling matted fur on a dog. It is difficult at first and even painful. But patience and perseverance gets rid of all the knots and tangles (the jargon, acronyms, long sentences, big words and passive voice).The following guidelines and ideas should help to hone your popular writing skills.
“To write science you have to read science” is a common mantra of science writing educators. Reading other people’s science stories help you to understand how to structure stories and captivate readers. Reading will also help you to get to know suitable media outlets that may be interested in science stories from your university.
The next key principle in popular science writing is “think audience” (or love your reader). You have to think carefully about who might read your piece. This imaginary reader is all-important. How can you relate it to their personal experiences? What are they likely to know about this subject and why should they be interested in your story?
The next challenge is to focus. A story can only convey one big idea. Do not try to tell your reader everything you know about the chosen topic. You have to be able to pinpoint the central idea of your story in one short, sharp sentence – before you begin to write.
Decide on the best style and structure for the specific piece you are going to write. Is it a news story? Is it an opinion piece? Or, perhaps a profile about a specific achiever or an in-depth feature? Each type has clear conventions. For example, news stories begin with a short, sharp description of the main finding. A news story turns a scientific paper on its head, putting the conclusions first. Features draw the reader in, setting the scene with more creative, colourful prose. The opening paragraph must entice the reader to carry on reading. The body contains the details, but must have a clear thread, making it obvious to the reader why one paragraph leads to the next in a logical sequence. The closing paragraph should sum up the essence of the story or point to future developments. You might leave the reader with thoughts to ponder, or it could be a call to action. Give them something to think about before letting them go.
Answer the “so what?” question. People are generally not that interested in how research was done, but rather want to know how the research may be useful to them. Focus on what it could mean in people’s daily lives or how it could influence society. And remember, people respond to things that are close to them, things they can relate to – so if there are local or regional hooks, use them.
Keep it clear and simple. The tyranny of jargon is probably the single biggest barrier separating science from everyday life. Use the words your readers would use. Firmly eliminate the jargon, acronyms, short cuts and formalities that you use when writing for scientists. What is common knowledge to them will be alien to most readers. Describe abstract ideas and complex numbers in everyday terms and relate them to everyday experiences. Use analogies and metaphors to which your readers can relate. Keep sentences short and stick to the active voice wherever possible. Use quotes, case studies and real-life examples to add interest.
Add a human touch. Research is almost always done by people/on people/for people, so it is usually possible to add human interest and emotion. Depending on the nature of the article, it may be perfectly acceptable to bring in some enthusiasm, excitement and even humour.
Use a narrative structure if at all possible. Nothing hooks people’s interest more than when they sense a good story coming on – it is simply one of the most powerful communication tools. If you can, find a way of turning the facts into a narrative and weave some excitement and adventure into the storyline. A good story has an intriguing start, development in the middle and a strong ending. It connects with the reader’s emotions and usually contains an element of drama, surprise, suspense, tension, conflict, mystery or urgency.
A picture is worth a thousand words (especially on social media!), and therefore you have to invest time and effort (even money) to get hold of good visuals – photos, graphs or infographics. You also have to spend time on writing really good, short captions.
Double-check the facts. It is a good idea to get someone else (a relevant expert in the field) to double-check the facts in your story. If you are writing about a specific scientist (or even more than one researcher), definitely give them the opportunity to read the story before it goes public. Inaccuracies will undermine your story and your reputation.
Pre-test your story. Once you have written your article, turn your imaginary reader into a real one. Ask a non-scientist friend to read the piece and to point out anything they don’t understand or find uninteresting or irrelevant.
Here are some tried-and-tested proofreading and editing tips.
When proofreading the final version of your text on screen, view the text at 300% of its size (or even more). This helps to spot things that you may otherwise miss.
Print the story and find a comfortable, well-lit spot away from your computer. Then read the story out loud to yourself (slowly).
Forget about the article for a day or two and then read it again. Looking at it with a ‘fresh’ mind allows you to spot remaining obstacles to understanding, and helps you find creative ways to add interest and relevance.
Popular science writing is not limited to articles. You may report from scientific conferences, write narrative panels to accompany science exhibits, write blogs and even scripts.
The only way to get better at popular science writing is to write, write and write some more. However, mentorship can also help. Find out if there are science writers in your area who may be able to help review draft articles and give advice on making it more compelling and more accessible. Most “writing centres” in universities are focused on academic writing, but they may have expertise on popular writing too. (Do not expect freelance science writers to provide this kind of service free of charge!).