Three lessons I’ve learnt for communicating science

Before my PhD I worked in science communications. I helped scientists explain their work to non-scientists. Whilst I only worked in the role for nine months, I learnt a lot, and I consistently saw the same patterns and mistakes.

There’s a lot of science communication advice online, but I think there are three lessons that will most improve your science writing:

 

  1. Write for your audience, not for yourself.

Obvious, but routinely ignored. Every piece of science communication should have a defined audience, such as the general public, a funding body, politicians, scientists in another field, etc.

Once you’ve decided upon your audience, you need to ask yourself two questions about them: Why do my they want to read this? What’s their level of scientific understanding? The first question will give you the focus for your writing, the second tells you what kind of language you should use (hint, always as clear and simple as possible).

Importantly, both questions remind you that you’re not writing for yourself. You’re probably passionate about your subject, and you probably have specialist knowledge about it. But you need to recognise that your audience likely doesn’t, and that they probably have different reasons to engage with the topic than you. Recognise this, and use these two questions to inform your writing.

 

  1. Write for your media.

Different media are read in different ways, and your writing should be adapted for reflect this.

Generally speaking, people are willing to spend more time reading offline media, such as newspapers and booklets, as offline reading is easier. Online media, such as web news stories and blog posts, tends to be skim read, and should be as short and easy to read as possible. If you’re in doubt about how to write for your media, try to find examples and see what works and what doesn’t.

I’ve seen so many online stories and blog posts that are composed of huge blocks of text and that are thousands of words long. I can guarantee almost no one will read these. Likely they’ll open the page, take one look at how long and uninviting it looks, then they’ll head elsewhere.

For online writing: Your language should be clear and simple. Sentences should be short (< 25 words). Paragraphs should be one to four sentences long. You should break-up text with headers and images. And no news story or blog post should be over 750 words long.

 

  1. Don’t fight your editor.

If you’re lucky, someone will edit your work for you, perhaps a communications manager or a press officer. And I do mean lucky, having someone edit your work is a privilege, although many fail to recognise this.

An editor will help you improve your writing. They’ll advise on structure and language, they’ll point out areas of your writing that aren’t working, and they’ll help you improve them. They’ll help you write for your audience and for your media.

I’ve seen so many scientists fight their editors, and often out of a misguided sense of principal. They understand the science better than their editors, and they’re usually highly-educated and talented people, so why should they listen to an editor who probably has no background in the science? Because the editor knows what they’re talking about (it’s their job), and because they’re far more experienced at writing for specific audiences and types of media.

If you can bury your ego and listen to your editor, you’ll realise they’re usually right. Sometimes they won’t be, of course, but if you work with them rather than against them, they’re more likely to listen to you when you think they’re wrong.

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