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Writing tips for reaching the public

These days, it is increasingly important for members of the scientific community to communicate their science broadly and win the trust and support of the public. To this end, researchers are increasingly participating in a wide variety of outreach activities, including writing about science for a broad audience. Not all scientists should feel required to invest time in sharing their results or the excitement of science through writing magazine articles, but those who do may be helped by a little editorial guidance, like the one that Katie L. Burke, associate editor at American Scientist, offered in a column last month.

Scientists tend to come across to the public as competent but cold, and being perceived as a little warmer could help them build trust, Burke writes. To shake the stereotype, it is important that, when writing for a nonspecialist audience, scientists use a different approach than when they’re writing journal papers, she adds. “The authoritative and unemotional way that scientists are taught to write for journal articles is not usually appropriate when communicating with a general audience.” Instead, scientists may want to apply a few journalistic nonfiction principles that could help them connect with readers, Burke recommends.

The authoritative and unemotional way that scientists are taught to write for journal articles is not usually appropriate when communicating with a general audience.

–Katie L. Burke

Among the 12 journalistic principles that Burke explains, and illustrates with several concrete examples, is the importance of crafting the very first sentence of your article in a compelling way. “Many academics start with something more like a broader impacts statement or an obvious foundational concept in their field, as they would in a journal article. But if you tell readers something they already know in the first sentence, they are likely to think you have nothing to say that they don't already know,” she writes. Your introduction should get to the point quickly and offer a clear thesis statement for the rest of your article, Burke adds.

Burke also offers advice about structuring your piece, such as implementing effective transitions between subsections and using short paragraphs that each “introduce an interesting new idea with a topic sentence.” As for the conclusion, refrain from writing “a repetitive summary of everything the article has just said,” she adds. Instead, “[n]arrative nonfiction conclusions return to the intrigue, suspense, or line of inquiry the writer established to draw the reader further into the article, providing a sense of closure and wrapping up any loose ends.”

Regarding style, Burke reminds scientist-writers to avoid passive tense, jargon, and clunky sentences. Use short narratives in place of lists, which tend to switch readers off, she recommends. And while it’s OK to use statistics to drive home the relevance of your research, adding stories of real people will help readers relate, she adds.

Perhaps most importantly, don’t shy away from writing in the first person. Many scientists fear they will come across as lacking modesty, but, “[w]hen done well, first person does not sound arrogant or immature; rather, it lets readers in on the personal side of research—what scientists find compelling, what drives them, what obstacles they had to overcome, the excitement they felt at the time of discovery,” Burke writes. “It also helps scientists establish credibility with the reader by being open about their relationship to the work.”

For more detailed advice you may read Burke’s column here.