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Writing Accessibly about Science
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Words of Wisdom

Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.

— E. L. Doctorow

February 2008


Thank you for being here today,  hope I’ll be able to say some things you’ll find useful and that it’ll be an interesting session too. So what are some of the reasons that it’s worthwhile to write about science in a way that’s accessible, in a way that is easily understandable?

Right, it’s a responsibility to communicate. If you don’t communicate as a scientist, you might as well not have done the work. The public needs to understand about it, both on a policy level and also when it comes to making personal decisions. These decisions can be based on an understanding of science and technology too. Writing accessibly will help non-specialists to understand. I think it’s particularly important if non-native speakers of English are reading, and a large part of the world scientific community consists of people whose native language isn’t English, many of whom are self-taught, and it’s important to get the barriers down. It helps other readers too, even a grant reviewer who knows the science. People are busy and if things are written accessibly they can understand it well.

It establishes rapport if one writes in a way that is understandable. It minimizes misinterpretation. People come and talk to me, they’ve heard back from the peer reviewers of the paper. “They missed this  point.” Well, maybe the point wasn’t worded accessibly. It minimizes editorial distortion. Sometimes people say, “The editor distorted what I was trying to say.” Well maybe it wasn’t said clearly so it was open to misinterpretation. Also, writing accessibly clarifies one’s own thinking. Trying to explain something clearly to someone else, rather than using a bunch of boiler plate jargon, really aides one’s own understanding.

I’m going to present some pointers for writing accessibly and let me first give some caveats, some reservations and limitations. This are guidelines, not rules. They generally apply but I am sure all of us could think of exceptions.  They shouldn’t be applied rigidly. Writing is like problem solving and there are several solutions with different pros and cons and these are some of the things to consider. Some of what I am going to say is well supported by empirical research. Others are basically things that make sense. Perhaps one theme of these pointers is: Write to communicate not to impress. Often people feel that in order to seem authoritative or educated you have to say things in a fancy and ponderous way, with lots of long sentences and fancy words. If you’re a graduate student you’ve already done well on the GRE. You don’t have to use your GRE words. (audience laughs) Don’t try to impress. When someone reads something that is successfully written their feeling should be, “Wow, wasn’t that clear and interesting!” It shouldn’t be, “Well, I really didn’t understand it, but they sounded smart.” So I think the important thing is to communicate.

I think some of the people who I consider some of the very best communicators are like that. Do any of you know of Bruce Alberts? He was head of National Academy of Sciences for many years. Before that he was a professor of biochemistry at UCSF. He’s just been named the Editor of Science. I was lucky enough, we overlapped times at UCSF and I used to sit in on some of his lectures. Very modest, unassuming guy who would take really tough molecular biology and present it really simply.

I’m going to give some general pointers then move to pointers for specific groups. One thing I would say for accessibility is give people different routes of access into what you’re writing. Some people will be captured by the title, but not everyone. So if you can have various things that will grab people’s attention, that’s a way to get people in. One is having a good title. And particularly giving the indexing services and abstracting services in science, you need a title where people will be able to tell what  you’re going to be writing about. A good clear title is important. Same thing for writing for the public, a good title. An abstract if it’s a scientific paper that will draw paper in. Or if it’s for the public sometimes  there is a sentence or two blurb under the title and that can draw people in. The introduction, or in journalistic writing the lead, that’s a place where people can be drawn in. Headings, a lot of us are skimmers and if we see a heading that has something that interests us– that can draw people in. Graphics are really important, that is often what will attract a person. In journalistic writing there may be what are known as pull quotes. For example in larger type you’ll see an excerpt from the article, a sentence that’s really catchy. Sometimes people will read that and will be drawn in. Italics or bold face can be used to attract people, if they are used sparingly. If they are  overused it’s like noise. Sometimes sidebars are used, a little article on a related topic that runs with the big one. So in writing something, think about all the different parts that can attract your readers in and those can be routes of access.

And something that is related by using some of the same devices– making the structure clear at a glance. Ideally a person can just look at something and say, “this is a scientific paper. I can find the methods right here.” Or, “this is a review article, I can see how it’s laid out.” So making the structure clear gives people access. Headings are helpful. For some kinds of writing you can use bullet points. Often just some white space between sections can provide breathing room and help people. In general avoid long paragraphs and long sentences. Otherwise it’s like people can’t breathe. Sometimes I see something that is a long paragraph running an entire column, I don’t even want to approach it, or if I do, I get lost in the middle. I find often in drafts I end up with long paragraphs, but then I will break them up. Or sometimes in my rough drafts I’ll have long meandering sentences with parenthesis and footnotes all over and nobody can follow that. So I go back and break them into manageable length sentences and make it more accessible for people.

Minimize use of jargon. Obviously if you are writing for peers or colleagues in your field, you will want and need to use some specialized terminology. But sometimes people will use more jargon than is needed. If you are working in a field you may assume that everybody knows what something is, but not everybody does. So minimizing jargon and remembering to define unfamiliar terms. There are terms that people may not know. Defining them. Sometimes defining them is better than just avoiding them. It was interesting; there is an article in a publication I edited. It’s what is known as the patient page in the Journal of the American Medical Association and it’s the last page and it provides information intended for patients. Originally they had tried to avoid technical terms, but they did focus groups. The patients said they wanted to learn the proper technical terms so we know when our doctors use them. So now they do include the technical terms but they are very careful to define everything.

Minimize use of abbreviations and acronyms. They can be some of most confusing things. People will use a lot of those and never define them, use non-standard words, make up their own, and all these capital letters swirling, swirling around and people just get lost. I think this is a place where longer can be better. If there are abbreviations or acronyms that everybody in your readership knows, use them. But I find, in editing, one of the main things I do is convert them to full text because it can be confusing and I think it can be especially confusing in presentations. If it’s in text people can look it up. But I’ve seen people get totally lost in presentations because they did not understand a key acronym or abbreviation.

Write simply and concisely. For the non-technical things, condense it. Write in a simple direct way. This can also help you set word limits. Colleagues come to me and say, “for this journal, papers can be no more than 3000 words. I’ve got 3500 words, what can I do?” I find I can usually get rid of those 500 words just by cutting out needless words or condensing wordy phrases without losing any of their ideas. Instead of the big words use the simple common word. So instead of attempt say try, instead of fundamentalbasic. Another thing you can do is delete words. Red in color=red, instead of totally destroyed Destroyed. A lot of wordy phrases people use that can be condensed. How about, at this point in time = NowIn the event that = If.  So get that down to two letters. Another thing is a lot of times people in the sciences or in the administrative and technical fields will use nouns instead of verbs and by changing things back to the verb you can be a lot more concise and it sounds a lot more powerful too. So instead of produce relief of = relieve, instead of provide an explanation = explain.

I think one thing that can make things more accessible and more interesting to people is including human interest. Often members of the public may not be interested in the abstract concepts, but they’re interested in how does it affect people. How are people involved? And I think in science writing for the public, if you can talk about the researchers or the health professionals or the users of the technology or the patients or the policy makers, bring people into the writing. Which is something quite different from the scientific paper or grant proposal, but in writing for the public, human interest can add a lot. And something that is I think closely related is using some narrative. People love stories. Stories can make things clearer. Put those people into stories. The researchers–how did they find what they found. Or the patient, what was the story of what happened with the patient. And actually narrative also, although it might not be obvious, really the scientific paper is the story of the research. Or a grant proposal is the story of the research you want to do. So basically by trying to make it a cohesive story—it will make it more accessible.

Something else I think that could be very useful to the public is providing overviews before details. Fellow experts may know the big picture and so you could start with the little part and people will now how it fits in. The public may not know. So an overview first: this medication can have three groups of side effects. Ok so now we know we are talking about side effects and now you can expect the three groups. I think something else that is really helpful with the public is relating unfamiliar things to familiar things, for example by providing analogies. There’s an article written for the public that I really like. It talks about the body’s mechanism in the hypothalamus for regulating the body’s temperature. It says it works sort of like a thermostat. Most of us are used to turning up and down the thermostat. So analogies can be useful. Relating sizes to familiar sizes, building bridges for people. Figure out what they know about, what they care about, what their schemas are, how they organize information and then build a bridge. I prefer this image. I know there is another image that is used: watering things down. I think that is a condescending way of looking at things. Also, I find that when people water things down you wind up with indigestible chunks in an insipid broth. So build bridges.

Include concrete examples of how things work can be very helpful. Some of you may be familiar with essays by Lewis Thomas, very fine scientist and essayist. He was a master of that. For example he has a wonderful essay called germs. He gives various examples. Intersperse goodies. Things where people say, that’s neat”. A good quote or a good example or a neat little factoid. That tends to keep the public reading. I used to do some freelance writing for Woman’s World magazine. When I would go through a draft, I would put an actual checkmark in the margin where there would be a quote or an anecdote and If I’d seen that I had gone a couple pages without anything, I would try to bring something in so there would be interesting things sprinkled through to keep people going. The article for the public is like a chocolate chip cookie. Every bite should have at least one chocolate chip.

For the public it can be helpful to include some technical terms, but often it’s helpful to introduce them gently. To throw terms at people, they can panic: Am I supposed to know this, this is too hard for me. Put the concept first and then give it a name it’s more accessible.  Complete loss of kidney function, known as End-stage renal disease, so people know what they’re talking about first and then it’s given a name. Some of you maybe familiar with Atul Gawandi. He wrote a book called Complications and new one called Better. He writes medical articles that appear in the New Yorker and elsewhere and he’s very good. An example from his writing, “The involuntary or autonomic nervous system”– So putting the concept first. I think another thing that is helpful for the public is making relationships clear. If you’re writing for your peers they will probably know relationship of ideas. For the public, often they will not have the background to make that jump. So make the reason explicit:this and therefore this, and therefore this, rather than jumping from the first to the third. And also using transitions effectively. Again these people don’t know relationships. First, second, third – however —  Never the less — that sort of thing so people will know the relationships.

Another thing in making science accessible to the public is to present numbers and sizes effectively. One is using familiar units. I think it’s unfortunate but most members of the US public are not familiar with the metric system. So you often have to use English units, either instead of or in addition, otherwise people are likely to be confused. Also comparing sizes with sizes of familiar items. Instead of inches by inches, say size of a lipstick or size of a soda can. Another thing is countering misconceptions respectfully. There are a lot of myths and a lot of them are very plausible things but they are not right. Kathy Rowan of George Mason has done some work on this and has come up with a protocol for countering misconceptions. Stating the common belief, and rather than saying, “This makes no sense”, acknowledge it, “It would be reasonable to expect this, given such and such, then show the inadequacy of the belief and then show the merits of the more scientific view. Doing these things probably makes it easier for everybody to read.

Use largely subject verb sentence structures. Using unusual sentence structures can be confusing anybody but especially to the person who has taught themselves English. Use normal verb forms. Unusual verb forms can be confusing. There is a book that came out a couple years ago called the Elements of International English Style and that has a lot of pointers for people in science or business or other fields who are writing for international readerships. Try not to use words that have a lot of meanings. Even when doing so requires a longer word. The word address can mean several things. Beware of literary allusions, sports metaphors, things like that, when there are cultural differences. Or even within our own culture. People might assume everyone is familiar with Shakespeare. Or there are a lot of people who make biblical allusions. But not everyone is really familiar with the Bible. I found often in clinical wards people would always be using these sports metaphors and the international medical graduate for whom football is soccer and is not familiar with American baseball. Players on base? They don’t know what’s going on. So I think being careful not to use images that are culturally bound. I would say beware of irony and humor. Often they will not translate and often within one's own culture in writing about science sometimes it will backfire. Unless you know the sense of humor of the people you are working with beware of it. Another thing is to write dates in formats that are not prone to misinterpretation. 5 Jan 08, is better than 1-5-08. Sometimes it’s fine to retain the optional words if they make it clearer. Sometime the extra “that” makes it clearer.  The most concise is not always the best and if you need a few more words to make it clear, use them. Another suggestion is to punctuate liberally. Some compound words you can either hyphenate or not, but if you do it’s clearer to a lot of readers. Don’t use unnecessary punctuation but use the optional punctuation if it makes it clear.

Good writing is basically good editing. It’s a matter of going over and over it again. Thank you very much.

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