Five Ways to Improve your Science Writing

girl writing

gwen pearson

Gwen Pearson

By Gwen Pearson

Quick: You have 10 seconds. Make me care about your research.

You have only 10 seconds to engage someone’s attention and get them to read your article, before they move on and click away.  Online information is cheap and easy to find; it’s attention that is expensive and hard to get.

Which of these is more engaging?

Technical version: Insect exoskeletons pass through a bat’s digestive tract relatively unchanged other than mastication and mechanical damage. Therefore, the reflective properties of the cuticle remain unchanged.

Public version: Bats have sparkly poop because they eat insects.

Which can you read in 10 seconds?

Which can you read in 10 seconds at the same time that your email is popping up notifications on your computer, someone is texting you on your phone, and you’re wishing your empty coffee cup was full?

This is the challenge of writing for the general public — or for that matter, for anyone not in your particular sub-field. Scientists writing for a general audience compete in a space already bursting with exciting media. We’re up against teams of creative professionals producing content with cute baby mammals, clever graphics, professional athletes, explosions, and cleavage.

How can you grab someone’s attention long enough to get them interested in your information? What tricks can you use as a writer to make your writing more interesting? At the 2014 ESA Annual Meeting I facilitated a session to share what I’ve learned as an entomologist turned professional writer. Here’s a summary of what I talked about, and a handy PDF Checklist you can use in your writing.

1. Start with a great title.

Begin with the ending in mind.  A reader should be able to tell what your story is about from just the headline. Ideally, your headline will be seven words or less to aid in scanning by a busy reader.

When someone is searching for information, or your story is posted on Facebook, all a reader sees is the title and first line or summary of the article. Fine-tuning those to be attention-getting ensures that people click and read on your information.  Adding in a cute or interesting photo helps the information spread.

screenshotOne of the exercises I gave people to do in the workshop was to rewrite their dissertation title or last publication as a “click-bait” title. Here’s a great example:

Technical Version: The Effects of Kernel Feeding by Halyomorpha halys (Hemiptera: Pentatomidae) on Commercial Hazelnuts. Hedstrom, C. S.; Shearer, P. W.; Miller, J. C.; Walton, V. M. Journal of Economic Entomology, Volume 107, Number 5, October 2014.

Public Version: Four Ways Stink Bugs Will Shrivel Your Nuts.

As entomologists, we have interesting and useful information to offer. Because much of it is buried in jargon, it’s passed over in favor of more accessible information — which may or may not be correct.

2. Have a great first sentence and a grabby first paragraph.

don't bury the ledeFrom the moment we draft our first lab reports, scientists are trained to be passive and highly detailed. Our scientific papers start with tons of background information and minutia. That’s our default setting. Unfortunately, that’s the worst possible way to write for a popular, non-scientist audience.

Don’t Bury the Lede” is journalism slang that describes a common failure of scientists writing for the general public. The lede (or lead) is buried when you don’t mention the most important, interesting, or attention-grabbing elements of a story in the first paragraph.

Once someone has clicked on your story, the first sentence needs to be interesting enough on its own to make them keep reading. Each sentence should tug the reader along until they are hooked.

Remember, at each step, you are competing with all the other things in the world demanding attention. Front-load your article so a reader in a hurry could read just the first paragraph and get the gist of the story.

3. Make it clear why the reader should care.

The biggest hurdle you face in spreading your science is the “So What?” response. Make it clear to readers why your information is relevant to their lives. If your message is scientifically accurate but not relevant to cultural understanding, it will not be useful. You need to know your audience, and write using their language and motivations.  “Everyone on the Internet” is not a realistic target audience.

Clearly signal if you are writing a “How-To” for a common problem; those are some of the most popular articles on the Internet. Surprise and curiosity work too for getting readers engaged.

images tell a story

Every image tells a story, and can create questions in a reader’s mind. (Photo from H. Ford Museum)

4. Use the Power of Narrative.

We all have great stories about our research; some are hilarious, some terrifying.  Add those into your work. Humans are programmed to love a story, and will remember facts embedded in stories longer than just factoids alone. By making humans (including researchers) characters in your writing, your story will be more engaging. Photos help draw the reader further into the world you are describing to them.

Without a human context, data is just a confusing list of facts. Using emotions can make the story come alive for readers; humor, surprise, or pathos can all create a mood. Make the research and the people doing it active players. Don’t use passive voice (i.e, passive voice is to be avoided).

5. Keep Facts and Sources Clear.

A critical way people evaluate online information is trust. It’s important that conclusions can be traced back to their source, and that funding and possible conflicts of interest are made clear. Transparency creates trust in readers — and lets them fact-check you, if they are so inclined.

You can prime a reader for complex information with warning language 
(for example, by using phrases such as “this part is complex” or “but that is a myth”) that tells them they need to take their brains off auto-pilot and pay attention.  Ideally, introduce just one new concept per paragraph; don’t overload in an info-dump.

Specialized jargon should be removed or explained; a great way to test your writing is to use a readability test, or if you really want a challenge, Up-Goer Five. When using acronyms, make sure you spell them out.

The average reading level in the U.S. is at the eighth-grade level. Usually when I mention reading levels, there is a great deal of huffing and puffing about “dumbing down.” In response to that, I have several short pithy words that I’m not allowed to print here at Entomology Today.

We aren’t making information simple for stupid people; we are translating our complex disciplinary language for non-native speakers of science. Those non-native speakers are busy and smart. Ed Yong described this process this nicely as “rounding ideas.” It’s imprecise, but not incorrect.  If people don’t understand scientific information, it’s because we haven’t explained it well.

Sometimes this is because we forget that some information is “Nice to Know,” not “Need to Know.” Not every bit of information is needed for an informed citizenry. Cut, chop, and cut again all the details that aren’t essential. And get someone who is not a scientist to read your work and tell you what they find confusing.

you should be writingFinal Caveats

The things I’ve shared here are suggestions, not rules. You can find plenty of places in my own writing where I ignore all of these techniques. Do as Bug Gwen says, not as she does, of course.

The single best way to be a better writer is to write.  So get busy.

Handy Resources and Data:

Not on the PDF, but useful:

Gwen Pearson is the entomologist formerly known as Bug Girl. She obtained her PhD in entomology from North Carolina State University, and her Charismatic Minifauna blog appears in WIRED Magazine. Follow her on Twitter at @bug_gwen. In case anyone is interested, she edited this post over 40 times and is still not completely satisfied with it.

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