Jargonbusting: how to write about science for a wide audience

Simon Wesson is Press and Communications Officer at ESRC. Before joining ESRC he worked as a local news reporter for five years, before a role in the University of Bedfordshire press office and most recently working within the University of Bath communications team. In addition to writing, his expertise lies in design, subbing and photography.

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As someone with a less than academic background (yes I’m in the minority who haven’t been to university) you could argue that I’m at a disadvantage as a press officer when it comes to communicating about science.

It’s probably a strong argument… However it’s my day-to-day job, and in fact I truly believe it plays out in my favour; especially when I’m communicating about scientific issues which affect every single one of us – as so often the ESRC’s work does.

So how on earth can it be in my favour?

Well, in a nutshell as a former journalist I have a good understanding of what people outside of academia want and how to provide this. I’m not prepared to release something until I feel I have an extremely good grasp of the subject matter. I emphasise ‘I’ here as at the beginning of writing an article my knowledge of some of the in-depth, and varied, topics dealt with is quite often limited to say the least. This is not putting myself down, simply admitting that I’m unlikely to have knowledge of topics varying from slavery and poverty to 3D printing and big data (just an example of an average day).

The task in hand is therefore to get to grips with the subject matter.

Here are my tips on writing about science for a wide audience:

  • It’s vital for me to use my journalistic, newshound nouse to discover the importance of what the research is in front of me. In my introduction I need to get to the point of the story instantly: why does it affect me, my friends, wider society at home or abroad? If it doesn’t meet these criteria, nine times out of 10 it simply isn’t worth writing about.
  • Structure is key. The news style of writing is unlike any other and a quick Google will show you preferred methods, like the inverted pyramid which is the norm. Essentially you need to get in what matters early on, while facts, figures and quotes should be included further down.
  • After reading the grant submission (for example) I’m often left baffled by the jargon, scientific terminology and simply the style it has been written in. I need to translate this so that everyone outside of the academic bubble can understand it.
  • Avoid jargon if you are writing for a non-scientific audience. If the audience is slightly more clued up on the subject you can go into a bit more detail, but don’t get bogged down. You stand a chance of losing your reader who could easily flick over the page or click on another link.
  • Research your topic and speak to an expert. Google is a personal friend in this day and age, but let’s face it the internet is full of inaccuracies, and I usually go on the hunt for a real person to talk to. If I’m interviewing someone I ask them to break it down. Then they need to break it down again and then probably again once more, until it’s at a level that is understandable by Jane or Joe Bloggs.

A favourite phase of mine is ‘explain it to me like I’m a five year old’ (ok I stole this from Denzel Washington in Philadelphia). And essentially this is what you have to do if you’re writing about a complex topic. Write it to a level where you feel anyone could understand it and get the point – we need to know how it will affect our lives, or the lives of many others.

Remember, what you’re doing is important, it has a vital role in our society – you just need to demonstrate it!

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