Making science accessible and interesting for your readers can be challenging. Read on for five common mistakes to avoid.
1. Assuming your audience knows “science”
One of the most important jobs a science writer has is to take complex concepts and make them accessible to the average reader. But don’t assume that your reader knows the first thing about your subject matter. Whether it’s a story about genomics, an advance in medical research, or new climate change data, invest some time doing your own background research so you can include a brief primer—one or two paragraphs, at most—to help your reader understand what this research means and why it’s important. Just make sure your primer is understandable, which brings us to tip #2…
2. Using jargon
Writers know that it’s harder to write clearly and concisely than churning out bloated paragraphs full of long words and endless sentences. Distilling the essence of your message down to the bone takes practice (and rewrites!). As a science writer writing for the general public, you want to use plain language, avoid jargon wherever possible, employ active language and keep the readability level at around grade eight. When you’re reading and synthesizing complex scientific findings, it’s easy to get sucked into that style. Resist!
There are plenty of free tools out there to help you assess your writing—Microsoft Word offers the Flesch-Kincaid ease of reading and grade level scores, and tools like Grammarly can also help. Take a few minutes to run your article through these ‘checkers’ and see what they highlight. But remember these tools are just that: tools. Your professional judgment is the final arbiter.
3. Skipping on visuals
Think about it—as a reader, you’re much more likely to click on a story that has an appealing visual that draws you in. And complex concepts, as well as research data or results, are often much easier to grasp when they’re presented as infographics, images or even illustrations. Visuals also offer the reader a welcome respite from reams of text. And, if you are pitching media make sure to have additional visuals ready to go. A reporter on a deadline can’t wait for you to track down information—make sure it’s at your fingertips and provide the reporter with a complete package.
If the initial materials you’re provided don’t lend themselves to visuals, consider asking the scientist for some of their data, which you can then present graphically. There are some great free sites like Canva that allow you to input data and generate appealing visuals.
4. Mismanaging your expert’s expectations
Most scientists are passionate about their work and have a very deep understanding of their subject matter. This passion, however, does not necessarily position them well to communicate about their findings to non-scientist audiences. When you’re tasked with getting the word out about a recent scientific breakthrough, if you can, spend some time talking to the researcher to elicit their “aha” moment. Ask them what really drives them, and how they feel their work is contributing to the broader discussion.
Then do them a courtesy and spend a bit of time explaining to them how you’re going to position their research so it piques the interest of the general public. It can be frustrating for scientists who feel articles “dumb down” their work or focus on the wrong things. Share your understanding of what will ‘sell’ to explain that this is not oversimplifying their work, but rather making research accessible. And make sure that they understand the limitations of what you can do—above the fold on the cover of the Globe and Mail is extremely unlikely.
5. Not providing context
In today’s 24-hour news cycle, bombarded as we are by endless content, it’s easy to fall into the trap of “clickbait” headlines. And sure—a snappy headline that gets people to click on your article is step 1.
But once you’ve got them, do your reader a favour and contextualize the science you’re sharing with them. Not every study is groundbreaking or will change the world—and we do science a disservice when we present stories that way. Not only is it disingenuous, it diminishes our understanding of the incredible focus required to make actual scientific progress. Provide your reader with the broader context—what does this mean in relation to existing knowledge? Will it change someone’s daily life? How is it contributing to a broader scientific goal? By asking these questions, you’ll help pull out the important message, and allow your reader to understand the significance of the science to their own lives.
Science communications done well is of benefit to all of us. Use all of your skills to make every effort the best you can.
For well more than a decade, PR Associates has been helping companies do exactly this. Give me a bell, and we can talk about your specific needs.