It’s no secret that science has a PR problem. Scientists, it seems, are generally viewed as cold and competent but not warm and trustworthy. According to social psychologist Susan Fiske of Princeton University, a person’s perceived warmth strongly influences how much they are trusted. This presents a problem for scientists, especially in an era when funding, research impact, and science literacy rely so heavily on communicating effectively with a broader audience. Even when seeming warm and trustworthy could help their message be heard, it can be hard for scientists to shake the “cold and competent” stereotype. The authoritative and unemotional way that scientists are taught to write for journal articles usually is not appropriate when communicating with a general audience. Learning the principles of journalistic nonfiction often requires scientist authors to step away from an academic writing style that has come to feel intuitive. Nevertheless, using these styles can make the scientist’s work more relatable, memorable, and trusted.
Here are some tips:
- Write for the readers—Scientists tend to aim their writing toward what they think their colleagues want to read. This is a natural reflex—after all, that’s the audience they’re accustomed to thinking about when they write journal articles and grant proposals. But a scientist’s colleagues will be a minority of the readership of a magazine article. Try to step back, review your own assumptions, and broaden your view of who your audience really is.
- Use your audience's lexicon—Introduce only the terms essential to your story and no more. Even certain words likely to be familiar to readers, like "dynamics" or "mitigate," should be avoided just because they sound jargony and can have different meanings in different fields. Look for alternatives that are more direct. At the same time, avoid talking down to your audience. Sometimes scientists try too hard to make sure everyone is on board. It sounds like they’re talking to middle schoolers, a big turn-off to most readers.
- Your first sentence must be indelible—Leave your impression early. 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. You risk losing readers right then and there. If your article contains news of major breakthroughs, many of your readers will completely miss it.
- Know where you are taking the reader first and then tell them—Show them—within the first page, provide them with a story that illustrates what is at stake and sets the scaffolding for your thesis. Your reader is busy and has lots of other things to read. They will not read your article unless you immediately let them know why they should, and fine prose is one of the quickest ways to focus your reader’s attention.
- Each subsection and paragraph is a potential pathway into the text for a scanning reader—Each paragraph should introduce an interesting new idea with a topic sentence.
- Questions generally make poor topic sentences— Framing the topic as a question can be a hard habit to break. But in narrative nonfiction, posing questions instead of stating the topic outright risks leaving out crucial information, such as who is asking the question, why that individual cares about it, and how it was first raised. Introducing how the line of inquiry arose in the first place is usually an important part of a science story.
- Each subsection needs to transition the reader from one idea to the next— As a section concludes it should signal why the next section follows. Transitions are the key.
- Stop listing things—just stop!—Try instead to figure out the narrative tying the pieces of a list together. Used profusely in academic and government writing, lists are an efficient way of communicating points or variables. But they’re dry and can be a real slog for a reader. All too easily, they become the place where readers' eyes will glaze over and they will start flipping to another part of the magazine or return to scanning social media. A more intuitive way to communicate such ideas is to talk about how the objects of the list are connected to one another. It might take an extra sentence or two, but the reader will grasp the concepts more readily and remember them better.
- Use the first person—Even though the desire to avoid the first person often comes from a sense of humility, text that is essentially autobiographical but avoids first person doesn't necessarily sound humble. It just sounds impersonal. Readers will stop reading quickly if they don't feel connected with the people or places in the story.
- If you want people to understand that a problem addressed by your research affects real people, you need to illustrate the problem by telling a story about real people—When scientists rattle off statistics but do not talk about how they connect to people’s lives, they risk coming off as cold and distant. Anecdotes may not have a place in science writing, but they are absolutely essential to journalistic and literary nonfiction.
- Avoid passive voice and clunky sentence structures—Although passive voice is not uncommon in scientific journal articles, it sounds distant, abstract, and stuffy. Today's readers have very little patience for slogging through wordy writing because you’re competing with short communication in the social media.
- When you feel you are done writing, don't just stop in your tracks once you’ve added the last bit of information you’d planned to include—Any article needs a conclusion, but one very different from the kind you might write for a typical journal article. Narrative 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. The conclusion is not just a repetitive summary of everything the article has just said. Try to find some forward-looking insights that show greater context for your work.