Writing tips for researchers interested in science communication
This is the first post in a series of blog posts all about the process of moving from research to science communication. It’s something I’m often asked about, but there are a lot of different aspects to the question. Science communication is a very broad umbrella term that applies to lots of different jobs. In this first post, I want to address something that is broadly applicable: Writing tips to help you switch from academic writing to more popular science writing.
Writing is part of all kinds of science communication
Science writing is the area of science communication I know most about, but in a broader sense, it’s a part of all science communication roles. Even other areas of scicomm involve a lot of writing — for grant applications, workshop descriptions, guides, proposals. No matter what area of science communication you end up in, you will have to write.
Writing as part of a science communication or science writing job is very different from academic writing. There’s a certain style to research papers. You can get so used to it that you don’t even notice it anymore, and before you know it you start slipping in phrases like “I aimed to show that…” or “standard procedures were followed” into your other writing. That’s something you’ll want to avoid.
Here are four tips to help you out.
Tip 1: Practice, practice, practice
Find a place to practice your writing and an audience for your message. For example, if you’re interested in doing hands-on science demos, you’ll want to prepare a lesson or demonstration aimed at a certain age group. If you want to start a podcast, you’ll want to practice writing a script. And if you want to get into science journalism, you’ll need a place to learn how to write popular science articles.
You can think of sending articles to student newspapers, society newsletters, or starting your own blog to practice your writing. If you’re ultimately hoping to get paid for your science writing, it also helps to have some good clips of your previous (non-academic!) writing to show to editors, and these can come from any of these places.
Tip 2: Read (and listen) a lot
Read science articles in different magazines. Watch science YouTube channels and listen to how they speak. Listen to science podcasts and take note of what language the presenters use to make scientific ideas clear without any visuals. Read science books by different authors. Notice that different writers all have different writing styles. Try to describe what those styles are.
Even without doing any writing yourself, you can learn a lot by consciously consuming other people’s writing.
If you’ve been submerged in academia for the past few years, reading mainly academic texts, you’ll start to write like that. That’s great for your next research paper, but not so great for any other writing you want to do. Read things that are written in the same style as you want to be writing, and it will become a lot easier.
Tip 3: Use a grammar checker as well as a spell checker to spot overly academic language
You’re probably already using a spell checker. When you’re writing a very scientific text, you’ll have noticed that some words that seem normal to you are picked up by the spell checker. If you want your writing to be broadly understood by people who don’t have the same scientific training as you, use these red underlines as a warning. Can you find a better-known word to replace them? Do you need to explain the meaning?
Taking this idea one step further, you can do the same thing with a grammar checker. I have the Grammarly plugin installed on all the browsers I regularly use, and it doesn’t just spot spelling mistakes, but grammar errors as well.
Last week, Grammarly spotted a strange sentence construction in a blog post I was editing for work. It made me pause to think whether I needed to keep the more formal academic wording, or whether I should switch to Grammarly’s suggestion. In this case, I kept it, but I often end up rephrasing certain sentences.
Essentially, when you’re switching between academic writing and more casual writing you’re communicating in entirely different languages. It’s okay to get some help with that! If you’re used to academic writing, it can be hard to spot where your academic vocabulary sneaks in. Grammarly can help you identify these odd phrases.
Tip 4: Read your work out loud
This final tip is one of the best pieces of advice you can take from fiction writers and prose writers: Read your work out loud.
You don’t have to read to someone else (although some people prefer that), as long as you vocalize the words you just put on the page. This is how you spot run-on sentences and overly long words. It helps you switch from being the writer of your words to being the reader.
I do this myself with everything I write. When I’m in public, I’ll just whisper very softly and quickly so only I can hear. Even then, I spot things that need fixing. For example, I just I added a paragraph break before “You don’t have to read to someone else…”. I didn’t know it was supposed to be there until I read it out loud and noticed that I wanted a longer pause.
Share your tips!
Have you moved from research to science communication? Do you regularly switch between academic writing and more casual writing? Feel free to share your own tips in the comments.
In future posts, I’ll talk about some more tips for moving from scientific research to science communication. I’ll cover job applications, how to find and do freelance work, places to learn about different kinds of science communication, and other topics. Basically, I’m writing the blog posts I wish someone had written while I was making the research-to-scicomm transition myself. Let me know if there’s a topic you’re curious about!