This year we set the second cohort of the London NERC DTP a new task – we asked them to write for the public, on a topic of their choice. I know from experience that this can be an extremely daunting prospect for many PhD students – after years of training in scientific writing and communicating with your peers, the idea of writing for an audience with such a varied knowledge base can be quite intimidating. It can be very hard to remember which of the terms and concepts, which seem so fundamental now, were alien just a few years ago. Remembering how to write with flair, how to tell a story rather than just report data, and when to leave some details out – these are skills many PhD students haven’t practised in years.
Yet these skills can be of great use to a PhD graduate, whether they stay working in academia or make the move into industry. The ability to communicate your science simply, clearly and powerfully to any audience is invaluable. Within academia, scientists are increasingly being expected to write for broad audiences to ensure their results have impact. Outside academia, these communication skills may be used on a daily basis.
Scientists writing for non-specialist audiences are faced with three key challenges:
- Telling a story
- Making the story relatable
- Translating technical details and jargon
Telling a Story
Your blog post must tell a story, it must engage and enthral the reader and keep them interested right until the end. The best way to do this is to find an angle that makes your topic relatable. Weaving scientific results, data and facts into a story that has a beginning, middle and end helps to guide the reader through the more technical aspects and keeps them wanting to know more.
Making the story relatable
Finding the right angle can sometimes be a challenge – your chosen topic may seem abstract and indepth, but there is always a way to get the reader interested. It is important to work out your angle before you start writing. Think about challenges and experiences that everybody shares – if you can relate your article to your audience’s health, happiness or success, it’s likely to spark their interest. Using concrete, real-world examples and descriptive language to paint a picture for the reader can also help – if they can imagine it, they’re far more likely to be interested in it. And finally, another great way to make a piece relevant to a general audience is to focus on a new discovery or innovation – recent research and new findings are usually more exciting than old data.
Most importantly, pick an angle and stick to it. This will be the theme running through your entire post, which you will keep coming back to, and that will frame your decisions about structure and content.
Translating technical details and jargon
It is important to know what details to leave out – introducing a jargon term that you only use once is a waste of both your time and the reader’s. But some jargon terms are unavoidable. Terms that come up over and over in your blog, or which are long and complex to explain in laymans terms each time – these are the terms you should take the time to explain and define for the reader.
Above all else, try and keep your text simple and concise, and make sure your big conclusion ties back into your opening gambit.
Over the next six months, cohort 2 will be posting their finished blogs here on the Natural Environment Blog, as well as elsewhere on the web. They’ll be covering a diverse range of topics from glaciers to volcanoes, and lawn biodiversity to plastic pollutants. I hope you’ll enjoy reading them!