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Writing about complex scientific concepts in simple, accessible language

For a scientist, it can be a huge joy to communicate science. You’ve worked hard, and sharing what excites you is fulfilling, especially when your message comes across clearly. But what if it doesn’t?

Writing about complex science can be challenging, especially when you’re used to speaking to other professionals in your field every day, where a common understanding of the language you use is taken for granted. This applies not only to science communication to the wider public, but also to academic papers. Here, we discuss some helpful tips around what to do, and what not to do.

Lose colloquialisms, reduce jargon

It’s deceptively easy to slip into the sort of language that you’re used to using with colleagues – but you’re writing for the entire scientific community. Make sure that you don’t fall into your workplace’s ‘tribal language’; use commonly accepted terms. For example, you might ask your colleague for an ‘eppendorff’ in the lab, but this is a colloquialism that has emerged in many labs, similar to how we use ‘Hoover’ in the UK to refer to a vacuum cleaner. Use the generic term, ‘sample tube’, instead, and be sure to mention specific details when referring to it.

Of course, jargon has its place, especially in academic writing. For example, there’s no way to get around using chemical names, or using terms describing a particular biological process. Just make sure that jargon is used only where necessary. It would also be clearer to the reader if any specialised terms are briefly explained in the text.

Break it down

Many scientific concepts are abstract, intangible and multifaceted. Consider breaking these down into layers of complexity. One technique for doing this is to consider how you would explain the concept to a child, a teenager, an adult and an expert. When writing, start with a broad, top-level explanation. Then, add layers of complexity to guide your reader through your explanation, adding details along the way.

Also consider how much detail is truly necessary for what you are trying to communicate. Are you writing a paper about this concept? Or are you writing a paper where knowing about it would aid the reader’s understanding? The former will require more detail than the latter example.

When in doubt, a broader, more easily digestible message is likely preferable to a painstakingly detailed one. Presumably, you want as large a readership as possible, so try not to alienate those at the fringes of your specialty with overly detailed descriptions.

Picture it

A picture is worth a thousand words – or in some journals, 100 words – but the adage stands: If you believe you can express a complex idea as a diagram, do it!

Diagrams, images, flowcharts or any other pictorial representation of your idea will almost certainly help the reader understand the overall idea behind a difficult concept. There’s a reason why graphical abstracts are gaining in popularity.

Myriad tools now exist to help you draw diagrams easily, ranging from simple solutions in word processing software, to more sophisticated, specialised tools, providing you with stock imagery that you can use to tell your story.

Tell a story

A final thing to consider is that readers will be more likely to digest the information you’re communicating if it is framed as a story. Adding narrative structure to your writing gives it a more cohesive thread for the reader to be guided by.

In a scientific paper, this is how the methods section might be written: first we did X, then we did Y, after which we did Z. You can inject this type of writing into explaining more complex scientific concepts, too.

Try to give your writing the sort of structure that you would give an anecdote, by focussing on the impact and the meaning of something, and not by getting bogged down by too much detail while simply trying to get the reader to grasp your message.

Summary

The single best way to make sure that your science has real impact is by communication. The more you write, the better your writing will become. Remember that your audience will be varied, even if your paper is going to a specialist journal, and that your language must be accessible. If you can create a diagram, even better. Finally, if you can tell a story rather than lecture your reader, your writing is sure to be more successful.

 

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