This past week I have been lucky enough to be able to go to Phoenix, AZ, for a scientific meeting, and while there, I was also very lucky to participate in a writing workshop. It wasn’t a fiction writing workshop, though. It was a workshop for translating my scientific research into a friendlier general public statement.
Let’s face it. As a scientist, I was trained to use a lot of passive voice, tons of jargon and to use large, large, large sentences. The end result of this combination are paragraphs and sentences that I end up having to read twice – at the very least – before being able to kind of get the idea of what the text was trying to say. And it’s not just with my own writing! Every time I read a scientific paper, even in my field, I find myself fighting my way through the convoluted writing.
This kind of writing, though not my favourite, is perfectly fine for, and encouraged by, other scientists. Why? Because we are all speaking –kind of– the same language we have all studied. Also, we are all already passionate about the topic we are working in, even if it is very abstract and potentially not useful for anyone in the next few generations to come. So we don’t really need to convince each other about why it is important to study what we study –unless we’re asking for money to be able to conduct your research!!
But to others who are not in our field– even other scientists– we might as well be speaking Klingon. Readers get confused. Very important discoveries that affect our everyday life get muddled under our jargon and long-winded sentences.
And why should others care about our project? What is it to them if we find water in Mars or if one of my soils had more phosphorus than another?
Scientists need to learn how to convey their message to every kind of audience. From theoretical physicists to kindergarten kids.
How do we do that? By thinking of our audience when we write.
Who are we speaking to? Is it eighth graders? Is it my friend’s ten-year old daughter?
But this is not as easy as you might think. Here’s an example:
For the science communicating workshop I took this week, we were asked to write a short text about our research for ninth graders. Here’s the before of the text I tried writing:
The reason I do my research is because the phosphorus that is attached to soil particles in the streambanks of different lands uses, such as forests, wetlands, corn and hay fields, can be transported through different mechanisms, such as streambank erosion and rain runoff, into river and streams. That phosphorus that is being loaded into the water is one of the nutrients that algae –both toxic and non-toxic– need to grow. Right now, the amount of that phosphorus that is reaching our water reservoirs –drinking water and recreational lakes, for example–, and accumulates there, is very high. Because we need to figure out a way to minimize that phosphorus loading, we first need to find out how much phosphorus is in the soil, and in what forms it is there, to be able to make predictions of how losing those soils will affect the water that we drink. If the algae continue to grow, our lakes will be ugly green and we won’t be able to have water to drink, or it will be too smelly to have a bath!
According to MS Word, the way my text was written was for a 15th grade reader (yes, MS Word has that cool feature!). Not good for the target audience I was writing for, right?
Here is the after of the text:
Do you want clean, fresh water to drink – or to have a bath? Plants and algae need nutrients to grow– just like we do! – and phosphorus is a nutrient that limits that growth. Algae naturally grow in lakes, but too many of them at the same time can turn the water green and make us sick when we drink it. So, just as we can get sick if we have too much of a certain vitamin, so can lakes and rivers get sick with algae if we let too much phosphorus get into them. Nowadays, a lot of phosphorus is getting into our water, so we need to find where it is coming from and in what forms it is going into the water. Some of the phosphorus is attached to the soil and I study soils that are being used in different ways, such as forests and cornfields. In those soils, I look at what types of phosphorus are in there and how likely they are to be available for the algae if they were to be swept away into rivers and lakes.
Notice some of the changes? All in all, there is less passive voice; I added anecdotes to relate to people’s every day life to make others care about the topic; and I tried to leave the jargon out.
This last part was the most difficult. I use those words so much that they have become rooted in my every day speech. And I don’t even notice.
Even though all I have talked about in this post was about scientists, fiction writers –and all kind of writers– need to think about their audience, and adjust their language to them.
Get a book on writing and somewhere it will tell you to think about who you are writing for. In my case, I nodded at what they were saying and moved on, thinking I had it nailed down.
Well, I was in for an awakening at this workshop. What about you? Have you ever tried it and actually tested it on someone else?
It is not as easy as we think, and we don’t know how well we are doing until we test it. Go test it.