Why Reader-Centered Writing is a Key Tool for Scientists

October 11, 2016 | By Nancy Breuer

Scientists Learning Reader-Centered Writing

We non-scientists rarely find scientific writing a chair-gripping read. Most of us would admit that much scientific language baffles us. Yet scientists write to describe discovering some of the most powerful knowledge we acquire as humans. Dear scientists, we non-scientists need you to write clearly so that the rest of us can understand the new insights you develop as you work. You can succeed by focusing on answering the questions we are likely to ask.

Reader-centered writing is the best communications invention at a scientist’s fingertips

Whether you are writing an email, a grant proposal, a tweet, or another mode of communication, you can reach us most convincingly and clearly if you keep our limitations and our needs top of mind. We are limited by our lack of fluency in the language of science. We need to understand what you have discovered, because you help us to make decisions in our daily lives.

How can scientific writing be reader-centered?

Try these three steps when you write:

  1. Write a key message that tells us in simple English what you have learned, and how you think we can benefit from knowing that.

Writing this key message sounds easy, but it’s a challenging task. We recommend that you think of a word picture like the one in this opening paragraph from the Washington Post’s article Why one of the world’s best fossil sites is full of severed bird feet, from its “Speaking of Science” blog on July 20, 2016:

“Prehistoric creatures aren’t exactly renowned for their table manners. Most dinosaurs, for example, were incapable of chewing and had to swallow their food whole. But some ancient eaters were messier than others. And in southwestern Germany, something especially sloppy left severed bird feet strewn about a dense fossil boneyard.”

Also see: How to Drive Action Through Your Writing

Do you have a mental image of a predator chowing down on a bird and then just tossing the legs—in the Eocene era? Then the image worked. It turns out that the sloppy eaters were probably prehistoric crocodiles. Not everyone would think of describing extinct animals’ behavior in terms of table manners, but writer Brian Switek did. (Remember his sparkling paragraph the next time you spot some sloppy eaters in our own era.)

  1. Think of the questions a non-scientist would ask you after seeing your key message. Write them down, capturing them all before you begin writing your answers.

Why imagine our likely questions? Because we don’t need to know all the minutiae you know about your prehistoric crocodiles. Answering our primitive-sounding questions can keep you focused on what your readers need to know and understand in this article, or this blog post, or this grant proposal.

For example, a non-scientist reader might want to know: How and where did you find all these bird feet? What kinds of birds were they? How did you develop the crocodile hypothesis? What does this knowledge add to our understanding of the Eocene era? Of dinosaurs? When was the Eocene? Tell us a story.

When you have the questions, you can organize and answer them. When you’ve answered each question in a way that unfolds the story, all you need is a helpful conclusion.

  1. In your conclusion, tell us what the takeaways are, even if you think they are blazingly obvious. Use images to support your main points. The Washington Post writer used a photo of the fossilized bird foot bones. We non-scientists can understand much more quickly if we have visual clues to your findings.

For example, if you were concluding the Washington Post blog post in your own words, you might write, “Prehistoric crocodiles who ate like toddlers helped our understanding of the creatures of the Eocene era immeasurably when they dragged shore birds into the water and dropped the uneaten legs to become part of the fossil record.”

Remember, we are non-native speakers of scientific language. If you can use a clear, simple graph or image to drive your point, you will take more of us with you. Then remind us of your key point as you conclude.

You know your subject. Turn your focus to your readers as you write and you will sharpen your writing. Come explore our workshop on reader-centered writing to get started on becoming a better writer today!


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