Monday, June 27, 2011

Good science writing

Science is by its nature complicated, making it all the more important that good science writing should be simple, clean and clear. Alas, achieving clarity is something that escapes many scientific writers, whether they are addressing their peers, a knowledgeable but non-scientific audience, or society at large. Indeed, the reader often receives the impression that the writer has not thought much about their audience at all, as they struggled to give birth to long, tortuous and impenetrable prose, with clause piled upon clause, adjective upon adjective, idea upon idea. A good deal of science writing more closely resembles a train wreck than an act of communion with the reader: with words scattered like carriages all over the line.

Good writing begins with the need to pause and reflect on the audience. Who are they? What do they want from your science? How much time do they have for what you are about to tell them? What is their level of literacy or technical understanding? How do they speak and write themselves? What are the issues they are most concerned about or interested in? What will win their hearts or engage their intellects?

Finding out these things requires a skill at which scientists excel, but rarely, in this particular case, undertake: research.

In some situations the answers are easy to come by. Science journalists, for example, usually have a fairly clear idea of their audience, both from surveys carried out by their publisher and from first-hand contact with readers/viewers or receipt of their letters and emails. Technical writers for an industry or professional magazine often have a very clear idea who they are writing for. The communicator for a scientific institution, however, has the challenge of a wide diversity of possible audiences – government, industry, scientists, peers, non-government organizations (NGOs) and special interest groups, the general public and other ‘stakeholders’ – and has to tune the writing for each audience according to their needs. This often requires research. The same goes for scientists, who are passionate about their work and anxious to share its gems with a wider public: understanding this audience and its needs is an important first step in writing well. For the freelance writer, whose work may end up anywhere from full-length books to short news items, understanding the audience is even more critical, because making a living depends upon it. The advice in this chapter is generic. It is intended for all who write about science, in particular those mentioned above. It refers chiefly to writing for non-scientific audiences – the public, politicians, farmers, industry, and so on – but many of the principles apply equally to good writing in science journals, scientific and institutional reports, and on the internet.

Source of Information : CSIRO-Open Science Sharing Knowledge in the Global Century 2010

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