Avoiding common pitfalls in writing about your research to the general public
Whether it is for a university open day, an outreach event or a regular research group newsletter for interested subscribers, your writing style will be crucial for getting your message heard. You’ll have to divorce yourself from your own expertise, and focus on the overall impact your work will have on people outside your field. Most of all, your goal is to engage the public in a clear and concise manner.
This article explores a few common pitfalls that occur when communicating your research with the general public, offering advice on how to avoid them.
Too much detail
A very common theme with experts writing for an unfamiliar audience is to include too much detail. You may feel that in order to fully appreciate a concept, your reader needs to know about every single aspect of it in excruciating detail – after all, that’s what you’ve done.
However, when addressing the general public, who usually are not involved in your field, what matters most is the essence – or the key focus – of your work, and how it will affect them. Try to put into context why what you’re communicating matters in a broader, global sense, rather than how it all works and where it fits into your specific field of study.
Overly complex writing
As with all factual writing, the idea is to put across a clear message. It is not to get lost in the beauty of the language – that’s what fiction is for. As an expert in a field where jargon is probably commonplace, you may be trying to avoid jargon, but are now going too far the other way by trying to use overly elaborate language, perhaps in an effort to entertain your reader.
It is usually best to steer clear of both jargon and generally complicated language, so that no reader feels alienated or challenged by your writing. Of course, there is a time and a place for showing off your linguistic dexterity, but be sure to tailor it to as wide an audience as possible.
Lacking focus ties in with having too much detail in your writing but is a different issue entirely. When writing about a particular topic, other related topics may often have tenuous links to what you are discussing. It can be tempting to mention these, perhaps thinking that one or two lines here and there wouldn’t do any harm. But what it actually does is distract your reader from the core of your message. Try to stay focused in your writing and don’t get distracted by other interesting issues.
To write for the general public, it is important to remember both why you are writing and whom you are writing for. Remember to use clear, concise language, and try to distil the essence of your work into an easily digestible message without losing focus.
Read next (second) in series: Pitching and writing scientific articles for mainstream media
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