How to Write for the Public

1. WHY WRITE FOR GENERAL READERSHIPS?

Preparing papers and proposals for peers to read can entail plenty of writing. Why might you write for nonscientists also?

Sometimes your academic program or job includes doing some writing for lay readerships. For example, requirements for a graduate degree can include writing a nontechnical summary of your thesis. Your funding agency may require public outreach. Or, if you teach introductory courses in your disci­pline, you may prepare teaching materials that are essentially for the public.

At our own initiative as well, some of us write for the public. Some of us enjoy doing such writing and appreciate the chance to reach audiences broader than those in our own fields. Other motivations can include giving members of the public useful information on technical topics, helping to attract people to scientific careers, and helping to engender public support for science. Some of us also welcome the bit of extra income that popular writing can bring.

2. FINDING PUBLICATION VENUES

If you wish to write for the public, how might you find a home for your work? Good places to start can be publications, both online and in print, that you like to read. Do not limit yourself to those devoted solely to science. Other publications, including magazines focusing on specific interests or geared to specific popu­lation groups, often contain articles on science-related topics. If you have not published articles for the public before, suitable starting points can include local, regional, or specialized publications, including those at your own institu­tion. Another good starting point can be a blog that you establish or an existing blog for which you arrange to write guest posts. Then, once you have proven your ability to write for the public, publications of greater scope are more likely to welcome your requests to write.

If a venue seems suitable, try to determine whether it accepts freelance work. One way is to see who writes for it. If all the authors are staff members listed in its masthead, a magazine is unlikely to accept your work. But if, for instance, some articles have blurbs saying that they are by scientists, the venue might be appropriate for you.

Many popular publications that accept freelance work have writer’s guide­lines, which are analogous to journals’ instructions to authors. Look for these guidelines, which appear on the publications’ websites or can be obtained from their editorial offices. Items often addressed include subject areas in which articles are wanted (and not wanted), standard article lengths, requested writ­ing style, rates of payment, and postal or electronic addresses to which article proposals should be submitted.

Typically, magazines want prospective authors to submit article proposals, known as query letters, rather than submitting completed articles at the outset. Doing so is more efficient for the author, who can thus avoid wasting time writing articles that the magazine would not want. It also is more efficient for the editor: By reading a query letter, the editor can quickly evaluate the story idea and the writer’s skill. And if the query is accepted, the editor can work with the writer from the outset to suit the story to the magazine’s needs.

A query letter generally should be limited to one page (or the equivalent amount of text in an email message). Begin by describing the article you pro­pose. Among questions you might address are the following: What is the main topic of the article, and what major subtopics do you plan to address? Why is the topic likely to interest readers? What information sources do you expect to use? How might the article be organized? What types of photographs or other graphics might be appropriate? Near the end of the letter, include a paragraph summarizing your qualifications to write the article. If you have not written for the magazine before, provide examples, if available, of articles you have written for the public. Further information on writing query letters, and more generally on writing for magazines, can be found in books such as You Can Write for Magazines (Daugherty 1999) and The Complete Guide to Article Writing (Saleh 2013) and in magazines such as Writer’s Digest.

Before writing for a magazine, website, or other venue, analyze writing that it has published or posted, so that yours can fit in. Notice, for example, how long the paragraphs tend to be, how formal or informal the wording is, whether headings divide the articles into sections, and whether articles tend to include bulleted lists. In writing for a popular venue, as in writing a scientific paper, suiting the writing to the site will increase likelihood of publication.

3. ENGAGING THE AUDIENCE

Readers of journals where your papers appear are likely to be interested already in your topic. Or at least they are deeply interested in science. Thus, beyond perhaps noting the importance of the topic, you generally need to do little to attract readers.

When writing for the public, however, you typically must do more to engage the audience. One key to engaging the audience is analyzing the audience. The public is not uniform. Rather, readers of different publications have different interests. Ditto for users of different websites and audiences of different broad­cast programs. Consider what the audience members are likely to care about, and relate what you say to those interests.

Regardless of other interests, most people care about people. Thus, use human interest to help engage the audience. For example, tell about the people who did the research. If there are technology users or patients, tell about them as well. When appropriate, also include almost-human interest, for much of the public likes animals.

Include quotes from the people in your piece. Doing so contributes to human interest and can keep attention through varied voices and lively wording. To obtain quotes, of course, you generally must do interviews even if you are well versed on the topic about which you are writing.

People generally like stories, which often combine human interest and sus­pense. So consider including some narrative. For example, show how a line of research developed—and do not omit the difficulties encountered. Or include some anecdotes illustrating your points.

Especially with regard to technologies, costs may interest and be important to the public; consider including economic context. Likewise, if relevant to your subject, provide social and ethical context.

Science is full of wonder as well. Use it to help engage the audience. Draw on the audience’s curiosity. Too much gee-whiz can cheapen science, but a little can enliven a piece.

In a popular article, unlike in a scientific paper, you may be able to engage in wordplay and other humor. If, for example, puns are your passion, now may be your chance. Be sure, however, that any humor would be understandable to the audience; avoid scientific in-jokes.

Think visually as well as verbally. Editors of popular pieces for print, the web, and television generally want to use photos or other graphics. Even radio stories benefit from description of visual aspects. If a piece is to include visuals, the editor can tell you whether to provide them yourself or merely provide ideas.

To maintain interest, pace the article carefully. Think of a popular article as a chocolate chip cookie. Just as each bite of the cookie should contain at least one chocolate chip, each few paragraphs of the article should contain some­thing tasty—for example, a good quote, a lively anecdote, or a deft analogy. Keep your readers wanting one more bite.

4. CONVEYING CONTENT CLEARLY

Much of what you do to engage the audience also can aid in conveying content clearly. For example, gearing your piece to the audience, using lucid analogies, and providing visuals can serve both roles. So can supporting what you say with examples.

Members of the public probably will not know technical terms in your field. Where feasible, avoid such jargon. If technical terms are important to the story you are telling, or if readers should learn them for future use, remember to define them. One way to avoid intimidating readers is to state an item in familiar words before providing the technical term (example: “bone-forming cells called osteoblasts”). Remember also to define abbreviations. “PCR” may be everyday language for you but meaningless to your readers.

Structure what you say to promote clarity. For instance, provide overviews before details. Explicitly state the relationships between concepts. Repeat impor­tant points.

Include numbers; members of the public often expect and enjoy them. How­ever, present them in easily understood ways. If the audience is unfamiliar with metric units, use English units. And relate sizes to familiar ones (“about the size of . . .”). Do not overwhelm readers with many numbers clustered together. Separate pieces of “hard stuff” with softer material, such as anecdotes and examples.

Sometimes readers have misconceptions about scientific items. To counter misconceptions without seeming condescending, consider taking the following approach (Rowan 1990): First, state the commonly held view and note its seem­ing plausibility. Then show the inadequacy of that view. Finally, present the scientifically supported view and explain its greater adequacy.

Of course, follow the principles of readable writing presented elsewhere in this book. For example, use concise, straightforward language when possible. Structure sentences simply. Avoid lengthy paragraphs.

Finally, consider checking with readers. Show a draft to nonscientist friends or neighbors or family members. See what they find interesting. See what they find clear or unclear. Then consider revising your piece accordingly before submitting it.

5. EMULATING THE BEST

Further guidance in writing for the public about science appears in a variety of books and articles (for example, Blakeslee 1994; Blum, Knudson, and Henig 2006; Gastel 1983, 2005; Hancock 2003; Stocking et al. 2011; Writers of Sci- Lance 2013).

In addition, good popular science writing, like good writing for scientific audiences, benefits from following good examples. Where can you find such examples? Major newspapers and magazines contain much good science writ­ing. So do the bestseller lists. Fine pieces of popular science communication in various media have won AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Awards, National Association of Science Writers Science in Society Journalism Awards, and Pulitzer Prizes; the websites for such awards list recipients and, in some cases, include links to the pieces. Other sources of excellent examples include the annual anthology titled The Best American Science and Nature Writing. Consume good works of popular science communication. Whether or not you explicitly analyze them, you are likely to assimilate much about writing skillfully for the public.

Source: Gastel Barbara, Day Robert A. (2016), How to Write and Publish a Scientific Paper, Greenwood; 8th edition.

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