Any scientific study can be made into a scicomm blog post. Well, almost any! Be it your kids, grandparents, scientists in another field, or the milkman/woman. If you get it right, all of them should be able to take something away from a well-written, well-structured, imaginative, and engaging piece of writing.
The key to successful scicomm is not only being able to write about your research without the safety net of jargon, but to find the key aspect of the story that can grab the attention of any of the people I just mentioned.
It’s not always easy. Sometimes you might feel like you’re all lost in space, staring at a blank word doc. So, here are three techniques to adopt, which should help you get there.
1. Write the headline first, and make it a headline, not a topic
Before you do anything else, complete the following exercise: Write down “I want to tell you that…” and then finish the sentence with the take-home message of your article. You might need to do this several times before you find the right message and formulation.
Now remove the “I want to tell you that…” prefix and you have your headline. Or at least a version of it. You can continue to hone it as you write, but this should be the focus of the article, and everything in the article should be there to guide the reader to this conclusion.
If your headlines feel a bit too ‘click baity’ (like my headline for this article!), then knock off the “that” and play the game again with “I want to tell you…”
But, don’t shy away and revert back to your academic ways! “Snake venom in modern medicine” is not a headline, it’s a topic. As is “Challenging science policy orthodoxy through comparing countries”.
Here’s the golden rule for finding a great scicomm headline:
I want to tell you about… “snake venom in modern medicine” is a topic. But I want to tell you that… “snake venom can save human lives” is a headline.
I want to tell you about… “Challenging science policy orthodoxy through comparing countries,” is a topic. But I want to tell you that… “Making academics compete for funding does not lead to better science,” is a headline.
In the sea of online articles and clickbait, one will be read more than the other. I leave it there.
2. Start the article with a killer first sentence
If you’re a ‘typical’ web user, then you’re probably not even reading this article anymore. You most likely clicked away from this page before you finished that great, succinct summary of headline vs topic.
So, for those who stuck around, thank you! And here’s another nugget of information: Most readers won’t make it past the half way mark of your article.
Does that mean you should give up? Never! But, it does mean that you need to prioritise: Get the most important aspects of the story in early on, and then provide the explanation and backstory afterwards.
You grabbed the reader’s attention with a fantastic headline, and they have just scrolled down past the feature image at the top of the article to the first line. You now need to hold their attention with a killer opening line.
What do I mean? Here’s an example.
Not a killer opening sentence: “Between 1100 and 1300 AD, large parts of the European continent were experiencing significant demographic change.“
Better: “Europe in the middle ages was in crisis. More than half of the population had died.”
See what I mean?
3. Weave in and out of complexity
If you’re still with me? Don’t fall into the trap of simplifying everything to within an inch of its scientific life, and to gradually build up to your grand idea or conclusion right at the end of the article.
It doesn’t work in online publishing. It doesn’t even work in scientific writing anymore. Be honest. When’s the last time you read an entire paper form start to finish without first checking out the abstract and figures before committing yourself to a full 30 minute read? Did you actually finish it?
Once you’ve accepted the fact that most readers won’t get to the end, then there’s no need to hide the juicy stuff there. Besides, as the great Prof. Brian Cox once said in an interview, “don’t underestimate your audience.” Readers can handle complexity when it is woven in with lighter, simpler ideas in between.
This article about the history of the Universe is a great example of scicomm writing that successfully transitions between big picture concepts and more complex scientific ideas throughout.
This article includes examples from a guidebook introduction to writing for popular science articles for Forskerzonen – a popular online science magazine where expert editors help scientists to write their own scicomm articles. You can read more about the guidebook over at my portfolio.