If you’re a scientist, you may not have learned how to write about science for a general audience, for example, in the form of blog posts, opinion pieces, or guest essays. Even if you’re not a scientist, you can still apply the knowledge found in this post to write great blogs and op-eds.
Check out the below video for a summary of this post, or click here to view it on YouTube.
WHAT IS SCICOMM AND WHY DOES IT MATTER?
Science communication refers broadly to all forms of written, verbal, or visual communication designed to express, explain, or promote science and scientific research. As Emily Schafer (@SciWithEmily) put it on Twitter in a recent #SciCommChat, science communication (SciComm) is a win-win: its beneficial to scientists and non-scientists alike.
Practicing SciComm both within and – maybe especially – outside of the scientific community has three main values. First, it allows scientists to hone their science and communication skills and perfect their understanding. Second, it spreads awareness and understanding of important scientific research among non-scientists. Third, it increases competency among scientists and non-scientists alike improve the quality and impact of the entire scientific community.
TYPES OF SCICOMM
Effective SciComm, like all effective writing, is written to speak to the interests and knowledge level of a particular audience. This audience can be either those within or outside of a specific scientific field or the sciences in general, or a lay audience. SciComm, as explained by Illingworth and Allen, comes in two main types: inward-facing and outward-facing communication. Essentially, the former is written for scientists, the latter for lay audiences (or scholars outside of one’s field).
Inward-facing SciComm is communication that is designed for the scientific community – particularly scientists in the same field (e.g., chemistry) or subfield (e.g., biochemistry) as the author. When you write inward-facing SciComm you are writing for an audience who is likely already steeped in the methods, research, and background for your topic.
Essentially, inward-facing SciComm is written or presented for academic or professional audiences. Examples include academic writing for professional journals, grants, or other professional purposes. Inward-facing SciComm also includes presentations given to the scientific community, such as those given at professional conferences.
On the other hand, we have outward-facing SciComm. Outward-facing SciComm is written for general, non-scientist audiences, or for scientists in different fields. When you write outward-facing SciComm you are writing for an audience that likely has little to no knowledge or training in the topic you are discussing.
Outward-facing SciComm is basically any form of communication about science or science policy that is not professional or academic in nature. This includes discussions, whether pre-planned or spur of the moment with family, friends, strangers, or the media, in person or through social media or other internet venues. It also includes presentations at virtual or live public venues such as schools or YouTube.
WHY BLOGS AND OP-EDS FOR SCICOMM?
Scientists play an important role in shaping the public discourse on science. Scientists can help direct the conversation and affect public opinions about the value of science. Scientists can also help add nuance to over-simplified discussions and unpack overly complex topics. Web articles published for a general audience are a great venue for joining the public conversation about science.
Blogs and op-eds are great for SciComm, particularly outward-facing SciComm. Both mediums give you the freedom to choose what you say and how you say it. These venues are also among the most accessible to broad audiences. Blogs can be published on public websites and op-eds can be published in print or online versions of open access periodicals and news sources.
WRITING FOR A GENERAL INTERNET AUDIENCE
There are six straightforward steps to writing for a general audience on the internet:
1. Find a medium
The first step is to decide where to publish your work. There are websites where you can sign up for a blog such as WordPress or Blogger. You can also use sites such as Medium or Tumblr to post short blogs or other content. You can also pitch articles to internet publications (for example, the news media); however, you will likely lose control over how the content is used (or reused) after publication.
Next, begin brainstorming. Figure out what you want to say and how you want to say it. This is where you decide the main point of your blog or op-ed. Think about the audience you want and choose the writing style that would communicate your ideas in the most interesting, effective, and understandable way.
3. Structure your thoughts
Once you decide the main idea(s) you want to communicate and the style you want to use, its time to start hammering out the details such as supporting points and examples. Also, think about how to get the significance of your piece across to your audience. Try to pre-empt any concepts that could be particularly difficult for your audience to understand.
Now it’s time to put pen to paper. At the first stage of writing, just focus on getting your thoughts down on paper or recording them for transcription (there are online transcription tools for this). Either way, now is the time to start getting your ideas in order, remembering to cite any ideas that are not your own. The first draft will likely be messy; the point is to get your thoughts down.
5. Edit, edit, edit.
Now comes editing. This is the most important step for ensuring impactful SciComm. Writing and editing are two steps that may need to be repeated multiple times before you reach your final draft. You should focus on style and grammar as well as clarity and nuances – this is the stage where you make sure you are weaving a clear story and avoiding tangents and jargon. At this stage friends, family, or colleagues (ideally non-scientists) can be a great source for feedback. Also, check out this post for a few tools that can be helpful in the editing process.
6. Publish and share on social media
The final step in the process is not completing the piece, nor is it publishing it. Publication is just the beginning of the conversation; the final step is to keep that conversation going. The final step is social media presence. Promote and explain your work on internet platforms through posts. Pull friends, family, and colleagues into the discussion to build your audience.
There are always going to be things that you know that others don’t. That is, there is always an opportunity for you to teach others. Don’t take your knowledge for granted. The trick is to figure out a medium that will allow you to reach a broad audience and how to say what you want to say in a way that will be interesting and comprehensible to that audience. Use your voice and the internet to spread appreciation and understanding for science beyond the ivory tower.