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Communication Tips

Check back here because tips are updated regularly.

1. Purge unnecessary jargon. If an everyday word(s) can substitute for jargon, use it. By doing so, you will give your writing a more human tone AND help expand your writing to the widest possible audience. Moreover, studies show that even the most technical readers consider text that is written in plain language -- with minimal jargon -- more informative, professional and memorable than jargony text.

Here are some examples:

JARGON
Etiology.................................
Oviposition...........................
Epistaxis...............................
Hepatic Function.................

EVERYDAY WORD
Cause
Laying Eggs
Nosebleed
Liver Function

Here’s another example: The Merck Manual, a staple for physicians for over 100 years, defines a certain condition as: “An acute or chronic inflammation of the periungual tissues.” Do you know what that condition is?

HINT: The new laymen’s version of the Merck Manual defines the same condition as ”an infection around the edge of a fingernail or toenail.” It’s a hangnail.

2. Make sure that your abstract accurately conveys your most important findings. Why? Because an abstract is the most important part of your article; it is usually the first part -- and often the only part -- of your article that will get read.

Yet, abstracts are often poorly written. According to study recently published in JAMA, the abstracts of up to 68% of articles published in even prestigious journals contain data that is either inconsistent with data in the article body or is entirely missing from the article body. Click here for a summary of this study.

Moreover, even many abstracts written by accomplished, respected scientists omit the most important information in the article! I suspect that such abstracts are deficient because they were carelessly dashed off in the last minute or because their writers were too close to their research; lacking an objective perspective, they could not distinguish between what they thought was in the abstract from what was actually there.

Double-check that the body of your article substantiates every fact in your abstract. Then, ask a friend or colleague who is unfamiliar with your work to read your abstract and repeat its essence back to you. If your reader’s summary correctly conveys your most important findings, your abstract is probably accurate and complete.

3. Ensure that your abstracts are complete and accurate AND make for quick, memorable reading by writing “structured abstracts.”

A structured abstract is formatted as a list of headings of critical study elements -- such as “Objective”, “Study Design” and “Results” -- and concise summaries for each heading. Structured abstracts are significantly more readable and informative than traditional abstracts, and enable readers to find useful information quicker than do traditional ones. Therefore, more and more medical journals, including JAMA and the British Medical Journal, have been switching to structured abstracts.

4. Drive home important points with pictures and other visual aids, whenever possible.

Additional thought-provoking photos are posted on the REMARKABLE SCIENCE IMAGES section of this site.

5. Favor the active voice over the passive voice. You can usually restructure passive sentences that are built around a form of the verb “to be” into more energetic, concise sentences that are built around more active verbs.

COMPARISON OF PASSIVE VS. ACTIVE VOICE

PASSIVE VOICE: WORD COUNT=34

Following termination of avian exposure, there was a substantial incrementation in lung volume and, at this moment in time, it would appear that there has been a marginal degree of improvement in diffusing capacity.

ACTIVE VOICE : WORD COUNT=16

After the man stopped keeping birds, his lung volume increased and diffusing capacity apparently improved slightly.

Unfortunately, many scientists mistakenly believe that using the pronoun “I” together with the active voice would make them sound egocentric or would detract from the importance of their findings. But consider this: Watson and Crick used the active voice in their landmark paper “The Double Helix” -- among the most important publications of the 20th Century. Do you think that Watson and Crick sound like egomaniacs or like mild-mannered, straight-to-the-facts scientists?

  • Opening Of “The Double Helix”: We wish to suggest a structure for the salt of deoxyribose nucleic acid (DNA).
  • Closing Of “The Double Helix": It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material.

6. Explicitly and clearly state cause-and-effect relationships -- rather than just vaguely imply them, and thereby invite misunderstandings. Which version is clearer to you?

COMPARISON OF IMPLIED VS. EXPLICIT RELATIONSHIPS

IMPLICIT RELATIONSHIPS

Increased numbers of jellyfish lead to increased phytoplankton blooms in summer due to relaxation of grazing pressure by copepods.

EXPLICIT RELATIONSHIPS

In summer, jellyfish populations increase and so populations of their copepod prey decrease. The copepod’s phytoplankton prey then bloom.

7. Keep sentences short. Long sentences unnecessarily tax the reader’s attention. And the more taxed the reader is, the more likely he/she is to abandon the text altogether. Remember: An audience is a terrible thing to lose.

Generally, your sentences should average less than 20 words long. Test your sentence length by reading your text out loud. If you are tempted to stop and take a breath (or toss back some Gatorade) in the middle of a sentence, you should probably shorten it.

8. Purge all superfluous information, redundant phrases and unnecessary words. In other words, remove the haystack and leave only the needle -- so that your reader won’t have to sift through a pile of verbiage in order to get to the point. As Lester King, the former editor of JAMA says, “Half as long is twice as good.”

COMPARISON OF WORDY VS. CONCISE EXPLANATION

EXPLICIT RELATIONSHIPS

Vision plays an important role in the notifying animals of imminent danger, such as an impending collision with a predator or environmental surface.

CONCISE: NY TIMES MAGAZINE

Without eyes, you’d soon crash into a tiger or a cliff.

9. Give scale to numbers and statistics by comparing them to the familiar. For example:

  • A flea can jump 150 times its own length -- equivalent to a man jumping nearly 1,000 feet.
  • One part per trillion (1 ppt) is one second in 32,000 years or one grain of salt in an Olympic-size pool.
  • A super computer does in one second what a Pentium processor does in six months.

10. Don’t lose your passion. Many scientists believe that writing must sound stilted, coldly clinical and depersonalized to sound learned and objective. But I believe that to strip writing of all of its humanity is to make it inhumanly boring. Remember: The objectivity of research reflects the study design and study’s conclusions rather than whether the writer conveys enthusiasm for his/her subject.

A case in point: Do you think the following passage sounds too passionate?

“Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simply a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

Surprise! That is the last paragraph of Darwin’s Origin Of Species. I doubt that any serious scientist has ever criticized the theory of evolution because of Darwin’s obvious passion.

11. REVISE, REVISE, REVISE! When it comes to revising, once is DEFINITELY not enough. It takes MANY passes to write a clear, comprehensive and memorable document. In fact, Ernest Hemingway -- a Pulitzer Prize winner who was known for his simple, direct style -- revised the end of A Farwell To Arms about 70 times! Of course, Hemingway ultimately killed himself; I suspect that his devotion to the sometimes maddening revising/editing process contributed to his sad end. Fortunately though, most of us can endure this necessary phase without resorting to such extremes.

Writing is “largely a matter of application and hard work, or writing and rewriting endlessly until you are satisfied that you have said what you want to say as clearly and simply as possible. For me that usually means many, many revisions.”

12. Take breaks between your revising sessions. When you return to your text with a fresh perspective, you will be better equipped to read what is actually on the page rather than what you thought was on page. You will therefore be a better editor. The naturalist and writer Aldo Leopold said that he let each manuscript “go cold” by putting it into a drawer, which he called his “freezer.”

When you take your text out of your “freezer”, you should edit:

  • Extra information and words that can be eliminated without changing your meaning.
  • Word substitutions that can energize and enliven your text.
  • Ways to format your text for faster, more memorable reading.
  • Logical leaps that beg for fuller explanations.
  • Confusing or ambiguous explanations to clarify or simplify.
  • Inaccuracies.

13. Help increase society’s scientific literacy by creating a web site that explains your science. For example, check out the web site of Claudia Mills -- a University of Washington scientist who specializes in jellyfish and ctenophores. Click here for Claudia Mills’s web site.

Notice that Mills’s site includes abstracts of Mills’s papers and information about the environmental implications of her research. It also contains photographs and human interest anecdotes that humanize her and her colleagues.

14. Draw media attention to your research by posting reader-friendly summaries of your work on the Internet. More and more scientific organizations and institutions are adopting this approach.

Here is a side-by-side example of an article published in an APS journal and the plain language version of the same article posted on APS’s site.

COMPARISON OF JARGONY VS. PLAIN VERSION

JARGONY VERSION: "Observation of Equipartition of Seismic Waves"

Equipartition is a first principle in wave transport, based on the tendency of multiple scattering to homogenize phase space. We report observations of this principle for seismic waves created by earthquakes in Mexico. We find qualitative agreement with an equipartition model that accounts for mode conversions at the Earth’s surface.

PLAIN LANGUAGE VERSION: "Earthquakes Shake, Rattle and Roll"

Frequent small earthquakes rock the hills near Chilpancingo, Mexico. A siesmometer array there suggests that the gentle shaking at the end of a quake comes from waves that scatter many times in the Earth’s crust before reaching the surface.

15. Avoid being misquoted in the press by asking the reporter to:

  • E-mail you his/her questions before the interview.
  • Repeat back to you what you have said when you talk to the reporter, so that you can immediately clear up any misunderstandings.
  • Call you back with any additional questions, as necessary.
  • Provide you with a copy of your quotes before the article is published. Quickly correct any inaccuracies that you find.  (Some reporters wil not provide you with pre-publication quotes, but some will.  And it won't hurt to ask.)
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