Writing popular science texts
As a researcher, it may be of benefit to you to share your knowledge with decision-makers, industry, stakeholder groups and sometimes the general public. Lots of people may be interested in the conclusions you have arrived at as a researcher.
In essence, popular science is about simplifying and “translating” science and research into something that people outside the research community can also take in.
To varying degrees, popular science aims both to elucidate and to entertain. When it comes to reference materials, policy briefs and applications, there is a slant towards the former while popular science books, for example, also seek to show the excitement of new understanding.
Thinking about what you want to achieve is a good place to start. Offer a new perspective on a current issue? Highlight an important but insufficiently discussed subject? Write simply about something that has not been previously made accessible? Summarise a complex field of inquiry? Or simply inspire a sense of wonder?
It is often advantageous to summarise your main message at the beginning. Sometimes the shorter and punchier the better. If, however, the text is intended to fascinate or help the reader understand a complex rationale, it may be preferable to keep the reader involved in the text and perhaps present “the riddle’s solution” at the end. While most of the time it is the case that a researcher starts by setting out the background and conditions, explaining their methods and then finishing with conclusions and implications, basically the opposite applies when writing a popular science text.
For some, it may be helpful to imagine that they are explaining to one person – for example a distant relative who is not particularly familiar with your subject.
It is a good idea to read aloud to yourself during the writing process. That makes it easier to spot linguistic oddities, unnecessary repetition and inconsistencies.
Questions to answer
If you are discussing new research, it is a good idea to answer the following questions:
- What are the new findings? (Results)
- What needs/problems are being addressed? (Needs)
- Why do these needs/problems require solutions? (Benefit)
- What implications do the results have for those affected? (Target group and relevance)
- How can the knowledge be applied? (Consequences and recommendation)
- How does the research relate to other knowledge in the subject? (Context and transparency)
- Potentially, and succinctly in that case: What did you do? (Account)
- Give examples! Concrete examples conjure up images in the reader’s head, unlike general reasoning which risks slipping past. It is a good idea to provide a few examples since a single one can have too large an impact.
- Other stylistic approaches that may be useful to deploy are metaphors (“rain forests are the lungs of the earth”) and scenarios, along the lines of “imagine if” (“If there was no oxygen in the atmosphere then...”, “If we could travel through time.”)
- Avoid technical terms – but if they are absolutely necessary, provide an explanation. Avoid them completely in the introduction, so as not to disrupt the reading experience.
- Also avoid vague, ambiguous words.
- Use vivid language. Vivid language means varying recurring words and terms, even if that means they become non-specialised.
- Short sentences are easier to read. Simple words are grasped more quickly. It might also be necessary to vary the length of sentences.
- Use straightforward sentence structure and “ordinary” vocabulary, without bureaucratic constructions.
Lund University is a member of the UK news site The Conversation, which gives international exposure to research. Here, as a researchers you can write about current social issues and new research. The articles can be republished for free by other media and reach out globally.
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