Plain Language and Science Writing for the Web

“I am convinced that, at its best, science is simple – that the simplest arrangement of facts that sets forth the truth best deserves the term scientific. So the geology I plead for is that which states facts in plain words – in language understood by the many rather than only by the few.” – Otis Smith

For an approach with such a simple name, plain-language science writing for the web can seem anything but simple. Too often plain language is viewed as a synonym for “dumbing down.” Plain language is not an absolute, static target; plain language depends on our intended audience.

“Again, I fear lest in our writing we lose sight of our audience, if, indeed, some of us ever see at all the audience to whom we address our written reports. The chief purpose of words is to convey thoughts, and unless the wavelengths of the words are right the receiving apparatus will utterly fail to pick up the thoughts.”

Can you believe that quote is from U.S. Geological Survey Director Otis Smith in 1921? Plain language is not a new topic in science communications!

I’ve written about science for a variety of audiences, including:

  • K-12 teachers,
  • Community members concerned about contamination,
  • Attorneys,
  • Insurance companies,
  • Kids 5+,
  • Scientists and engineers with expertise in the subject matter, and
  • Scientists and engineers who do not have expertise in the specific subject matter.

In my experience, one of the greatest obstacles to plain language writing is the failure to ask (and answer) a few questions before you start writing:

Who is your audience?
Primary audience? Secondary audience? Be specific. What is their understanding of the topic? What kind of language do they use and understand?

What is your purpose?
Your purpose and your thesis are not the same. Why are you writing? Is it to inform, inspire, motivate to action, change thinking, or some other reason?  For more complex projects or  web sites, you can think of this as a mission statement.

What do you want visitors/readers to be able to do after reading?
Be specific. If your purpose it to motivate to action, name 3 actions. If you want to inspire, what would that look like – stopping to look at an outcrop when they see it, taking a geology class, or sharing with a friend?

Taking the time to answer these questions can help you clarify what plain language is for a given piece of writing. Writing about the pollution in my neighborhood will look very different if I am writing to get a politician to take action against a polluter versus describing the conditions to a scientist to inform their future data collection decisions. It’s not just about scientific jargon: plain language is about selecting the words, tone, and style that will be most clearly understood by your audience in order to achieve your purpose and intended outcomes.

What is plain language writing to you? What questions do you ask yourself before you start writing?

(I highly recommend reading Otis Smith’s “Plain Geology” (PDF) in its entirety.)

References and Resources:

Smith, O., 1921, Plain Geology: U.S. Geological Survey General Interest Publication. http://pubs.usgs.gov/gip/plain.html and http://pubs.usgs.gov/gip/7000042/report.pdf

HowTo.gov’s Plain Language/Writing for the Web: http://www.howto.gov/web-content/manage/write-for-the-web (training, tips, checklists, and other resources)

NIH, Tips for Using Plain Language: http://www.nih.gov/clearcommunication/plainlanguage.htm#tips

Hansen, W.R., 1991,  Suggestions to Authors of the Reports of the United States Geological Survey – Choosing the Right Word (Seventh Ed.): U.S. Geological Survey Unnumbered Series. Accessed 16 March 2012 at http://www.nwrc.usgs.gov/techrpt/sta21.pdf

Center for Plain Language http://centerforplainlanguage.org/

Plain Language – Science & Industry Quotes http://www.plainlanguage.gov/resources/quotes/science.cfm

 

Much thanks to @JacquelynGill for our twitter discussion today, which prompted me to write on the topic.

 

 

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One Response to Plain Language and Science Writing for the Web

  1. Matt Hall says:

    Nice post. It brought to mind one of my favourite adages, “No one will ever complain because you have made something too easy to understand.” I don’t know who said that, but I think I got it from Tim Radford’s brilliant piece in the Guardian last year. Thanks for all the great links!