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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Stovepipe Wells, Death Valley: What’s in a Name?

Most people driving through Stovepipe Wells in Death Valley National Park probably give the name very little thought. They might be surprised to learn the site earned its name from an actual groundwater well located on the other side of the Mesquite Dunes:

Stovepipe wells actual well

The actual well behind "Stovepipe Wells" in Death Valley National Park, CA. (March 2011) (c) CBDawson

Apparently the “well” was originally two shallow pits dug in the sand. The “stovepipe” refers to a pipe that was used to mark the location so that weary travelers crossing the harsh desert would be able to find it more easily in the midst of the dunes. (The current iron pump was added in 1933 when Death Valley was designated as a National Monument.)

It’s hard to imagine what a life-saver the drinking water might have been to travelers crossing the area. However, it apparently was not the cool, refreshing drink that one might have hoped:

My canteens were exhausted when I arrived there [old Stovepipe Wells], and I disregarded the admonition and drank. The water is very low in the spring, is of a yellowish appearance and intensely nauseating in taste. Its odor is very disagreeable, and it can be smelled for half a mile away. Nevertheless, I filled my canteens, and drank of it while there. As I proceeded on my journey my legs became unsteady and I found it difficult to continue my usual pace. I lay down thinking to gain strength, but no improvement was noticeable. The distance between Stove Pipe and Hole-in-the-Rock is about 14 miles, and I fully realized that it was by all odds a case of make this or die . . . . I struggled forward, my legs becoming more and more uncertain… [Source]

If you visit the Park, it’s a nice spot to explore the dunes from — quiet with few visitors.

The site is now California Historic Landmark 826:

Stovepipe Wells historic marker.

Stovepipe Wells historic marker. (click for full-size view to read the marker)

Resources and References

Greene, L.W., 1981, Death Valley Historic Resource Study – A study of mining:Volume 1,  Section III: Inventory of Historical Resources the West Side: U.S. Department of the Interior National Park Service, Denver, Colorado. Accessed on 13 March 2012 at http://www.nps.gov/history/history/online_books/deva/section3d2.htm

 

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