If you’re a researcher, chances are that the only writing experience you’ve had is with tedious, data-heavy articles for peer-reviewed academic journals（査読付き学術誌）. But what if the editor of a popular magazine has invited you to contribute an article? Or if you want to write a press release on your research, to engage with a wider audience?
How do you undo years of scholarly training and learn to write for the layperson（一般読者）?
You’re not alone; this is a dilemma that many academics sometimes even experienced researchers face when dealing with the general public for the first time. You can overcome this, however, using the below seven tips to turn your technical writing into engaging content that anyone can understand. These tips are not absolute, and not the end-all; they’re basic guidelines that can help you write best and the most compelling version of your academic content. Read on to find out how!
1. Begin with the title
The titles of academic articles are typically vague and technical, such as:
“Hemispheric asymmetry in hand preference of right-handers for passive vibrotactile perception: an fNIRS study”
Such titles, while standard for academic articles, could prove to be uninviting to a lay reader. To send a more welcoming signal to potential readers and grab their attention, try phrasing your title as a question (“Can Brain Activity during Tactile Stimuli Reveals Hand Preferences in People?”), wordplay (“A Touch Reveals Hand Preferences in People”), or any other attractive phrase (“Touch-and-Know”).
Also, remember to opt for simple, concrete language, wherever possible. For example, “Snakes on a Plane” is an inviting title; “Aggressive Serpentine Behavior in a Restrictive Aviation Environment” is not.
2. Follow with an opening “hook”
While the title should grab the attention of readers, the opening paragraph should retain it.
“Scientific work in organizations may either facilitate or inhibit performance and within a larger social community of science that may limit, constrain, or stimulate the development of ideas and actions.”
If you write an opening like this, there’s a chance that you’ve already lost your readers. Follow up your engaging title with an opening paragraph that contains a question, quotation, anecdote, or description such as a vivid scene or a surprising fact.
Toss your readers into the middle of a story that has already begun.
3. Narrate a story
The stories we like the most have real people in them. Consider making yourself the central character in a tale of academic challenge and discovery.
Alternatively, you can find another human face to focus on. This could be a patient with cancer who was helped by a new type of treatment, a student who confronted and overcame a conceptual roadblock, or an artist who struggled to find an appropriate aesthetic form for conveying the horrors of war.
Over time and with practice, you can learn to create an equally compelling story featuring non-human characters as well: the cells in our body, a mathematical equation, a novel chemical compound, or even an element in the periodic table.
4. Be human
Academic writing may sometimes give you the false impression that the more technical you sound, the better is your writing. This is not true.
More readers will relate to your writing if it sounds like a human has written it, not a machine.
For your article, you can choose to use either the personal pronoun “I” or just an authoritative yet conversational voice, which invokes confidence and trust in your readers.
Try reading a few paragraphs aloud to yourself or to a friend. Do your sentences sound robotic? Or can you hear a real person speaking?
5. Derive inspiration from the real world
Academics are used to dealing with jargon（専門用語）, which may not seem relatable to the general audience. Readers grasp technical concepts best when they are grounded in the physical world.
How is your research relevant to the general audience? How does it contribute to the real world?
Use real-world examples to get your point across.
6. Vary your verbs
Verbs can have a powerful impact on sentences. Flat, predictable verbs produce monotonous prose:
“The focus of archaeological research on technology as an adaptation has, according to some, removed technologies from the historical circumstances in which they came into existence.”
In contrast, “active verbs,” sound attractive and energetic. For example:
“Insects suck, chew, parasitize, bore, store, and even cultivate their foods to a highly sophisticated degree of specialization.”
Compare the two sentences above. In the first one, “The focus … has … removed,” on might wonder: what is this sentence really about?
In the second, “Insects suck, chew, parasitize, bore, store, cultivate…,” you can practically see those ravenous insects swarming!
Thus, verbs are the most impactful when they directly follow a noun (in this case, “Insects”) and when both the agent and action can be clearly identified.
7. Pay attention to the tiny details
While some authors make lay writing seem easy, it is usually quite the opposite of that. Stylish academic writers hone and polish their sentences to perfection.
They spend hours editing their own work and removing clutter. They work hard on their writing, so that their readers won’t have to work hard to read.
For example, the sentence “From an analysis of the resulting data, it can be seen that…” can just as easily be rewritten as “So…”
Even if you think that your final draft is ready, don’t forget to spend time “decluttering” it.
Together, these tips form the core principles of effective and impactful written communication.
No matter the subject or audience, these tips will add value to your writing and help you to take your research to the next level.
Reference: “Seven secrets of stylish academic writing” by Helen Sword, viewed 30 Nov 2020, https://theconversation.com/seven-secrets-of-stylish-academic-writing-7025