On jargon, and why it matters in science writing

By Ed Yong | November 24, 2010 4:30 pm


Whenever I compile my list of weekly links, I usually end up with more articles from mainstream news sources than I do from science blogs. When I do link to blogs, I tend to go with those written by professional journalists and science writers than those written by scientists. That’s not a reflection on the quality of their writing. I do it simply because I write this blog for a general audience and I want to direct them to material of a similar type. And a lot of science blogs can be far too opaque for the average reader.

There is much talk of blogs being part of a golden age of science writing, where learned people can talk directly to large audiences. I certainly believe this, but I see jargon as one of the biggest barriers in the way. Many blogs fall into the trappings of scientific writing: passive voice, laboured constructions, and roundabout sentences (see this wonderful list for translations of the most common offenders).

And then, there are the words themselves. Some are technical, others are simple words clothed in extra syllables (“armamentarium” anyone?) Every field has its own list; they can be so familiar that it beggars belief that people could not understand them. Skeptical bloggers throw about terms like RCT and placebo, and catchphrases like “correlation is not causality”, as if everyone knows what they mean. Technological writers casually speak of visualisations, infographics and crowdsourcing. Have a look at Carl Zimmer’s famous list of “banned words” for more examples.

Of course, none of this is a problem if people aren’t trying to reach a broad audience. Many science bloggers aim at other scientists within their field and, in turn, this post isn’t aimed at them. But for those who hope to reach a wider audience, jargon erects a mighty barrier.

I know this from first-hand experience. In the cancer charity I work for, we test a lot of our leaflets and other resources with people from poorer backgrounds, watching them as they read and respond to our text. They’re familiar with the concepts of genes, DNA and cells but little beyond that. We talk of things that cause cancer rather than carcinogens, and changes to DNA rather than mutations. Other science writers like Colin Schultz, Lucas Brouwers and Vivienne Raper have started their own experiments along these lines, running their own ‘focus groups’ with friends and family members.

If all of this seems unnecessarily simple, remember that the average reading age of even in a developed country like the UK is around the level of a schoolchild. Go beyond that, and you risk perpetuating an online inequality where only the most educated people can understand the majority of what’s being said. My working hypothesis (and I’d love to see some actual data on this) is that 90% of science blogs can be understood by no more than 10% of people.

Writers should always remember that the more technical you get, the more restrictive you get, even if people are writing for a scientific audience. Eventually, other scientists who aren’t from the same narrow speciality become part of the amorphous “general public”, as described in this post on communication breakdowns between chemists and engineers studying oil spills (“Dude, you are speaking Romulan”).

Of course, people have every right to write for whomever they wish. I just feel it’s a shame that so much material could be opened up to a much broader audience with just a few tweaks to word choice and sentence construction. This is the approach that I favour, and the one I try to achieve here. I write about the shapes of living things but not the morphology of organisms. I don’t delineate my cognitive processes for maximal accessibility, but I try to speak my thoughts as clearly as possible. I rarely elucidate, often explain.

I’m not saying that complex words should never be used for a general audience. The opposite mistake to using wanton jargon is treating complicated terms like linguistic lepers, and introducing them nervously. You can see this in some writing. Words like “basically” or “effectively” can often mean “Here comes the difficult bit; stand back, I might crack out a metaphor.”

General readers are more than capable of understanding complex concepts, if you explain them. Explain a word once and you can often get away with using it again (although it’s still worth questioning whether you need to). If I’m writing a story about the difference between prokaryotes and eukaryotes, I trust that my readers will cope admirably with these unfamiliar terms if I explain them clearly from the start. If the difference isn’t core to the story, then the words aren’t important, and I leave them out.

As Carl has had to repeatedly say, this is not about banning words from the English language, but about replacing them with simpler alternatives. At its heart, this issue is about thinking about your audience. The biggest mistakes with jargon are using it without realising that not everyone will understand, not caring whether they will, or even expecting them to work hard at understanding you. As legendary science writer Tim Radford once said: “Don’t overestimate your reader’s knowledge and don’t underestimate their intelligence.”

Now, every time I start this discussion, people always raise two objections: scientific language is precise; and we should try to educate our readers.

It’s certainly true that technical terms carry precise unambiguous meanings (although this doesn’t excuse horrors like ‘facilitate’ or ‘utilise’). Science writers have the tough job of making things simple without compromising too much on accuracy. (Don’t get me started on “dumbing down”, an awful phrase born of arrogance and snobbery, and always calibrated using one’s own knowledge as the baseline.)

But compromise is sometimes inevitable, and it isn’t always a bad thing. Mathematicians will round numbers to various decimal places, treating 2.343839 as 2.3 for the sake of simplicity. Accuracy is lost, but acceptably so. In a similar way, good science writing rounds technical concepts to their nearest understandable form. Evolutionary trees (yes, or phylogenies, if you prefer) will leave out species and entire groups to focus on the ones of interest – science writers do the same with their descriptions, focusing on details that matter and pruning away those that will confuse their readers.

The other complaint is trickier: surely if people don’t know enough to understand these terms, part of our job should be educating them? It’s a worthy ambition, but the critical problem with trying to educate your reader is that they may not share the same goal. They aren’t in a classroom. Attendance isn’t compulsory. Fill your prose with difficult or unnecessary words and they can switch off at a minute’s notice. Your lofty goal of stretching their minds disappears in a puff of indifference. As a writer, you accomplish nothing if people stop reading, and if that happens, the failure belongs to you not your reader. As Tim Radford (him again) says, “No one will ever complain that you’ve made something too easy to understand.”

The bottom line is that you educate people by explaining complex ideas in a simple way, not by explaining simple ideas in a complex way (or, for that matter, elucidating elementary conceptions in an abstruse fashion). It comes down to thinking about your audience, rather than about yourself. Radford again, the fount of all wisdom he:

“Here is another thing to remember every time you sit down at the keyboard: a little sign that says, ‘Nobody has to read this crap’. You are not writing to impress the scientist you have just interviewed, nor the professor who got you through your degree, nor the editor who foolishly turned you down, nor the rather dishy person you just met at a party and told you were a writer. Or even your mother. You are writing to impress someone hanging from a strap in the Tube [London’s subway system – Ed] between Parson’s Green and Putney, who, given a chance, will stop reading in a fifth of a second. So the first sentence you write will be the most importance sentence in your life, and so will the second, and the third. This is because, although you may feel compelled to write, nobody has ever felt obliged to read.”

This is all true. Writing is a constant battle for attention. Filling prose with jargon, and failing to consider the all-important audience, ensures that you lose the battle before you’ve even published a pixel. Nobody has ever felt obliged to read. Don’t give them reasons to stop.

PS – Of course, I recognise that in writing this piece, I’m opening myself up for criticism on my own writing style. That’s fine – feedback is good. Lucas Brouwers, a fantastic blogger who you should be reading, drafted in his parents to look at one of my own postsa tricky piece on jumping genes that took me ages to write. The verdict: “Both my parents indicated that the post contained no words that made reading too difficult. None at all!” Lucas’s dad also wrote a summary of the post that pretty much contained all the key points from it.

I’m thrilled, obviously, especially because stories like these are particularly difficult to get across. There’s a myriad of terms to explain and it takes more effort to turn molecules into engaging characters within a story than it does with animals or humans.

The story wasn’t perfect though – they never are. One of the paragraphs went over their heads and contained too much detail. If they hadn’t been strongarmed into reading the post by their son, they might have switched off at this point. That’s invaluable to know, and I would encourage readers to provide similar feedback to the bloggers they read – which elements of a post work, which are off-putting, which make complex ideas easy and which make them impenetrable? Let us know. We want to be better.

More on science writing:


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Comments (29)

  1. i appreciate these posts ed. i’m not very writerly myself, but even those of us who don’t aim for the general audience as such can learn a great deal.

  2. Old Geezer

    Eschew obfuscation!

    [EY: Bless you. ]

  3. I think it’s worth remembering that blogs are not like standard articles or newspapers. They’re more like radio stations.

    If you’re a DJ for a popular radio station with a passion for music you may want to broaden people’s musical horizons but you also don’t want to lose people. So you play the classics but you also throw in the occasional obscure track.

    Clearly it’s important to explain concepts and use the simplest language possible it’s also worth bearing in mind that science education is not only about communicating concepts but also communicating the language.

    It’s possible to learn to play the guitar without learning to read music, but you are at a big disadvantage.

    Similarly, I want the jargon / technical language to be more familiar because that is the language of science. I hope that science writing makes the scientific literature (and not just scientific concepts) more accessible. It is important that we don’t forget that this is also an important goal in empowering people to make use of science.

    Aiming to make *every* post accessible and explaining every unfamiliar term to everyone is like having a radio station that never plays anything that will challenge its listeners.

    Because people ‘tune in’ to blogs, more than they do to other written media, I think it’s worth trying to engage people at all levels – even if not everyone catches your groove 100% of the time. Obviously, not without forgetting that most people are there for the classics.

  4. Great post about considering audience. This line deserves to be said more often:

    “Eventually, other scientists who aren’t from the same narrow speciality become part of the amorphous “general public””

    This fact means that even writing grant applications requires this kind of thinking. You need to be very careful about who exactly understands the terms you are using, whether they are relevant to the point you are making, and who exactly is in the audience.

    It is also key to successful interdisciplinary work.

  5. A very interesting reflection, I pretty much agree with you. The approximation example I really liked
    I have however to say that, as a non-native English speaker, sometimes I find easier to understand “difficult” words rather than simple ones, if the latter are colloquial terms or, more crucially, phrasal verbs or expressione of the sort. For example, the word “approximation” i’s similar to the Italian word “approssimazione”, to an Italian it’s easier than “rounding off”
    Also, with the internet is so easy for the reader to go on a dictionary or wikipedia or whatever and look at the meaning of the word… but of course if a sentence (or even worse a paragraph, or the whole text) is packed with jargon, especially if verbs are difficult I suppose, then it’s as you said, the average reader will just quit
    And come on, there’s nothing wrong with “facilitate” 😉 But again, maybe it’s because I’m Italian, the word for “easy” is “facile”…

  6. Fantastic post. You’ve pretty much defined why I decided to become a science writer rather than a PhD.

  7. Great post. Your commenters are mostly focussed on the jargon issue, but the other point you make, about sentences that are too long, abstract, passivised etc is also v. important. It is possible to train yourself to write in a much more intelligible way, and I’d thoroughly recommend Joseph Williams on Style to anyone who wants to do this. (And no, I’m not on commision: just love this book).


  8. A

    I’d just like to point out that trying too hard to avoid jargon can make the text harder to understand for parts of the audience. Some of those who know a certain technical term may have difficulties understanding what exactly an “easy explanation” is supposed to mean, at least I found myself in that situation a few times.

  9. “No one will ever complain that you’ve made something too easy to understand.” That’s certainly true. But, some will rightly complain if the re-reported biological mechanism or idea is inaccurately represented. Good jargon (rather then silly jargon) evolves to ensure accurate discussion and avoid ambiguity. Perhaps the use of unambiguous mechanistic diagrams as pioneered in the journal Cell will eventually permit the layman to directly appreciate the concept without the apparent necessity for wordy “middle men”.

  10. Great post!
    I’d like to pick up on the point you made about sentence construction.
    There’s an excellent book that teaches how to transform your writing; turn convoluted, over-passivised prose into something much more readable. And no, I am not on commision, just love this book by Joseph Williams:

  11. jon turney

    “you educate people by explaining complex ideas in a simple way, not by explaining simple ideas in a complex way”

    agreed, natch, but bear in mind A. Einstein’s famous qualification: make things as simple as possible, but no simpler. Or to put it another way, the complexity of the ideas/concepts may be present even after dejargonisation (word I may have just invented). And I have a suspicion that the real trade-off is that jargon can simplify, in its way, and some things are more complex to explain without.

  12. I prefer reading scientists who blog, especially those whose work involves human study participants (confers responsibilities and so on).

    It’s the simplifications I have trouble understanding. I’ve never attended university as a student and have a history of being told repeatedly (by autism organizations, the CIHR, etc.) that because of my diagnosis, I’m too stupid to even be in the room when “real” science is being discussed by “real” researchers.

    When I’ve done invited presentations, I’ve had memorable responses from autistic adolescents who are amazed that an autistic is presenting actual data along with the terms used in scientific research. Finally, they get the information they can use.

    When I read blogs in a totally unfamiliar area, I prefer bloggers who use “jargon” (not how I think of it). Tyler Cowen springs to mind. There’s that big internet thing out there, which means you can look things up and learn, provided things aren’t simplified on the assumption that your interest is minimal.

    If science writers stumble into my blog, they surely make loud barfing noises. But I don’t write for science writers, even though I admire their work and try to learn from them.

  13. I love this! This is something I am so, so passionate about. I’m just a publishing student and I haven’t studied science since I was 14, but I love to read about new scientific discoveries – especially regarding animals because animals are fascinating and awesome.

    This is why I read your blog. You write as if you know I’m reading. You write so that if I want to share your articles, I can send links to anybody I want, regardless of what kind of education they might have had.

    On a side note, I didn’t know about Carl Zimmer’s banned words, but I’ve read the book he wrote on evolution (“The Triumph of an Idea”), and it too embodies everything that is wonderful about clear and straightforward writing. Keep it up, Ed. Access to your writing is so valuable.

  14. Thanks for the comments, folks. And to clarify, because someone on Twitter took offence to this, I’m not for one moment suggesting that scientists can’t write for a broad audience – I read, follow and support many who do. I think that’s a pretty uncharitable reading of the opening paragraph but apologies if anyone else got the wrong idea from it.

    @Razib, Vanessa, Mirian – Thanks, it’s appreciated.

    @Vaughan – I do agree with you, which is why I cautioned against the opposite mistake of avoiding technical terms at all costs. I have no problem with people using technical language in a deliberate fashion, and I absolutely love the radio station analogy.

    @JoVE – The point about interdisciplinary work is excellent. I had a similar thought in a recent story I wrote about, involving a collaboration between a chicken farmer and a biologist. It was interesting how both men would speak to each other in deliberately simplified language that the other could understand, both simplifying their respective fields of expertise – chicken farming and developmental biology. One man’s jargon…

    @Walter and @Michelle – Fascinating points about non-native English speakers and autistics. Something to consider…

    @deevybee – If anything, the sentence structure issue is more important. You can explain a difficult word; there’s little explanation for a unintelligible convoluted sentence.

    @A – Agreed. As I said, my position is not to avoid jargon at all costs, but to (a) be more aware of what one’s audience can or cannot understand, and (b) be judicious in the use of technical terms. The trick is to replace difficult words with simpler alternatives (and use metaphors etc. rather than just straight swaps) without losing too much meaning. It’s the meaning that’s critical – hence Jon’s Einstein quote in #11.

    @Furnox – Good jargon evolves to ensure accurate discussion… between people in the know! This is my point. You can’t expect to have those discussions if your partners have walked out the door.

    @Jon – I love that quote and I quite agree that accessible language is only one part of the process. It doesn’t automatically make something easy to grasp. Other things like metaphors, imagery, and so on come into play.

  15. Agree on jargon in general, including in research papers. We should use words that are familiar to our readers; on the other hand we shouldn’t make a complicated, roundabout explanation when our audience is already familiar with the technical term.

    But my big problem is when something is jargon, but there is no good alternative. “Placebo”, for instance – if the word is unfamiliar to most people then so be it, but what on earth are we supposed to replace it with? Or “NMDA synapse”, or “Riemann integral” or “NP-complete”? The only good way I can think of, if you don’t have the time and space for a long digression, is to simply link them to some external page (wikipedia or some-such) that explains the term.

    Some subjects are perhaps simply not really accessible to many non-specialists, if you want to cover some specific detail rather than give people a general introduction. I mean, if, say, you wanted to cover the recent attempt at proving the P-NP hypothesis, and actually talk about details of the proof rather than about the problem in general, how would you do it and still keep it accessible to somebody with no background in the field?

  16. …that the average reading age of even in a developed country like the UK is around the level of a schoolchild.

    Seriously? You’re using this as an argument (with emphasis, I might add) and then issue a disclaimer that you have no data to support this assertion, but are using it anyway? I see the “everyone knows” fallacy is alive and well, then.

    About 45 seconds of web searching yielded:

  17. Thanks for a very interesting article – I particularly liked the analogy between mathamatical rounding and making science less ‘technical’. I’m going to pass this around my department (teaching secondary science) with particular reference to Radford’s quote about not ‘mixing up’ (that was ‘conflating’ before I realised I was being poncy about words!) intelligence and knowledge.

    OT… that reminds me of a SF story from ages ago, talking about the difference between ignorance (not knowing something) and stupidity (not wanting to care about knowing). But I can’t recall the title. That’s going to bug the hell out of me…

  18. ‘Nobody has to read this crap’ is very true, but it works in both directions – you don’t have to read my crap, but equally I don’t have to write crap for you. I think this post is spot on, but it’s spot on if your specific aim is popular science outreach.

    Christopher Hitchens said in ‘Letters to a Young Contrarian’ that the test of whether you’re a writer isn’t that you ‘want’ to write, it’s that you ‘need’ to write. If I’m really honest about the reasons why I write, a very large part of it is because I enjoy writing, and I write for my own pleasure. It’s not pocket money or microfame that get me out of bed at 2am desperate to jot down some ideas.

    Because of that, I sometimes write in quite an elitist way. I enjoy playing with language, try to use new and interesting words, bring in random facts and things I didn’t know before, draw links to obscure references, pepper articles with in-jokes that only certain people will get, and jokes that sometimes are entirely for my own personal amusement and leave everyone else scratching their heads.

    And that’s okay. I think it’s absolutely fine for science writers to deliberately write challenging or obscure prose for personal amusement or for a particular audience; but it becomes a big problem when they do it because they can’t write clearly and straight-forwardly in the first place, and that I think is where what you say really kicks in.

    Or to sum up: I think it’s fine to break all the ‘rules’ you set out in your post, but you need to understand them first, and know when you can break them, and when you really can’t.

  19. @Janne –Good point, and I did say in the post that I’m not calling for people to avoid technical words at all. In many cases, there will be no alternatives, or the technical terms are integral to the story (see the “prokaryote” example). Again, this is about using such terms judiciously, and explaining them where possible. And as you say, there are some fields that are so complex that they don’t lend themselves easily to this approach – the P v NP problem is a good example.

    @nullifidian – Thanks for the beautiful bar charts with the big numbers on them. However, I appreciate the complaint about lack of substantiating data. So here’s some: this report says that in 2003, research commissioned by the former Department for Education and Skills suggested that 17.8 million adults in England (56% of the adult workforce) had numeracy skills “below Level 2″, which is what you need to get an A-C grade at GCSE English. I’ve updated the text with a link. And the comment about wanting to see data related to my hypothesis, not the bit about the reading age.

    @mjrobbins – “Or to sum up: I think it’s fine to break all the ‘rules’ you set out in your post, but you need to understand them first, and know when you can break them, and when you really can’t.” This x a gajillion

  20. Bravo!

    I’m a scientist-turned-occasional-journalist and I had a snotty science blogger write something referring to a (well-read, and I thought interesting, but very much science-for-the-general-reader) article I wrote earlier in the year – it complained that it was too “entertaining”.

    This rather reminded me of Wendy Cope’s response to a reviewer who said:
    “She is witty and unpretentious, which is both her strength and her limitation.”

    Cope: “I’m going to try and overcome my limitation–
    Away with sloth!
    Now should I work at being less witty? Or more pretentious?
    Or both?”

    One thing I discovered in particular was that science journalists didn’t understand most of the press releases from my field, and especially from an adjacent field – so they didn’t write those stories. Lesson to the scientists and press officers I feel.

  21. Really appreciate this post, and as a grad student in the social sciences who always felt limited by the hard sciences, this hit quite a few spots.

    I guess a good rule of thumb for scientists or any kind of academician should follow is in the old adage:

    “You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother.”

    I didn’t grow up with a grandmother, but still. I find that when I’m talking to people who have English as their second language, I resort to a more simplified explanation.

    Even explaining what I do can be difficult, but I think people get it at the end.

    So what I do when I’m explaining my Anthropology career, I try to get a feel for their knowledge. Once I sort of have a feeling of their experiences and their knowledge of the language, I usually make a simily or say what it is I’m going to eventually do.

    For example, even if I’m talking to a bunch of my aunties who work as nurses here in the States and speak fluent English, but English isn’t their first language, I still have to make some kind of “simplification.” They’re always just interested in what I do, and what I plan to do for a job. How I get to my next job, i.e. my academic interests, stints as a Grad Assistant, is not as important.

    So in jargon that I’d use around peers and professors at conferences, I’d tell them I’m an Anthropology grad student interested in police engagement with the public with some interest in group polarization. My intent is to use such research to wield my way onto a think tank.

    What I’m going to tell my aunties at Thanksgiving dinner today is that “I’m a student again, studying how the police works with people, and that with my work, I want to get a job at a research company.” They understand “company” in a way that generates job they won’t really understand how a “think tank” generates jobs (actually, I’m not even quite sure how that’s done, but that’s another subject).

    I don’t think I’m dumbing anything down, I’m just giving them the information I think they want based on feedback they’ve given me before. I’m not using the nuance or as many nouns that I would with a native speaker of English, but I don’t think anything of the conversation is lost because I got my point across to them and what was important to them.

    I know conversation is quite a bit different than writing, mainly because you don’t really “know” your audience. However, I still think you can adapt to the audience a number of ways.

    For example, if you’re going to take a word like “placebo” and use it for a “public” audience, I guess the best thing to do would be to define it. Then explain your understanding of it, why you’re using it, and/or why it is important for the rest of the article.

    So if I’m going to use “placebo” in a blog for 4th graders, I’ll take the dictionary.com definition of placebo:

    “A substance containing no medication and prescribed to reinforce a patient’s expectation of getting well or used as a control in a clinical research trial to determine the effectiveness of a potential new drug”


    transform it into this:

    “A placebo is a substance a patient takes that doesn’t really cure him, but is given to him by a doctor to make him believe that he will get better.

    The substance can also be used as a “control” in an experiment. As a “control”, the placebo is given to one set of patients while a new substance is given to another set of patients. Using the placebo is a way for scientists to measure how good the new substance is. If the new substance does not work better than the placebo, then it will show that the new substance is not so good or effective”

    I think that simplification of placebo was about making the action seem “current” as if it was occurring now, in the present, in the concrete. When you break that down on a grammatical level, it’s about doing one idea a sentence, rooting out nouns, especially abstract nouns, and to the extent possible, using the present tense. Using the present tense I think just brings things back to the ground level and the everyday.

    I’m not a “hard” scientist and I’m not even sure if these are even acceptable definitions, but I was just trying to illustrate the possibilities in something as mundane as the dictionary.com definition.

    I was told by a former girlfriend that if you’re the only one who understands something, then that knowledge will probably die with you as well. It’s more work to explain things, and maybe it isn’t everyone’s job to explain everything to people, but if you’re going out there and present it, it ultimately needs to be understood by someone.

    It’s not “dumbing” anything down (thanks Ed, I’ve been annoyed with that comment as well), it’s just explaining things in a way to people who don’t focus everyday on what you have the privilege of focusing on. They’re just people who are simply not in your tribe, just as you probably wouldn’t understand the acronyms people at a Police Commissioners meeting would use. All spoken and written language is just one tool we have to communicate things to people. So, to the extent possible, I think it’s real important to break things to the lowest common denominator. If it’s too simple, then like in conversation, get feedback from your audience.

    BTW, Ed, one book that I think you’d like is “Metaphor of Science” by Theodore Brown which talks a bit about this. I’d also recommend M.A.K. Halliday’s “Language of Science” but that book is shrouded in jargon, ironically enough.

  22. (As an aside, this post could use bumping sometime after this weekend. Thanksgiving weekend is legendarily a time when most Americans – probably even scientists – are traveling and/or don’t read as much because their families are busy annoying them. I just think this topic is worth hammering repeatedly).

    Thank you for so perfectly stating this!

    First, @mjrobbins, I agree with your point very much. However, be aware that while many enjoy writing to a particular crowd or in a challenging way, as you do, others very much have a “need” to write to the general public with the express purpose of helping them understand something. To imply (using the opposite of your statement) that those already accused of “dumbing down” and “pandering” are additionally non-respectable because they are just choosing write for non-honorable, money-seeking reasons is pretty rough – and totally false, IMO.

    Anyway, once stated, the concepts of this post really should be self-evident: Write and talk for your audience.

    Audience is scientists, you have good leeway with terminology.
    Audience is non-sci but very interested in learning the deep details, quick definitions of terminology are probably all you need to escort them in, since they really want to learn.
    Audience is hostile to science… I don’t know, myself. I won’t waste my time except in debate.
    Audience isn’t hostile to science but also really doesn’t care (but you want to introduce something to them), then you really have to work, and hard, to interest them without having them black out on you.

    This last point is actually important: IF you’re writing to the general public – that is the public that isn’t inherently curious, but could be – THEN your task is extremely difficult: take incredibly complex concepts and distill them down to an essence that, while still being correct in spirit is spoken in common English. Even a few attempts have shown me this is no easy task.

    But it can be rewarding, I think. If there is even one person who “gets it” because of such writing, then it is great success, IMO.

  23. jules

    You have changed my life! Thanks awfully.

  24. Aurora

    I agree with just about everything you’ve said here, Ed – and fully intend to steal the approximation argument when I next have this debate with a scientist.

    Also loved Vaughan’s radio station analogy.

    In response to Walter, though, I have to say that his points hold mostly for native-speakers of ‘Latin’ languages (Italian, Spanish, French, Portuguese) – and that this can also cause the opposite problem: when ‘latin’-speakers write in English, their texts can seem littered with these words that come naturally to them but are not that self-explanatory to others. Writing styles also vary from one language (and culture) to another – German grammar rules often make convoluted sentences absolutely mandatory. Just being aware of these differences can help, I think…

    Finally, totally agree with mjrobbins: playing with the rules can be fun for writers and readers *if* you “know when you can break them, and when you really can’t”!

  25. MRW

    This brings up a question:
    “…treating 2.343839 as 2.3 for the sake of simplicity. Accuracy is lost…”

    What happens when you run into a word that casually means something different than it does in jargon? In scientific language, the quote would be wrong – precision is lost, not accuracy – but the common definition of accuracy covers both scientific concepts.

  26. MRV: Precision is lost for sure. Accuracy may or may not be lost, depending on where the 2.343839 came from in the first place. If it’s a measured result to seven decimal places, then you are losing accuracy as well as precision; if it’s a calculated result, it may be appropriate to round it because the low-order digits are just artifacts.

  27. One of the most useful websites Ive come across for knowledge within this particular niche. Im going to be looking back frequently for brand-new content.

  28. Cathryn Delude

    This is a great post, Ed. A fellow writer gave me this rule of thumb: If you write for scientists, write at the 12th grade level. If you write for the educated general public, 8th grade level. For the “general public,” 6th grade level. For health information for the general public: 4th grade level. That’s for the US. The UK is probably oh so much more literate.


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