Science writing tip: Unlearn academic verbiage

The first rule of writing science on the Internet is to put out lucid, non-academic sentences.

Scientists and engineers tend to write posts on the Web filled with jargon and dry, passive sentences, things that are common in research papers. Their academic training makes them write not just complex sentences but also deters them from reaching the “period” soon enough. If you’re a scientist, engineer or anyone similar who wants to write on the Internet, the first thing to realize is that academic writing is your enemy.

It makes you dig a rabbit hole when a single sentence would’ve sufficed. It makes you write acronyms for complex concepts when the term could’ve been ditched altogether. An article or a blog is not a research document. Stop treating it like one.

You can have the most amazing facts to tell but if you deliver them in clunky sentences, it will shy away the reader. It doesn’t always matter if you say something is in Earth orbit instead of mentioning Low Earth Orbit (LEO) at every chance you get.

When writing science for the Internet, start by unlearning academic writing. The very choice of publishing on an interconnected platform with the biggest spread of audience in history demands that. It took me years to realize this.

Of course you can choose to target your writings to a niche set of people. But that doesn’t automatically exclude others from discovering it or finding it useful, especially people tangentially related to the topic.

It’s possible to communicate complex topics in a manner that allude to both the expert and the enthusiast. If you write “The spacecraft fired its engines to get out of Earth orbit” rather than “The spacecraft performed a trans-lunar injection burn”, the subject expert will know exactly what you meant anyway but the non-expert will be able to stay along for the ride.

The other thing to remember is nobody is an expert on every subject. A geologist will enjoy a lucid read on a new finding concerning dinosaurs, and maybe even realize new geological connections to that time period, but she won’t take away anything from a clunky piece with assumed, or enforced, jargon. An expert in one subject is a commoner in another.

Lucid writing is an indispensable tool to attract a spectrum of people and retain their attention. The skill won’t come to you overnight. Or even for months. I don’t claim to be a lucid writer but I can tell you that with practice, as with any intricate skill, it’ll start showing itself in all the right places even without you being good at it.

Start by writing fixing common writing mistakes. For instance, use simple, short sentences that can be understood by 10 year olds instead of writing unwieldy ones.


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