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To communicate more clearly, look to your feet

As an early career researcher, you might have experienced the need to adapt your writing to a non-academic audience. Perhaps you have written applications to certain grant bodies or impact case studies for the Research Excellence Framework (REF). The latter requires ‘a distinctive new genre of writing’ that needs to be ‘clear and direct’ (Reichard et al, 2020) [1].

Commercial writing

A sector that already understands the value of clear, direct writing is commerce. Of the many products commercial writing generates, one of the best known is the so-called ‘junk mail’ that lands on your doormat. It is worth picking up and studying junk mail because it offers valuable lessons in making information easy for the reader to digest.

Writing for your reader

For most researchers, conference papers or peer-reviewed journal articles are the main outputs from their work. Typically, such papers are written for a select group of peers. The audience is other researchers who are familiar with the concepts, terminology, writing style and forms of argument familiar to that discipline. The purpose of the work is to convince the reader that the argument is strong, the evidence and reasoning are sound, and any claims or conclusions justified.

However, early career researchers may also have to undertake writing that is intended for a wider readership and with a different purpose. For this kind of writing, whether it’s a grant application or an impact case study, money is more obviously at stake. Those who assess the quality of these submissions are panel members from a wider range of backgrounds, some of whom may not be academics. Here, the immediacy and accessibility of the writing come to the fore. Writing such submissions requires a different mindset.

Writing for a non-academic audience

I asked two academics, both authors of successful science-based books, the following question. How does writing for a non-academic audience differ from writing for academia?

‘The first thing you need to do is to fully understand the topic, and then imagine what level of detail needs to be grasped by someone who knows very little about the subject. This will almost certainly involve missing out a level of detail that would be present in academic writing.’
(Matthew Cobb, Professor of Zoology, University of Manchester, author of The Idea of the Brain.)

‘Writing for a non-academic audience must be engaging — or even exciting. Adjectives are welcome and story-telling is important. Jargon must be stripped out; no prior knowledge should be taken for granted.’
(Daniel M. Davis, Professor of Immunology, University of Manchester, author of The Secret Body.)

The needs of the reader

These two observations share a keen appreciation of the needs of the reader. Returning once more to the world of commercial writing, it is important to have a crystal-clear picture of who you’re talking to (Gettins, 2000) [2]. To achieve this, advertising agencies invest heavily in researching target markets. That’s because communications aimed merely at a generic customer are likely to result in an embarrassingly cliched approach that rings hollow with the intended audience. I still remember the teenage me sniggering at anti-smoking ads starring the comic-book villain, Nick O’Teen, and his top hat that was a smoking cigarette butt.

Audience awareness

With audience awareness in mind, it is worth remembering that judging panels for grants aren’t always formed solely by experts in the relevant field. Some include lay people. The committee that has the final sign-off for all grant applications to the Leverhulme Trust is made up of individuals primarily from the highest levels of Unilever, to ensure decisions are ‘free from disciplinary interest’. For many kinds of grant submission, peppering your application with unexplained technical terms could alienate certain panellists at the cost of success.

Similarly, REF judges are volunteers – most of them time-pressed – who mark impact case studies between all their other work duties. When trying to get a couple done during their lunch break, they’d probably prefer ones that present the research, and resulting benefits, in a way that is clear and direct.

So how can you write in this way?

Writerly tricks

The Reader Expectation Approach to constructing sentences works on understanding that sentences contain stress points where the reader instinctively expects to find key elements (Gopen and Swan, 1990, 2018) [3]. Giving your reader those elements in those places will result in writing that is a pleasure to read. It is often best to place the subject and main verb at the start of a sentence, and to limit the sentence to just one idea.

Certain writerly tricks can extend and improve this approach. Starting an introductory sentence with a word like ‘despite’ or ‘although’ sets up intrigue and encourages the reader to carry on. They know a twist is coming. This is a particularly useful technique if you are seeking to persuade a grant awards panel of the valuable gap in knowledge your research has exposed.

Take this sentence about the imaginary condition, ganglovitus:

‘Despite affecting thousands in the UK and costing the NHS over £200 million each year, there is still no clear understanding of how ganglovitus spreads between people.’

The stage is now set for proposing some well-executed research that could help solve the dilemma.

Easy on the eye

Contrast that style with the work of an academic who, when completing a grant application, narrows margins and shrinks fonts to cram in as much text as possible. The only thing they achieve is a dismayingly impenetrable wall of words. Think from the readers’ perspective, and your application is more likely to be understood — and approved.

So next time you are about to throw that double-glazing brochure in the recycling bin, stop. Take a minute. It is worth studying exactly how the language and look have been crafted: to get the reader to respond in a positive way.

29 April 2021

[1] Reichard, B., Reed, M.S., Chubb, J. et al. (2020) ‘Writing impact case studies: a comparative study of high-scoring and low-scoring case studies from REF2014’, Palgrave Communications, 6(31). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41599-020-0394-7

2 Gettins, D. (2000) The Unwritten Rules of Copywriting. London: Kogan Page Ltd

3 Gopen, G. and Swan, J. (1990, 2018) ‘The Science of Scientific Writing’, American Scientist, 1 January 2018. Available at: https://www.americanscientist.org/blog/the-long-view/the-science-of-scientific-writing. (Accessed: 8 March 2021).

 

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