In a career workshop at the 2010 AAAS Annual Meeting in San Diego Friday morning, Victoria McGovern of the Burroughs Wellcome Fund promised the audience three tips on how to improve their academic writing. But she gave many more than three.
McGovern kicked things off by inviting attendees to present their research to the person sitting next to them. Everyone immediately seemed happily engaged. Then, after a few minutes, McGovern asked if there was anyone in the audience who felt dread about writing. A few hands rose. “We are sociable animals,” McGovern then said. “Writing allows you to communicate to more people than talking does.” Yet, it’s much the same thing. The message: Though many people are intimidated by writing, it’s much the same as explaining something to an acquaintance.
Whether you are writing a dissertation, an abstract, or a paper, “science is all about telling stories.” McGovern said. She urged scientists to think about the results they want to communicate as a novel or a movie with “a hero, a conflict, and a moment.” She took the example of malaria research, where the malarian pathogen would be the bad guy and the conflict a struggle for survival between two species–the malaria pathogens and humans.
When telling your story, keep an engaging tone by leaning toward the active, she suggested. Scientists started writing using a lot of passive tense (using formulas like “it was discovered…” and so on) to remove themselves from the picture. “People didn’t want to seem grandiose” about their discoveries.” But the passive voice must not be overdone, she said.
Then, read aloud what you have written, even if it seems goofy. “English and most other languages have a rythm to them,” McGovern says. Reading aloud, even if English is not your native language, will help you detect when you go astray by using too much passive or just too many words. “Don’t spend lots of space to say something… Don’t inflate things.” Just “communicate real things to real people.”
Just try to relax, she suggested. “It’s just communicating with other people.”
Finally, practice your writing by talking about your science with your family, friends, and anyone who will listen to you. “There is not much in science that cannot be expressed in simple language,” McGovern said. Tell them what it’s about, why it matters, what changes things, and where you intend to go from here.
Remember when you had a big break and went back home or told your family on the phone? “Bring that excitement into your scientific communication.”