Writing about your latest research may seem like a daunting task. Keeping these five guidelines in mind will improve not just your latest paper but also your ability to communicate with scientists and non-scientists alike.
1. Think about your audience.
"The number one biggest problem we all have is forgetting about the audience: what they know and what they don't," says Sunny Bains, scientist/journalist and the instructor of the popular SPIE workshop "Technical Writing for Physical Scientists and Engineers."
"One way that writers can address their readers better is to have a particular person in mind who typifies that audience: use a different person depending whether what you're writing is for people in your own field, your broad subject, another discipline altogether, or the general public. Think about this reader's experience, background, and interests as you're writing, and try to have some idea of what they may have forgotten. We tend to take for granted that everyone has the same facts at their fingertips as we do, and that's rarely the case. If you can, have that person read what you've written. If they don't follow or understand, assume that's your fault, not theirs, and fix accordingly. This really helps you to understand your audience and their limitations."
2. Give the reader the big picture.
"Another major problem we have is not properly explaining why what we're writing about is important," says Bains. She gives the following example. "Say you're working on the problem of polarization hopping in blue VCSELS (I don't promise that this is a real problem!). People who aren't experts in optics may think this is dull or irrelevant. That is until you tell them that you are interested in optical data storage, that blue light allows for the storage of more data than red, and that polarization hopping means the lasers burn disks less efficiently." It takes no time, she says, but this one thing -- context -- can completely transform a report or article.
3. Spell out any jargon or acronyms.
Here, Bains says, there are three simple rules that will save a great deal of reader confusion and frustration. "First, unless you're 100% sure the audience will know a jargon word, define it first. Second, only use acronyms if you're going to use them more than once: otherwise just use the fully spelled-out version. Finally, always spell out acronyms the first time you use them (just put either the acronym or the fully spelled-out version in brackets)."
4. Explain each new concept as it is needed.
Give the audience the information they need, in the order they need it. Going back to the optical data storage example, she explains, "At a conference full of electronics people, you'd be surprised how many don't fully understand why a blue laser is better than red (smaller wavelength equals smaller spot size equals more information stored)." So, she says, just explain this concept at the beginning.
5. Don't try to deliver a sales pitch.
"If you don't spell out obstacles or problems, your credibility will be suspect," says Bains "If you're worried that this will make your paper too negative, just make sure to include your potential solutions as well."
Sunny Bains leads the workshop "Technical Writing for Physical Scientists and Engineers" offered frequently at SPIE events. Bains has been writing for the technical and popular science press for 18 years. At Imperial College London, she is both the core technical writing lecturer for the Graduate School of Engineering and Physical Sciences and lead tutor in technical communication for the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering. Gus Campbell Photography