Helping Scientists Translate Their Work for the Lay Public

Q&A with Jane Nevins, Author of You’ve Got Some Explaining to Do

April 08, 2014

Jane_NevinsJane Nevins came from a "science-free career" as a newspaper writer and editor to the Dana Press to work on publications about the brain. During her nearly twenty-five years editing neuroscience writing for the lay public, she became an expert in bridging the gap between the scientist perspective and what readers want to know.

Now the Dana Press editor-in-chief emerita has used that extensive experience to write a compact book of best practices for scientists writing for non-scientific audiences, "You've Got some Explaining to Do: Advice for Neuroscientists Writing for Lay Readers." Divided into three parts, readers will learn about perspective, audience, and voice; common practices that sharpen writing; and writing and visual style.

In this Q&A with Dana Director of Communications, Ann Whitman, Nevins explains the differences between writing for the lay public versus scientist peers, how identifying the reader helps plot one's narrative course, and why this book extends to readers beyond those in the neuroscience community.

Ann Whitman: Why did you decide to write a book about communicating science to the lay public?

Jane Nevins: Dana Chairman Ed Rover actually suggested it; he crystallized a feeling I might have gone into retirement without acting on. That is, what scientists think and do is important, and I want to encourage them in their lay writing projects. Editing them for so long, I learned they know their stories are worth telling and also that they have a pretty good idea why lay people are interested in their work and where it fits into lay concerns. If they find themselves struggling in getting from insight to execution, it typically boils down to difficulty managing their material for the purpose they have in mind and making good use of the power of language. Most often, when they see their lay editors' recommended changes, the light goes on and things get better, but the revisions are harder and more extensive than if they'd started out more aware of the distinctive nature of the lay writing task.

AW: Throughout the book you highlight differences in writing for the lay public versus an audience of scientific peers. What are some of the key takeaways?

Youve_Got_Some_Explaining_to_Do-featJN: The "big three" all have to do with truly understanding the lay reader:

The first thing is to ditch the word, "audience." Writing for peers is writing for an audience; you're submitting a scientific proposition for the consideration of a group, submerging your personality and feelings in a manner suitable for that purpose. A lay reader is not an audience; he or she is one person who has decided to spend time alone with you because of a story you have to tell. You have to write in a one-on-one frame of mind and let yourself be as individual as you would be if you had met that reader for a cup of coffee and were talking face to face.

Second, you write for peers (including non-scientific professionals whose work is affected by the science) knowing they will read you as part of their duties, whereas you must appreciate that a lay reader carves out leisure time to visit your world, whether from curiosity or for intellectual enrichment or to better understand a problem such as a disease. Writing for peers, you need only give information clearly and concisely, but you need to make good use of your language skills to keep a lay reader engaged, to make the "visit" with you deliver the reward it promised, to make it leisure time well spent.

The third big difference is the insight you're offering. It means something different to peers versus a lay reader. Colleagues want to know how you arrived at a scientific conclusion, whereas a lay reader wants to know how that conclusion fits into the overall story you are telling. That affects not only what details you choose to include but also how you handle them. You can give peers great masses of detail without a word of interpretation, but you have to give priority to interpretation in writing for the lay reader. To put it another way, peers want to know what you know, but a lay reader wants to know what you think.

AW: You say that it's imperative to envision one's reader before writing. Why is this important, and can a piece be targeted broadly to the general public?

JN: Most writing ideas are particular, but they often start with a fuzzy intuition about a subject. Thinking about the potential reader helps bring that intuition into focus, helps clarify how you want to approach your material. If you realize you're excited because, for example, you have ideas about improving cognitive skills, you're leaning toward information of interest to an older reader, but, as you think over this reader's concerns, you might realize that your intuition really has more to do with cognition and stress. That shifts you toward, perhaps, a reader involved some way in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Spotting the reader with the most direct interest in your idea helps you plot your narrative course, knowing what you must discuss and what you need merely mention. Once you start writing, the more "real" your reader, the more likely you'll write well. The reader is an anchor, letting you discuss your science interestingly for that person and staving off the distraction of science that's exciting but irrelevant to the story you're telling. As well, you more easily intuit questions bubbling up from your reader as you write and answer them in a natural way. Lastly, you can pitch your "voice" as you would in a conversation, based on what you feel this reader is like-you might write more bluntly and crisply for a veteran or military therapist than you would for person worried about aging, for example.

That said, sure, a piece can be targeted broadly. We don't sit down to read thinking, okay, now I'm the general public, but we read newspapers and magazines that way all the time. The subjects we take time to read about are those that seem important, because in some way they are currently rippling through society, or soon may be, or relate to our general views as citizens or individuals.  When the subject is science, the problem for the writer can be establishing how that might be the case, deciding what, exactly, is the universal interest my subject speaks to? Since the point of broadly targeted pieces is their significance to almost everybody, the science writer needs to nail that quickly-for instance, starting out with a widely recognizable example of, or justification for, whatever the writer will discuss-and stick with the science that ties directly into that universal interest. So thinking "I'm writing for the general public" isn't a way to slip out of the need to envision the reader; you still have to intuit what broad social or personal value a reader can relate your piece to and stay on point with that conversation.    

AW: Speaking of target audiences, the book offers advice to neuroscientists writing for the lay public, but is that advice also applicable to scientists from other fields?

JN: Yes. In fact, [neurologist and Dana Alliance member] Marc Raichle was kind enough to look over the manuscript for me and suggested making it for scientists generally, because he thought it might be useful in interdisciplinary communication, where scientists in one discipline might as well be lay readers in another. I gave it a lot of thought, but decided I'd better stick close to my appointed reader (partly because I only trusted myself with neuroscience examples) and hope that if the ideas were helpful to other scientists it would come to their attention. In principle, though, anybody who knows way too much about a subject needs to recognize the pitfalls in writing for people who know much less about it. All the mistakes I write about, I made in a different context years ago, writing a book about the framing of the U.S. Constitution: I'm not a historian, but I'm enamored with the Founding. I researched like mad and managed to work myself in with several great historians of the era to help understand it. My idea was to popularize, but the result was a book that went over well with the historians and my own mother gave up on half-way through. If you want a lay reader, ya gotta think about what and how much is enough.

AW: How does the book subject fall within the mission of the Dana Foundation?

JN: Dana's had a commitment to involving scientists in communicating their research to the lay public ever since the 1980s, when the late David Mahoney became chairman. He knew neuroscience was making profound discoveries and would have far-reaching effects, and funding for it would be sustained if the public knew about and supported it. Dana's commitment to fostering lay understanding is even more important to progress and momentum now with the fierce competition for public and private research funding. In addition, with neuroscience contributing to, or becoming a consideration in, so many non-scientific aspects of life, Dana has recognized that the science needs to keep people accurately informed about what it is learning and what it means. The scientists doing the work are the voice of authority for it, so advice for those who'd like to write for lay readers is part of helping tell the neuroscience story and tell it right.