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Triple-A S: Advancing Science, Serving Society


Clear Language, Clear Science

Welcome to The Science Inside Blog. This blog is devoted to the idea of making science easy to understand for everybody. Since this covers a lot of ground, we’ll begin by looking back at some of the work we’ve done over the years in The Science Inside and other projects. We’ll also be bringing you the contributions of other writers, scientists, and educators who share our goals.

We will be talking a lot about literacy—many different kinds of literacy. And we will be looking closely at how the way information is communicated contributes or detracts from understanding.

Some of the topics we will address in future blog posts include the following:

  • How to maintain an adult point of view while using plain language, by using everyday analogies with adult connotations
  • How to link complex ideas to concrete examples
  • How to convey and communicate a passion for science to the general public
  • How to be sensitive to the culture diverse audiences by avoiding language that demonstrates cultural, gender, or class bias
  • How to assess the need for the type of material you plan to develop
  • How to determine the best the context in which the reader will encounter the material
  • How to avoid jargon by using scientific terminology only where necessary and defining each term well when first used
  • How to write clearly by avoiding complicated or long sentences and using active verbs
  • How to test materials for readability
  • How to provide for ample review for science accuracy and for language appropriateness, including when and how to pre-test materials with target audiences
  • How to engage communities and identify and reach out to community groups (libraries, senior citizens, faith-based groups, museums)

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Science in Plain Language?

The world is likely to become more dependent on science and technology, but ironically, the more complex some technologies become, the easier they are to use. Thus, while we rely more and more on science and technology, we are also more likely to take it for granted.

Scientific and technological advances are almost seamlessly woven into the fabric of our lives. As our lives become more dependent upon science and technology–a basic understanding has become a requirement for most careers.

As they have for over 40 years, Americans in all demographic groups consistently endorse the past achievements and future promise of S&T, according to NSF’s latest Science and Engineering Indicators. This biennial report to Congress provides a broad base of quantitative information about U.S. science, engineering, and technology. Another interesting finding is that despite a general decline in confidence in institutional leaders that has spanned more than three decades, confidence in science leaders has remained relatively stable.

Yet there is a cultural knowledge gap between the scientific community and the public at large. People understand that science and technology have brought into their lives things that are powerful, wonderful, exciting, life-saving, and maybe even dangerous; but they are confused about fundamental concepts such as risk and probability and by scientific studies that might seem to the casual observer to contradict one another.

In a 2009 report, Pew found that “Most Americans express at least a passing interest in news about science, with 35% saying they enjoy keeping up with science news “a lot” and another 41% saying they enjoy keeping up with it “some.” Only about a quarter (24%) say they do not enjoy following news about science. By comparison, 54% of Americans say they enjoy keeping with the news in general a lot.”

So if the interest is there, how do we take it beyond “interest” to engagement and understanding? How do we tell the story of science to a public that may be unaware of how science is done or how you come to know something in science? The Science in Plain Language section of our site exists to help equip you for this task, by providing communication strategies and tools to help you tell the story of science.

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Writing to Readers’ Needs

Kristina E. Anderson is a plain language and health literacy writer, editor, and consultant in the medical and science fields. She has a B.A. in Cultural Anthropology from the University of New Mexico and is a member of the National Science Writers Association. Her Web site is www.easyreadwriting.com.

By Kristina Anderson

Previously I talked about the process of putting together a first draft. Next, I’ll talk about how I weighed all the feedback we got on the first drafts. Some of it was conflicting and negative, which was good, but it made the final writing really challenging. I had to meet the needs of a varied audience that held differing opinions—some of them personal, some of them professional.

So how do you go about making sure everyone in your reading audience is happy? (more…)

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Writing That First Draft

Kristina E. Anderson is a plain language and health literacy writer, editor, and consultant in the medical and science fields. She has a B.A. in Cultural Anthropology from the University of New Mexico and is a member of the National Science Writers Association. Her Web site is www.easyreadwriting.com.

by Kristina Anderson

The idea behind writing the three booklets on healthy pregnancy started with a larger book from AAAS titled “The Science of Having a Health Baby” (please insert correct name of booklet. I couldn’t remember what it was.) This 80-page book was designed to reach the average reader and was targeted to an 8th to 9th grade reading level. But we knew we needed to reduce the amount of material and write it at a 5th to 6th grade reading level if we were going to reach our targeted audience, which was young, low-income moms in the Pittsburgh area.

First I broke the original content down into three subject areas: healthy pregnancy, healthy delivery and healthy babies. Under each, I listed about 10 content areas, which it turned out was way too much. To help narrow it further, we conducted focus groups with health care and social service providers in Pittsburgh.

Reducing the original content into three small booklets was our goal, but that meant I had to do a complete rewrite and reorganization of the material. In fact, after the focus group with providers, I began to cut content down to bare bones so I could rebuild it on a new frame.

One of the main things I kept in mind during the writing process was how the idea of science can make some people who don’t read well uneasy. To put the reader at ease, while keeping the science of healthy pregnancy as a central theme, I used plain language. I applied basic principles, such as chunking information and telling the moms only what they needed to know, while using simple words and concepts that explained the science and made it easy to understand.

The three booklets—Having a Healthy Pregnancy, Having a Healthy Birth, and Having a Healthy Baby—are about 16 pages each and have lots of simple, relevant illustrations and photos. When the science was hard to explain, we relied on illustrations to help.

With first drafts in hand, we conducted a focus group with the moms from the Pittsburgh area. This was a crucial step. The moms told us what was important to them and what wasn’t, and I took their comments to heart. That information along with additional feedback from health care providers gave me what I needed to begin the final writing process.

Next, I’ll talk about how I weighed all the feedback we got on the first drafts. Some of it was conflicting and negative, which was good, but it made the final writing really challenging. I had to meet the needs of a varied audience that held differing opinions—some of them personal, some of them professional.

So how do you go about making sure everyone in your reading audience is happy? Stay tuned….

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Writing in Plain Language

Kristina E. Anderson is a plain language and health literacy writer, editor, and consultant in the medical and science fields. She has a B.A. in Cultural Anthropology from the University of New Mexico and is a member of the National Science Writers Association. Her Web site is www.easyreadwriting.com.

by Kristina Anderson

Years ago I had a job in a public hospital helping patients find easy-to-read health information on the Internet. Many of these patients were homeless, low income, elderly, or not computer savvy. If they found a health handout on their own, it was often too complicated for them to understand. But today, there’s greater awareness of the need for simple information and how the complicated can shut people out.

When you write about health and science for the general public, keep in mind the average person reads at an 8th grade level, and half of the adult population reads at a 5th grade level or less. Just because a person doesn’t read well doesn’t mean they can’t understand the information. Maybe they have a learning disability. Or maybe they were unable to finish school because their education was interrupted by a social/economic situation. Remember, your reader may be one who could understand the science if you talked to them about it rather than wrote about it, so try writing like you talk. Pretend you’re sitting across the table from a member of your audience, and tell them about your research or science topic. Explain the research or technology in plain language, and then write down what you said.

When writing the Healthy Pregnancy booklets, I had to keep several audiences in mind: the women for whom these booklets were designed; the doctors and other health care providers who treat these women; the doulas, who assist with natural childbirth; social workers who serve this patient population, and the funders of the project, which was AAAS and the Heinz Foundation. When your audience is as varied as this one was, meeting everyone’s needs can be tricky, but ultimately, it was the women who would be reading and using these booklets that I “sat across the table from” when writing. Their needs were top of mind, and I made sure that what I wrote and how I explained the science would make a difference in their understanding of what they needed to do to have a healthy pregnancy and a healthy baby.

Writing in plain language can open doors. I think of the process as an art, and although not easy to do, it is the catalyst in reaching a wider audience with your research and your work. So I invite you to come along with me as I talk about the tools and principles I applied when writing the Healthy Pregnancy booklets. I want what I have learned as a plain language writer to ensure the average reader understands the science behind your work.

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