Writing for your intended audience is always a priority in creating quality content. However, when that audience is made up of research scientists, you’ll be facing a tough crowd.
Whether you’re a copywriter marketing the latest in biotech tools or a science writer working on an informational article, keep the following in mind when courting a readership of researchers.
Make accuracy a priority. You probably aim for accuracy in everything you write, but extra care and research is needed when scientists are your target audience. Any flubs are likely to be spotted quickly and may make the reader dismiss your piece entirely.
The best way to ensure accuracy is to truly understand what you’re writing about, but relying on sources made for a general audience can get you into trouble. Unfortunately, science writing can sometimes be like a game of telephone. One writer may have read the research they’re reporting on — too often, though, they rely on a shallow press release — but their article is either imprecise or outright wrong in minor ways. Later on, other writers cite this article, repeating these mistakes while sprinkling in some new ones. Then still others come in and cite those articles, and… You probably get the idea. Avoid this cumulative error by reading recent review papers and sticking to primary sources.
If you’re not sure where to start, authoritative sources used by researchers and layman alike, such as NCBI and the CDC’s website, are also great tools.
One final note on accuracy: Be very careful with synonyms! Words that may mean roughly the same thing in other contexts can have distinct definitions in scientific fields. For example, don’t use “significant” when you mean “noteworthy” or “important.” Reserve “significant” for statistically validated information. Precision with word choice is vital.
Avoid marketing speak and buzzwords. Obvious promotional language is an easy way to get your copy ignored. Even when writing marketing content, don’t oversell the product.
Don’t use vague positive language. Instead, back up every assertion with facts, facts, and more facts. In marketing, this means you should always lead with a detailed explanation of your product’s advantages; don’t just say it’s “faster” or “cutting edge.” If your company’s hot new assay shaves off an average 35 minutes per run, say so!
It’s not that scientists are particularly cynical, but they are less credulous than the average reader. Don’t trip their skeptical alarm bells with gimmicky prose.
Write for an intelligent audience who may not be fluent in English. Any content that goes up on the web is going to reach some non-native English speakers regardless of its intended target audience. When writing for scientists, however, you must write with a large non-native English speaking audience in mind. Scientists are a diverse, international group and most learn English as a second (or third) language. This holds true even at American universities and businesses, which attract professionals from all over the world. These readers cannot be an afterthought in the writing process.
When writing for scientists, you’ll be presenting complex ideas. But you don’t want to use an equally complex vocabulary or complicated syntax to do it. Many writers targeting an educated readership may be tempted to pull out the thesaurus to find that perfect but obscure word. Don’t. You won’t be dumbing down your text; you’ll be making it more accessible for a wider audience.
Of course, an exception to this rule would be if a particular term is commonly used in your target field. For example, even the average native speaker probably doesn’t know what “stochastic” means, but it’s a word most researchers run into regularly. Also, keep in mind that what may be easily understood in one domain may be esoteric in others. (A chemist or physician will probably know the definition of “sinistral,” but a data scientist? Not so much.)
Idiosyncratic grammar also stands out, and not in a good way. Fluent but non-native English speakers often remember their written grammar better than the average native speaker. For these readers, perceived grammatical errors can be as distracting as obvious typos. Worse, the reader may not realize your rogue grammar is intentional and might discount your whole piece as unprofessional and potentially inaccurate.
Idioms are another murky territory. While a few more common sayings are fine, try to keep them to a minimum.
Do all of the above without boring them to tears. Even as a former biomedical researcher and current science writer, I still have to say it: Most written content involving science is boring. While that is a common opinion among the general public, you may be surprised to find that most scientists feel the same way. It’s too dry, too needlessly complex, and too full of jargon.
Contrary to popular belief, however, this has nothing to do with topics and everything to do with technique. Hone yours through practice!
Scientists are busy people. Your content needs to catch their attention quickly and give them good reason to spend some of their limited time devoted to taking it in. Scientists are more likely to read text that is accurate without being dry, interesting without being overdramatic, and clear without being simplistic. Make sure your writing walks these lines, and it’ll be in good shape.
5-Star writer Patricia B is new to the world of freelance writing and eager to try her hand at a variety of styles. Her professional background is in academic microbiology and clinical research, making her a particularly great fit for projects involving grants, scientific papers, exam questions, and educational resources.
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