A Share Your Science event recently took place in Seattle. This event was a workshop for scientists who wanted to practice writing for public communication. Around 15 years ago, I made the switch from lab scientist to professional writer. Even though I wasn’t able to attend the event, I wondered about the type of writing advice I would give to a scientist.
For me, making the leap from academic to professional writing was challenging. Over the years, I took several writing courses and worked with many editors to refine my writing style. I now rely on several tricks and tips that help me write blog posts. Here are some of those tips, which I think could also help a fellow scientist interested in public communication.
1. Have a quick conversation with your reader
Let’s say that you have an idea for a blog post. What’s next? When I struggle with where to start, I either imagine the reader in the room with me or ask a friend to chat. I then start a conversation about my topic. If I struggle, then I know I need to find something else to say or track down more information. This process helps me quickly distill the most important and interesting points that I want to share with my audience.
Another benefit from having a light conversation is that it helps you build the structure of your post. You open your conversation with the “lead,” or the hook of the story about your research, and then add supporting details as the conversation continues.
2. Write the first draft, wait a while, and then write some more
Sometimes I think I can nail a blog post in the first go. Sometimes I really struggle with writer’s block. For both scenarios, it’s important to complete the first draft and then take a break. When you come back to that draft with fresh eyes, you can then edit and rewrite to make the blog post better.
3. Kill your darlings
This is a classic piece of writing advice that has been attributed to Ginsberg and Faulkner. If you’re like me, you find technical details fascinating. As a technical communicator, I want to share every beloved tidbit and factoid in my post. But don’t do it. Think back to the conversation you had with your reader, and then remove the details, even if they’re your favorites, that might bog down your blog post.
4. Let go of the words
You also need to let go of unnecessary adjectives, adverbs, and jargon. When I wrote academic papers, I liked to include lots of adjectives for emphasis. But these extra words can be cumbersome to read in short blog posts. Do an editing pass on your draft to streamline sentences. Your reader will thank you for getting to the point.
(This tip is also the title of one of my favorite books on website writing, Letting Go of the Words, by Ginny Redish.)
5. Don’t be shy about asking for feedback
If you want your blog post to succeed (in that people find it useful, enjoyable, or worth sharing), you need feedback before you publish. Requesting feedback is scary. You worked hard on your writing and criticism can feel like failure. But now is the time to put on your metaphoric lab coat and think about your writing objectively. Critiques and edits provide the data you need to improve the final version of your post.
6. But make sure it’s constructive feedback
I receive my fair share of red ink from editors. I’ve grown a thicker skin, but it’s always difficult to receive vague, unhelpful comments such as, “I didn’t like it.” I try to turn this ambiguous feedback into constructive feedback by asking the following questions:
- Which parts did you find confusing or unclear?
- What were you hoping to learn by reading this blog post?
- Which parts did you like?
My writing resources
These books are always within arms-reach on my desk.
- The Elements of Style – a classic writing reference.
- The Deluxe Transitive Vampire – a fun grammar reference.
- Ideas into Words: Mastering the Craft of Science Writing – an insightful, experienced perspective on writing about science.
- A Field Guide for Science Writers – a classic handbook for writers.
- Content Strategy for the Web – a reference for creating content for websites. If you want to learn how to make useful content for the digital, interactive world, check out this book.