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Feb 15

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Turning science into plain language

Last week I worked with three scientists preparing a grant application.  Essentially, an organisation is making money available for research, and the scientists need to convince the funders that their project is worth a share of the pot.

The challenge is that there are complicated concepts to convey, and the readers (the people reviewing the grant application) are not necessarily familiar with those concepts and the technical language used. If they don’t understand the application, though, they obviously aren’t going to give the scientists a share of the research money. They need to be informed about the research project and also persuaded that it is important enough to give funding to.  The grant application needs to be clear and convincing without “dumbing down” or being vague about the detail of the proposal. This is where a plain language consultant can help.

One of the researchers is someone I’ve worked with many times over the last decade, and we thought it might be interesting to describe how we go about it.

My client brings me in when he needs to increase the range of readers who will be able to understand his paper or proposal without diluting the academic content.  It’s important to know who those readers will be – this time, we know that they will be experienced grant application reviewers, will be highly educated (possibly even specialists) in their own field, but not necessarily in the same field as my client.  He always gives me a complete draft of the document to begin with; he doesn’t get me to write from scratch.  What he wants me to do is to take his technical writing and make it understandable to an educated but non-specialist reader.

Some of the edits are standard to any plain English review.  I work on wordiness, passive voice, convoluted sentence structure, and so on.  Scientists are often taught to write in the third person and in the passive voice, and this can breed tortuous strings of phrases designed to avoid using the words “I” or “we”. Disentangling these and breaking sentences into smaller chunks can have a dramatic effect on readability.

The more interesting part, though, is what to do with the specialist terms – of which there are often many.  Technical words with a single meaning are reasonably straightforward; they can be defined or described as part of the text.  More complicated are “terms of art” – words which have an ordinary meaning but which are used in a specialised sense.   The danger is that the reader won’t recognise the specialist meaning, or will realise that there is a specialised meaning but won’t know what it is.

We have an iterative process for dealing with these. The first step is to recognise what are terms of art as opposed to mere ambiguity. I ask a lot of questions, such as

  • Is this a specialised term?
  • If it’s not, then did you mean [option A] or [option B]?
  • Have I understood this sentence correctly?
  • Is this [paraphrase my interpretation of what is written] a fair summary of what you meant?

Based on the answers, I can clear up ambiguities in the expression.  This leaves us with words that are signposts to particular technical concepts.  Another set of questions is needed:

  • What does this word mean in this context?
  • Is there an everyday word which would make a reasonable substitution?
  • Is this word shorthand for a much larger concept?  If so, what is the concept? [Note – this can be a long discussion, but a necessary one]
  • Can the sentence be reworded to introduce the background concepts?
  • Do we actually need to introduce the concept earlier in the document to prepare the reader?

I might suggest a number of ways to rework the sentence, but my client really has to make the final decision here.  Sometimes technical terms can be removed, but sometimes they can’t be avoided – it’s my client who needs to decide whether the reworked sentences are accurate or not.

An example from last week was the word “risk”.  In general use, a risk is a danger or liability.  However, “risk” is a technical concept in my client’s field of research – it means not the danger itself, but the combination of how likely it is to occur and how disastrous it would be.  This specific meaning can be confusing to a non-specialist reader, but it is a term of art in my client’s field.  Using a different word would make it seem that he did not understand the language of his own field.  We resolved the problem this time with an early paragraph introducing the idea with some examples.

Scientific papers and grant applications often have very specific requirements for word count, page count and style.  This doesn’t leave much room to work on visual readability through layout and formatting.  Clarity has to come from the words themselves.  To do this, I need to understand the text thoroughly myself, which is an aspect of the job I really enjoy.

Permanent link to this article: http://wordsmadeclear.com/2012/02/15/turning-science-into-plain-language/

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