Advice for writing in I’m a Scientist

All the interaction in I’m a Scientist is done through your keyboard (no zoom calls to set up, phew).

To make sure students and teachers (and other scientists!) get the most from your profile and your answers, here are a couple of things to keep in mind when writing.


1. Use Plain English

This means choosing shorter, more common words to express your thoughts where possible. Avoid using longer or more formal words.

Our students come from a range of backgrounds and abilities. If you want to make sure readers understand you, pitch your language simpler than you might first think

So say:

  • ‘deadly’ not ‘pathogenic’
  • ‘find’ not ‘identify’
  • ‘use’ not ‘utilize’.

Avoid using jargon, buzz words and technical terms from your area. When a specialist term or acronym cannot be avoided, make sure you explain it in simpler terms.

Be careful with metaphors. Yes, they’re fun and can help fire the imagination. But using a lot of them in your answer obscures what you really mean. And many science cliches are unhelpful. A classic is that DNA is ‘the blueprint’ for humans. Is that really how DNA works?


2. Use simple sentences

Aim for an average sentence length or around 15 words. Research shows 25 words is the limit for a good level of understanding.

Watch for complex sentence structures. That is, sentences including multiple commas, like this one, where the idea could be better expressed by adding a full stops, or 3.


3. Tools to help your writing

Test your first few answers in something like Hemingway App. It will highlight uncommon words and complex sentences. Aim for a reading age of 9.

If Chrome is your browser of choice, you can install the Grammarly extension. This tool gives you writing suggestions as you type.

Another, blunter tool we like is Up-Goer 5. This site challenges you to write using only the 1000 most common words in English. It’s good for highlighting rare words you might assume are common.

To get more in-depth information on what makes writing on the web readable, check out the Readability Guidelines project.


4. A note on ‘dumbing down’

Writing clearly so people can understand you is never ‘dumbing down’ your science. By using difficult words or impenetrable sentences, you may be signalling that science is not something the reader can be part of.

Rather, think of writing clearly as ‘opening up’ your work. You are making it easier for students (and adults) to understand you. Creating understanding and making people feel included is what good engagement is all about.

Even subject experts and highly literate readers prefer information that is easy to read. Something to think about the next time you’re tasked with a technical report or an academic paper.

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