As science communicators a lot of our work involves  Writing simply without jargon.

This month’s newsletter explores this issue and provides tips on how to avoid both technical and bureaucratic jargon. Sometimes, the latter is the most difficult. What exactly is meant by policy that is “underpinned by an overarching framework for sustainability”?

At Econnect we believe it’s important to challenge people with the quality of scientific ideas rather than the complexity of the language.

As usual, we welcome your feedback about this topic.

Regards from the @EconnectTeam
Jenni MetcalfeSarah ColeJane Ilsley, Toss Gascoigne and Claire Heath.

5 tips for jargon extractions

By Jenni Metcalfe

We all know the best science writing for lay audiences is simple and direct and avoids jargon, but what are the best ways for ridding your writing of complex or impenetrable terms?

It can be especially difficult if you’re writing about a topic that you are very familiar with. For me, I need to be especially vigilant when I am writing about environmental science and natural resource issues.  I have lived, breathed and worked on these topics as a scientist, journalist and science communicator for more than 35 years.  I know what is meant by terms like ‘ecosystem services’, ‘sustainable development’, and ‘biophysical parameters’.

Here are 5 tools that work for me.

  1. Identify who you are writing for and put yourself in their shoes so you write using the style and language the audience are most familiar with.
  2. Cut out words or phrases that mean something different when they are used colloquially: e.g. ‘rainfall event’ is not referring to a party that happens when the rain comes down; just say ‘rain’.
  3. Take more short words to explain one long complex word: e.g. ‘governance’ can make more sense to lay readers if we say ‘the way an organisation manages what it does’.
  4. Try to use sentences that have people and action in them as this will naturally cut back on long words including jargon and is much easier to read: e.g. ‘Spatial priorities for reducing pollutant loads are now established at a basin scale’ can be rewritten to read ‘We now aim to reduce water pollution in individual river basins’.
  5. Test your draft writing on a sample of your target audience to make sure the messages are clear and there are no confusing terms.

Statue showing a tooth extraction
Wikimedia Commons

The definition of jargon

By Jane Ilsley

Special words or expressions used by a profession or group that are difficult for others to understand. “legal jargon”

I was pleased to see the Oxford dictionary definition of jargon uses law as an example, rather than science.

As science communicators, we often forget that other professions have their own jargon as well – immerse yourself in a different group and notice how many words you don’t understand.

Abbreviations are particularly isolating for those not in the know – I stumbled upon some from the recruitment industry – maybe you are a DGSM (Damn Good Salesman or perhaps DGSW for the females) or IMAV (Immediately Available)?

IRL, even social media has jumped on the jargon bandwagon, SMH.

The best way of stamping out your jargon is to run some words past a non-scientist – your Mum, Granny or a 10-year-old. Words that are part of your usual vocabulary suddenly need to be explained, and it is that challenge of science communication that I love.

The archaic definition of jargon is “a form of language regarded as barbarous, debased, or hybrid”.
For those of us not in the know, it sometimes feels like that.

cartoon highlighting jargon used in social mediaImage: Sean R Nicolson

How to put a reader off

By Toss Gascoigne

Of all the ways to put a reader off, the best is to use bureaucratic jargon.

Start talking about ‘over-arching’, ‘stakeholder input parameters’ and ‘shaping policy priorities and implementation mechanisms”  You can hear the audience dropping off ….

Graham Hopkins, author of The Write Stuff says: ” If something can be read and understood at the first time of asking, then it’s good writing. Simple as that.”

So why do writers turn up the pompous dial at the same time they reach for their keyboard?

Part of it is a misguided sense of what’s proper.  They use complex words and long sentences because that’s what’s in the textbooks.

Writers fear they won’t be respected if they use simple direct words and short sentences.

And perversely, there is a grain of truth in this: the further up the corporate ladder the writer is, the more likely they are to use jargon and buzz words, like ‘robust’, ‘fluid’ budgets and ‘strategic plans’.

We write stuff we’d never say in normal speech.  Try describing a result or process into a microphone and transcribing it, and then compare this to your written version.  You’ll see the difference.

As Hopkins concludes, “To write effectively, we need to know three things: why we are writing it; what we want to happen as a result of our writing; and who we are writing for. If the target audience includes the public then this means using shorter sentences (average about 15-20 words), shorter words and avoiding jargon.”

Scrabble board where one of the words is jargon
Image: Wil Taylor

Does your writing need some exercise

By Claire Heath

Does your writing need some exercise to get rid of flab? The Writer’s Diet test may be the tool for you.

Even if your writing seems to be trim, taut and terrific, the test may highlight a few words you can cull.

The test is written by the champion of good academic prose, Professor Helen Sword, who wrote Stylish Academic Writing. It ‘identifies some of the sentence-level grammatical features that most frequently weigh down academic prose’.

It isn’t intended to judge the quality of the writing.
The test counts the numbers of verbs, nouns, prepositions, adjectives and adverbs, and filler words such as it, this, that, and there, and ranks them from ‘lean’ to ‘heart attack’.

I test myself sometimes, and while I don’t always like what I see, the results do prompt me to rethink my sentences. (The test is good for fiction, too).

Another tool I sometimes play with is the Hemingway App, named after some bloke who wrote a few books and drank a lot of mojitos. The app developers claim that it will help you tighten you prose and use simpler language.

The desktop app costs $19.99, but you can also paste short texts over the words already on the Hemingway App webpage. Highlights show adverbs, passive voice, phrases you could express more simply, and sentences that are difficult to read. The app also grades the readability of the text.

A higher grade isn’t necessarily good: it may indicate that readers will find the writing tedious or difficult to understand.

One flaw is that it doesn’t differentiate between passive voice and progressive (or continuous) verb tenses, which use the verb to be.

Neither of these tools overrides your judgement or being thoughtful about your writing, but if you are writing science for a lay audience, they may help you craft better sentences.


Quote of the month

“If you can’t explain your physics to a barmaid, it is probably not very good physics.”
―Ernest Rutherford

portrait of Ernest Rutherford
Wikimedia Commons