Writing so your mother would understand

The willingness of much of the public to dismiss scientific conclusions has led to calls for scientists to do a better job and take the time to describe their work and their findings to the public. I think this issue in this political climate is more complicated and there are some scientific conclusions that are simply too inconvenient for public support, but part of the problem is certainly lack of understanding.

I think I have developed some skills in doing this. I have written several textbooks and this requires communicating in a more basic style. One of my editors told me I had to “unpack” certain ideas I was trying to communicate. I think this meant that I was assuming too much and I needed to be more careful in what I assumed. Given all of the criticisms of college textbooks, I may be assuming too much. Yes, textbooks are expensive and textbooks are lengthy and this is a reason for much of the criticism, but effective communication is still an additional issue. In fact, you may not be able to both “unpack” what you are trying to communicate and shorten what you have to say. I read somewhere that there were more new vocabulary words per page (important, but unfamiliar terms) in Introduction to Psychology textbook than a foreign language textbook.

They tell you in freshman English composition courses that understanding your audience is important. My recollections of freshman composition do not contain any actual strategies or experiences related to this problem. I learned much more when I took a course in “Technical Writing” which I credit as among the most valuable of my undergraduate experience.

Back to the topic of writing so your mother can understand. I don’t think my parents ever quite understood what I did. They understood the teaching part, but not the research or writing part. I did learn to write for novice learners by writing for my wife. I write textbooks that concern the classroom application of technology. My wife worked directly with teachers to help them apply technology. Because she had so much experience in application, she was a great judge of whether I was adequately explaining ideas so that practicing and future educators would understand.

There is a level beyond what I am describing here. What about writing for those without much of background and who may even be hostile to challenging ideas? This is the challenge for scientists. They are not writing for college students enrolled in courses, even introductory courses, in their disciplines.

Here is a blog post that examines this challenge. I found the suggestions and the perspective to be quite helpful. The author describes writing “opinion pieces (op-eds)” that might appear in a newspaper. This seems a practical way to understand the challenge and the techniques. I will not review the ideas here, but I do recommend your attention to what this blogger suggests.

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