Top 10 rules for scientists writing popular science on the web

Scientists who write popular science content enjoy better scientific publishing records and academic positions across the world, says a recent multinational study.

Popular science writing is your public relations. It’s also could be your opportunity to fame.

Top 10 rules for scientists writing popular science on the web
Top 10 rules for scientists writing popular science on the web

Today, right here, I am going to reveal some timeless tips on popular science writing. If you are a scientist who wants to communicate science with the public then you have come to the right place!

I promise you that by the time you make it to the end of this article, you would have an enriched understanding of the lifecycle of popular science writing.

Number of views, average time on page, likes and comments for items authored by reporters and items written by trained scientists
Views, average time on page, likes and comments for articles authored by journalists and items authored by researchers. Except with the average time of reading, articles written by scientists are the clear winners.

What is reader interested in?

When you write a research paper, your audience is a group of people who is interested in the topic.

This is not the situation with popular science writing.

In contrast, a typical popular science reader is not interested in your topic. They might not even have heard about it before.

In popular science, the reader is interested in what you make out of a topic. You need to feed the curious brains of the readers and entertain them. The happy hormones should flow in their brains.

The writer needs to do the extra work to actively seek the attention of the reader.

There are a few ways to actively seek the attention of the reader.

  1. Stress the importance of the subject
  2. Arouse curiosity
  3. Amuse the reader

One of the main ways to get the attention of the reader is to stress the importance of the subject. This approach would work out only if the reader is also interested in the subject.

Another method that will almost always work is to arouse curiosity of the reader from the beginning. For example, Rebecca Skloot start her Prologue in her The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks as follows.


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Do you think that is worthy enough to arouse your curiosity?

Or you might want to capture the attention of the reader by amusing them a bit. Stephen Hawking starts the first chapter of his A Brief History of Time by telling an amusing story to his readers.

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Respect your readers. Do not take it for granted that they are supposed to follow you.

That’s why they are called your audience and not of the topic’s.

Make your popular science article on the web skim-able

People like Rebecca Skloot and Stephen Hawking wrote their books keeping in mind the print media.

They wrote their books to be read.

People on the web need quick answers. A 1997 seminal study by the Neilson Norman showed that 79% of the people on the internet scan for things.

They do not read. They scan.

To add an insult to the injury, the writing style of research papers is not suited for skimming and scanning.

The best thing you can do to kill your popular science article is to copy from the research paper that you have recently published.

What can you do then? You should repurpose your research paper in a skim-able style with lots of sub headers and paragraphs.

Remove the citations. They are distracting.

Also, remove the abbreviations. They are disgusting.

Write for your readers, not for yourself.

Neuroscientists have already shown us how people respond to words.

All of their research point in one direction: that you should write to please the readers’ brains.

Why? Drinking beer and reading about it elicit the similar brain responses.

How does that help? It helps you to create winning writing strategy by incorporating the right amount of emotions in to your writing.

How do you do that? By keeping it simple, but a bit stirring, and story driven.

Let’s have a look at how we can do that.

Why to write in regional languages of India

Because, you need to write for your readers. Not for yourself.

One of the easiest ways to write for your readers is to write in their mother tongue. For most Indians, their mother tongue is not English.

Latest scientific information is mostly behind the paywalls of journals. That’s already a good reason for scientists to write popular science.

To make the matters worse, science is almost exclusively dealt with English in India.

English speakers in India only account for a few percentage of the population. Incidentally, all of the new scientific and technological advancement is beyond the awareness of an average Indian citizen.

On the flipside, this situation presents a remarkable opportunity for scientists to write popular science in Indian languages. There are millions of readers waiting to be tapped as your audience. 

Writing in regional language will help the writer to tap into the emotional side of the reader easily. Our mother tongue is our heart’s language. The brain likes it when data is fed in heart’s language. It’s sweet and flowing.

Many Indian languages like Malayalam and Tamil already have a well-established foundations of news portals and other popular websites.

Well, of course, there are challenges associated with writing science in regional languages. Indian languages may not have an equivalent vocabulary of scientific terms.  The prospective writer, of course, need to invent ways to get around to not sound jargon.

How to build a popular science article?

Almost everyone can tell a story. However, it takes craft to tell a good story.

As a scientist you already know what to set as your story world. Your research is your story world

Seasoned writers are able to pass their story world into the following steps and come up with a bestselling thriller outcome. You should also achieve it.

When you think about your research a lot of social obligations will come to your mind.

It could be about the immediate effect of your finding on our society, like permitting cannabis usage, decrease fertilizer usage, or lowering pollution levels. Would you approve redirecting the rivers by the Government from their natural course? Would you allow skyscrapers to increase in height?

Once you have picked a socially relevant question, the next step is to explain your findings.

Your findings are the hero of the story.

But it’s not heroic until you explain the obstacles you’re crossed to reach those findings. Those impediments are the villain of the story.

Tell your readers how your research team lived up to those obstacles and completed the research.

Now, you have the components of a great story.

There is a hero and the hero has obstacles to overcome.

It’s time to put the elements of surprise into your writing.  One of the easiest way to add an element of surprise is to add the element of time.

Tell them that the rivers would go dry in 10 years if they are redirected. Tell them that at this rate of pollution increase everyone would be wearing an oxygen mask on the streets in the next 3 years. Tell them that incidence of cancer will increase 75% in 1 year if we don’t lower adapt to pesticide free agriculture.

Now you need to introduce your struggle. Tell them that how your research lacks funding, lack of attention from the funding agencies, and how you have nowhere else to go.

Finally, you need to declare your commitment to the work. Make your readers feel that no matter what you will somehow advance in your research.

Write to communicate, not to impress –

You might have a raised eyebrow about this. But leave the task of inspiring others to Paulo Coelho and a few folks like that.

A recent sentiment analysis study using AI on tweets that communicate scientific information shows exactly that.  The study showed that tweets containing inspiring content decreased attention. Attention of our reader, dear popular science writer, is extremely important for us. We need our reader to stick to the last word we write.

What is jargon in popular science articles?

Don’t tell your readers “I know more than you.” Your audience hate it. Jargon is exactly that.

One of the most common ways writers try to impress is by introducing jargons. However, jargons do not convey any meaning to the audience.

Jargon are meaningless and emotionless and have no place in effective communication between the writer and the reader.

Every other technical term a popular science reader encounters should be regarded as a jargon.

I am not asking you to omit important technical details.

I am asking you to use a language that is as simple as possible.

Also, if you are in a situation that demands the use of technical terms make sure that you explain them well.

As a popular science writer, you need to get pass the hurdles of scientific jargon to make your writing truly effective. 

Use nicknames instead of annoying abbreviations

I am sure abbreviations annoy you when you read papers. Abbreviations are a menace in popular science writing.  

As a researcher, you might be in a habit to use abbreviations when possible. Abbreviations make your readers’ eyes go around.

Trust me, it’s a bad practice. Abbreviations are jargons with no meaning. It conveys nothing. No emotions. No meanings.

In my opinion, abbreviations fail the whole purpose of writing for skimming and scanning.

Your audience need to constantly go back and forth to check what each abbreviation stand for.  

No one will really do that and they will just move on.

Instead of abbreviations, you can try using nicknames. For example, instead of abbreviating The Radar Imager for Mars’ Subsurface Experiment to RIMFAX you can call it the radar.

Nicknames are simple and meaningful.

A image/ illustration/ video/ flowchart/ infographic is worth a thousand words

Meaningful Images and videos related to your research help your reader see the science you are talking about.

Reusing the same images on your recent paper may not be the best idea. You need to do some repurposing of the image to fit your new audience.

Your readers like to see actual people on your pictures. Use images of the members of your team working on the project. They humanize your writing while boosting the morale of your co-workers.

Images increase readability of the text as well. Look at the following image. I think I don’t need to argue with you to see that text around an image is easier to read than plain text.

In addition to images or illustrations, diagrams and flow charts can also help to ease your story telling.

An infographic can add a totally different dimension to your story. A great infographic could be your thinking made visual. The rules are the same here as well. Keep it simple. Infographics boost the social shares up to 3x.

Why to make sure a 10th grader understand the story

Readers skim and scan on the internet.

They will read the whole article if they get the gist while skimming and scanning. One of the fundamental principles of effective skimming and scanning is plain language.

You need to make it easier for your readers’ brains to capture the idea. A 10th grader can act as a litmus test your writing.

Ask someone with a 10th grade level knowledge to read your writing. Listen to their feedback.

If they can understand your story, it’s likely that most of your readers will also understand.

There are also a few online tools to estimate the readability of your writing. But a next door human is always the best.


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