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Top tips for writing about research for general audiences

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A brief overview for health services researchers & students, to help them create content aimed at general audiences. Created for the Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation at the University of Michigan

Published in: Science
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Top tips for writing about research for general audiences

  1. 1. Top 10 Tips for Writing about Research for General Audiences 1. Put your audience first. If you can, figure out who you will reach directly or might reach indirectly. Think about what their knowledge level is, and what you might want them to do. If you truly don’t know, assume average scientific knowledge, interest and familiarity with terms. • Are they affected by a disease you’re writing about, so they might take a special interest? • Do you want them to think something is cool and share it? • Do you want them to donate to, or volunteer for, a certain cause? • Do you want to reach reporters who could create their own stories for the public? Whoever they are, put their interests before those of more technical audiences you might reach. 2. Pick your jargon wisely. You don’t have to include every technical term related to the topic – just the ones you can’t avoid. If you use a piece of jargon, immediately explain it. Stuff like titles, names of centers and funding details should go into later paragraphs or the bottom. 3. Purge passive voice. Though academic scientific & medical writing brims with it, yours should not. Even if it makes a sentence longer to make the verb active, do it. 4. Shorten your sentences. Prune them into lean, mean fighting machines. Read them aloud to ensure they will engage someone. Readers hear the writing in their minds as if someone was reading it out loud. Too-long sentences will lose them. After a sentence of 30 to 40 words, throw in some that are just a few words long. 5. Write an opening that will compel someone to keep reading. Never underestimate the importance of grabbing their interest and making them care enough to keep going instead of clicking over to something else. MAKE THEM CARE. 6. Don’t just re-tell things step by step. You’re writing a story, not a textbook or tutorial. Find a narrative – about how the topic ties to recent events, about the question or problem at hand, about the obstacles & challenges in the way, about context & controversies in the field, or about the people involved – and go with it. 7. Tap into your joy and creativity. Take the time to make the story come alive through exciting prose, humor, analogies, metaphors and vivid quotes. Think visually – and either include images or paint a picture with words. Ask the expert to explain it to you with an analogy -- they might surprise you. 8. Ruthlessly edit your own writing. Better yet, have someone else read/edit it. Go back and really read with a critical eye. 9. Keep the length down. You can tell a great story in 700 words or fewer! Use visuals to help reduce words. 10. Don’t “recomplexify” the story in the review process. Make sure you tell the story in a way that will engage a general audience, and invite sharing to reach the most people possible.

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