Writing in the real world


I have been teaching scientific writing coaching authors of articles and grant proposals for many years. Quite often authors come to me with an article/proposal that has been rejected because of “language ‘problems”—a common comment from peer reviewers. The author often ask “Is my English really so bad? I had it edited by a native speaker.” After looking at the text, I realize that the English that is not bad, but the peer reviewer found it difficult to understand because the text don not sharply focus on the relevance and the credibility of the science. Fuzzy focus destroys comprehension. Sharp focus depends on logical organization of the content, and language editing cannot effectively solve this problem.

I think the root of the problem stems from “how we learned to write.” Unfortunately, our educational system has not prepared us to write to busy “real world” readers. We learned to write to teachers, professors and supervisors. Those readers probably knew at least as much about our topics as we did—they were not looking for new information. Those readers were looking for indications that we had done our homework, that we were proficient in using the jargon and buzzwords, and that we had followed instructions. And one crucial instruction typically read “write a minimum of 3000 words about...” Well, our first goal was to get 3000 words on paper—long blah-blah sentences and repeating worked very well for this. And, of course, citing lots of references helped to fill up pages and show that we knew a lot about the topic.

Especially in our language courses—whether English, Dutch, German, Spanish or whatever—we learned certain rules of style that might apply to thrillers, novels, and science fiction, but certainly do not apply to science or technology. Some of those rules that I remember are,”never use the same word twice in a sentence,” “use synonyms to bring your work to life,” “paint pictures with your words” etc. And, we became goal oriented writers—we passed our courses.

But when writing to “real-world readers”—readers outside the walls of academia—the goals are different. We want to have our work published or funded and, hopefully, cited in a positive way. Achieving these goals demonstrates that we have contributed something new to science. But real-world readers do not have to read our texts, even worse, they probably do not have time to read them. Just like the gold diggers, readers of journal articles and grant proposals want to quickly find “nuggets”—relevant and credible science that gives them something of value. In other words, much of what we learned about writing at school does not help us to achieve real-world goals. Documents written at the professional level are NOT just academic exercises—they are meant to add real value in the real world.

My courses and the three-step editing approach help authors to show the value of their work, to turn their messages into nuggets, to build in scientific credibility, and, in short, to meet the needs of real-world readers.