What Academics Misunderstand About ‘Public Writing’

This is a very important article for us. I’m curious the thoughts of @glipsnort, @nlents, @sfmatheson, @art, and others.

Academics sometimes make the mistake of thinking that their standards do not need to be particularly high when writing for the public. Even though you will not be writing with the precision of scholarly prose or citing every source, you should still strive to be as accurate and careful as you would be in your scholarly publications, especially if you are drawing on your specialization.

The uncomfortable reality is that — while crossover work counts for little in the way of raises or promotions in academe — it can still hurt your reputation if you do a sloppy job.

Given all of those warnings, why write for the public at all?

There are strategic reasons, such as raising your visibility or showing the relevance of your research. It is also satisfying to reach readers who are curious about your field, but do not have the training necessary to appreciate your scholarship. As a public scholar, you have the freedom to write about topics beyond your area of specialization, which in turn can enrich your research and teaching. Finally, many of the qualities that make for good public essays — clarity, conviction, style — can improve your scholarly writing too.

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I have a lot of experience writing for an academic audience and a lot less writing for a general audience. The latter is harder.

Also, a lot of academic writing is really bad.


I think there are only a couple of aspects of this piece that are important for PS: the section on “purpose” (which should encompass audience) and the last section on “quality.” The rest is either about the nuts and bolts of writing for non-specialist/non-scientific outlets or about the author’s characterizations of academic writing, which read like a list of how not to think of academic/scientific writing.

I don’t have much to add to the author’s points. The section on “purpose” is both too narrow and is incorrectly IMO defined as fundamentally different from academic writing. I think that is a mistake that weakens the author’s accurate claim in the very last sentence (quoted above). The “purpose” of a piece should be determined by the piece and not by the venue. We can say it should be determined by the audience, and that will help a little as we try to treat every audience, including a highly expert technical audience, with respect.

The section on “quality” just says what everyone should already know about telling the truth. Again, here, I would add a focus on audience, with a view toward serving that audience faithfully while remaining true to what should be bedrock commitments to truth-telling and disclosure.

I am the co-organizer and a main instructor of the annual Scientific Writing Retreat at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, so I am used to teaching and discussing these topics from the strategic point of view of scientific writing. In a separate post I will muse a bit about how we address the difficult task of writing a lay summary, and about how we frame the entire context of “scientific writing.”

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One of the most difficult undertakings in human endeavor is the writing of a lay summary of a body of technical scientific work. In the retreat, we devote a session to this, not only because it’s a required task in multiple contexts (grant writing, fundraising, websites) but because it has the potential to build skills that will benefit scientists throughout their work.

One of the most common approaches to preparing a lay summary is to begin with the abstract or technical summary, then shorten it and take out strange words. This is very likely to fail, not only because shortening any block of text brings risk of loss of clarity, but because neither length nor word choice is likely related to the difference between a lay summary and a technical abstract. The difference is the audience, and perhaps the purpose.

But merely telling scientists what not to do isn’t helpful (there’s an understatement). How to tackle this? One great strategy is to role play, orally, a conversation between the scientist and a layperson. (It works best if the layperson really is a layperson, but in a mixed crowd of scientists, it’s usually easy for the neuroscientist to find an immunologist, and those two are functional laypeople to each other.) When this is effective, the scientist can learn what it is about their work that is initially important/interesting to the audience, which parts require metaphor/storytelling, and which parts must be omitted even though this will break the scientist’s heart.

The point is that this isn’t really about “writing.” It’s about communicating, about how to inspire another person, about how to enter another person’s life/shoes (empathy, the human superpower) and about how to come to peace with the fact that you can’t always tell everyone everything about a topic.


This is key. I have spent much of my career communicating very geeky complex technology concepts to non-technical people. Having both failed and learned what works, I think much of it is applicable to scientists.

The key to communication is having a target audience, understanding that audience then using what they already understand to help them understand what you are trying to convey. You have to be able to put yourself in their shoes. That means being willing to drop thing that are very important to you, in order help them understand your main points. It may also mean at times dropping a level of technical detail (that you might believe is necessary for absolute accuracy), to convey the concept.


To add a little to this. I’m a reasonably well read guy, with a wide background in technology. I can read legal papers and extract the key concepts fairly easily. I find most scientific papers almost unintelligible. Even academic papers that fall into my specific field, where I have close to 30 years of experience, I find it incredibly difficult to read and follow. There is an entire set of terminology that is used within academia that must be learned to read the papers. I’m not talking about the scientific terms themselves, but terms which often have equivalent non-academic equivalents. Add to that the actual technical language and strange sentence structure and it is sometimes difficult to not assume the goal is to sound smart rather than at doing a good job at communicating.

Anyways, really just a rant, stemming from my frustration every time I have to delve in academic papers to understand a the cutting edge of a specific technology.

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This is one of those platitudes that is actually true, and painfully so. Ironically IMO, the author of the OP tells us one big reason why. The author claims that academic writing has a bunch of specific “purposes” that are somehow wildly unique:

We write scholarship to establish our credentials in a field, to lay stake to original claims, and to build a name for ourselves in the profession.

Yuck. Combined with the author’s depressing spiel about how “we” are “taught” to write in grad school, we have some claims that are not about “writing” but about an unhealthy culture. While I am sure that there are plenty of pockets of this unhealthy culture, it is wrong to assert (or repeat) that this is an accurate characterization of science as a culture overall.

Scientists bring lots of baggage to the task of writing in general and to the task of writing for non-specialists and laypeople. But I don’t think the author of the OP has identified the most important challenges. It’s a shame, because she started down a good path by writing:

…scholars tend to misunderstand how public writing — or as the public would call it, “writing” — works…

I thought she might make the important point, a centerpiece of our instruction in the retreat, that: there is no such thing as “good scientific writing.” There is only “good writing.”


I’m not exactly sure how you define “equivalent non-academic equivalents” but a terminology confusion which I’ve often had to explain to non-academics is the meaning of positive correlation. Obviously, an academic applies that term to a relationship between two variables which move in the same direction—but a lot of laypersons assume that the “positive” describes (1) some desirable, healthy, or pleasant outcome or (2) that the “positive” means that the scientist is absolutely sure of something (as in “Due to your positive lab test, I’m certain that you have COVID-19.”)

Of course, we also often have to explain that correlation should not be confused with causation. I cringe at the number of news headlines which confuse correlation and causation. (“Association” is often misconstrued.)

Anyway, my point is that terminology (even very simple terminology) can be a huge obstacle when scientists communicate with the public. (Duh. I should be reported to Captain Obvious.)

Another reason is that authors are frequently writing in a foreign language.

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I put those issues in a different bucket. I’m talking about native speakers.

Random note: one of my hobbies while editing papers and such (which I do a great deal of) is to see how many times I can make changes like replacing ‘a large number of’ with ‘many’.


Well, most fields have their own essentially foreign language, one that only masquerades as English.

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Ha, our main text for the writing retreat is Zinsser’s On Writing Well and he has a whole magnificent chapter on abominations like that one.


I haven’t looked at Zinsser for a long time – time for a revisit. My own favorite book on writing well is Williams’s Style: The Basics of Clarity and Grace (or one of the variously named longer versions), which for some reason is now ridiculously expensive on Amazon.

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As a young scientist, I am always on the lookout for ways to improve my public outreach. Are there resources, well known or otherwise for this? I am asking especially to the more senior scientists here @scholars e.g., the books that @glipsnort and @sfmatheson mentioned.

Perhaps a whole other can of worms, but I would also appreciate any resource on video outreach (e.g., on youtube), as I see that as the future of scientific outreach.


For good writing, I strongly recommend Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style alongside Zinsser’s On Writing Well. Both include concrete suggestions for avoiding/correcting common errors but are more valuable IMO for outlining a stance, maybe an ethos, for writing non-fiction. Pinker specifically describes the “classic style” of writing, which sounds weird and stuffy but is in fact (IMO) a very important way to think about writing and communication. These visions of ethos are strongly relevant to “outreach,” I would argue.

As for more general aspects of public outreach, I would urge all of us to consider the AAAS document on “Scientists in Civic Life,” which is linked with other important resources on the PS mission page.