In issues ranging from climate change to public health, scientists have fallen under attack. Science communicators today face a challenge: How do we tell our stories when readers can’t agree on the facts?

Some of the answers may lie in the tools of good communication. Recent research shows us where we may be making missteps in science writing, and lays out some strategies to help us improve.

The jargon trap

Experts in all fields love their jargon. But jargon and unfamiliar words make readers stop reading, even when the word is defined in the text, according to a study at The Ohio State University. What’s more, researchers found that jargon led people to disbelieve in science.

“When you have a difficult time processing the jargon, you start to counter-argue,” says lead author Hillary Schulman. “You don’t like what you’re reading. But when it is easier to read, you are more persuaded and you’re more likely to support these technologies.”

Jargon may be useful in specific circumstances, however, when you are writing for an audience whose members share a common vocabulary. Use caution: If any section of your audience is unfamiliar with your terminology — such as those who are new to the field — you risk alienating them. For more information on science writing for experts, see this short video from user experience firm the Nielsen Norman Group.

More than just the facts

Many times, we’re trying to reach people who may not have much trust in science. That means we have to work hard to engage people with an open communication style, according to a new report in the Journal of Extension. This could include working to make the message relevant and relatable, and including photos and stories of real people.

“Effective science communication involves many more stylistic elements than just using simpler terminology,” the researchers write. “When communicating with the public, it is critical to also consider appropriate framing to bring familiarity to a subject that may seem foreign and intimidating to a general audience.”

For example, you could choose to frame an article in terms of the risks an issue may pose to a community, researchers suggest. Spell out what could happen if people don’t test their soil for nutrient deficiencies, for example. Conversational language is also key.

Use plain language

People are more likely to trust information they can understand. We talked about the importance of plain language in a blog post earlier this year. Here are a few of the main points:

  • Lead with a brief summary.
  • Break up long passages into understandable “chunks” with subheads, bullet points and pull quotes.
  • Avoid passive voice.
  • Check the reading level of your article. If your text falls above the 12th grade reading level, even experts will find it hard to read. Run your text through a readability app like the Hemingway Editor to help you find areas to improve.

We can’t solve all these issues with our keyboards. But avoiding jargon and following the principles of plain language can bridge the gap between writers and readers, and bring us that much closer to understanding.

Author: Janet Donnelly

Extension is all about the practical applications of science, and scientists love acronyms. But in practice, acronyms and abbreviations can cloud meaning and turn off the people we’re trying to reach.

An acronym is formed from the first letter of each word in a series. Writers often use acronyms to save space and avoid repeating a technical term or a long agency name. But consider that readers have to stop and decode each acronym, each time it is used. Acronyms impede comprehension and alienate readers.

Many of us were taught to follow a term such as Extension and Experiment Station Communications with its acronym, set off by parentheses: Extension and Experiment State Communications (EESC).

Oregon State University follows Associated Press Style, which frowns on this convention. The AP Stylebook explicitly states:

AVOID AWKWARD CONSTRUCTIONS: Do not follow an organization’s full name with an abbreviation or acronym in parentheses or set off by dashes. If an abbreviation or acronym would not be clear on second reference without this arrangement, do not use it.”

Questions to ask yourself

This guidance poses a dilemma for those of us who write scientific and technical communications. Here are some questions to ask yourself when considering whether to use an acronym.

Can you say it out loud?

Acronyms ease communication when they are a shorter, easier way of referring to your subject. But acronyms no one can pronounce have the opposite effect. If you have to resort to a difficult letter combination, consider subbing in some shorthand language instead.

Acceptable:  WHB pest status is derived from the transmission of WHBTA.

Better: White horned beetles are deemed pests because they carry White Horned Beetle Transmitted Virescence Agent, which causes whopping disease in raspberries. The damage is caused by the agent, not the action of the pest on the plant.

In this example, the term “agent” serves as a substitution for the hard-to-read acronym.

Who is your audience?

If you are writing for a technical audience already familiar with your field’s terminology, acronyms may be acceptable. In these cases, stop and consider how you would explain such terms to new members of your audience who are just entering the field. You may want to add context to help clarify your meaning.

Acceptable: FSMA

Better: Food Safety Modernization Act or food safety act (on the second reference)

While many publications in the Extension Catalog qualify as technical documents, most are intended to appeal to a general audience. When writing for the Extension website or a newsletter, avoid excessive use of acronyms and overly technical language. Use plain language.

Is the acronym a familiar one?

Acronyms in common use such as AAA, CT scan, UFO, PTA and OSU are all OK. Avoid using unfamiliar acronyms.

How many times will the acronym be repeated?

If your entire story is based on subject XCT, it’s OK to use the acronym (after you have made clear its meaning). But be selective, and avoid sprinkling in additional acronyms. That can make the piece harder to read and understand.

If you use the term only once or twice, there is no need for an acronym.

What are the alternatives?

Changing old habits can be hard. Here are some techniques that can help readers grasp the meaning behind an acronym.

  • Repeat the term in full on each reference. (Admittedly, awkward.) United Aircraft Mechanics approved the deal early Thursday. Later in the day, a representative of United Aircraft Mechanics said the agreement had already been broken.
  • Use an element of the full term as shorthand on future references. “The mechanics” instead of “United Aircraft Mechanics.”
  • Use a synonym. “The group” or “the union” can sub in for UAM on subsequent references.

When is an acronym OK?

Yes, it’s still OK to use many common acronyms and abbreviations. Here are some frequent uses of acronyms in Extension publications:

  • Fertilizer: N, P, K.
  • Measurements: F, mpg, mph, GPA, etc.
  • Integrated Pest Management: IPM.
  • Names of pests, such as spotted-wing drosophila, or SWD.
  • COAREC and other experiment stations. (Spell out the full name on first reference.)
  • EPA, IRS, ODA.

What’s the right way to use an acronym?

Spell out the full term on first reference, and introduce the acronym within the same paragraph.

  • These producers employ a practice known as Integrated Pest Management. IPM uses a combination of strategies to control pests.
  • These producers employ a practice known as Integrated Pest Management, or IPM. Producers who use IPM report better outcomes.

Punctuation: Avoid periods between individual letters unless the acronym would spell an unrelated word. Academic degrees (M.S., Ph.D., etc.) and some two-letter acronyms are an exception.

Plurals: Add s, no apostrophe. REIs, PHIs. Exception: Letters, such as A’s and B’s.

Can I use an acronym in my title?

Avoid the use of acronyms in headlines, titles and subheads, especially if the acronym is not in familiar use.

The upshot: Be conscious of any reading impediments embedded in all caps in your text. Make reading easier by keeping acronyms to a minimum.

What other questions do you have about acronyms? Leave them in the comments and we’ll get back to you!

We write so that others will read.

No matter what we write — an email, a newsletter article, a research paper — we want people to read it and understand.

The key to understanding isn’t some complex formula. It’s actually quite simple: a form of writing called “plain language.” Plain language conveys meaning in short, spare sentences and simple words. Plain language is:

  • Accessible. Plain language helps us reach everyone, including people with learning or other disabilities, people whose first language is not English, and people who may be reading online while feeding a toddler and waiting on hold with the cable company.
  • Active. In active voice, the subject of the sentence performs the action: “The mouse ate the cookie,” not “it is believed the cookie was consumed by the mouse.”
  • The law. Government agencies like the IRS and the state of Oregon have adopted plain language guidelines. OSU websites should follow web accessibility guidelines, including those on readability.

There’s an app for that

Oddly, it’s hard to write simply.

Thankfully, some great new tools can help us measure and improve the readability of our text. One we like is called Hemingway Editor.

Start with a rough draft. Call up Hemingway in your browser, and copy and paste your text into the home screen. You’ll see a screen like this:

Zero in on the figure that denotes the reading level of your text. If it’s ninth grade or higher, start working your way up the Hemingway rainbow:

  • Clean up everything in light red. Cut unnecessary words. Divide complex sentences in two. Sub in some active verbs.
  • After pink, tackle yellow.
  • Re-check the reading level. Is it lower? Good job.
  • If the reading level is nine or above, keep working. Most audiences — including academics — prefer to read at an eighth grade level or below. Great writers like Jane Austen, Ernest Hemingway and J.R.R. Tolkien all wrote at the seventh grade level or below.

Make reading easy

Many readers today don’t read but instead scan written material. They’re looking for solutions in a hurry. Here are some ways to help these readers out:

  • Avoid long paragraphs. Long blocks of gray text turn readers off. Limit your paragraphs to one topic — about three sentences.
  • Use bulleted lists instead of long sentences filled with commas.
  • Use bold-faced lead-ins and subheads to help readers scan your text to find what they are looking for.
  • Read it out aloud. Before turning in anything to an editor or colleague, read it out aloud. You’ll be surprised how many awkward phrases you’ll find to revise.

Writing is hard, but reading doesn’t have to be. Use the tools of plain language to tell your story, and your readers will thank you.

Editor’s note: This article is written at a fifth-grade level.

More blog posts to come:

  • Science writing simplified: improving the readability of complex topics
  • The ABCs of acronyms
  • Tempting titles that click with readers

Authors: Janet Donnelly and Jim Sloan