Science writing tip: Unlearn academic verbiage

Scientists and engineers tend to write posts on the Web filled with jargon and dry, passive sentences, things common in research papers. Their academic training makes them write not just complex sentences but also deters them from reaching the “period” soon enough.

If you’re a scientist, engineer or anyone similar who wants to write on the Internet, the first thing to realize is that academic writing is your enemy. It took me years to internalize this. Truly transitioning from my academic roots in physics to a professional space writer was only possible after seeing how academic verbiage is actively unhelpful to most readers on the Web.

It doesn’t always matter if you say something is in Earth orbit instead of mentioning Low Earth Orbit (LEO) at every chance you get. You may have the most amazing facts to tell but if you deliver them in clunky sentences, the reader will go away.

Academic writing makes you dig a rabbit hole when a single sentence would’ve sufficed. It makes you write acronyms for complex concepts when the term could’ve been ditched altogether. It will rarely let you stay within reasonable word limits.

An article or a blog is not a research paper or your thesis. Stop treating it like one.

The very choice of publishing on an interconnected, open platform with the biggest spread of audience in history demands that. Of course, you could choose to target a niche set of people with your web writings. But that doesn’t automatically exclude others from discovering it or finding it useful, especially people tangentially related to the topic.

Moreover, it’s possible to communicate complex topics in a manner that allude to both the expert and the enthusiast. If you write “The spacecraft fired its engines to get out of Earth orbit” rather than “The spacecraft performed a trans-lunar injection burn”, the subject expert will know exactly what you meant anyway but the non-expert will be able to stay along for the ride.

The other thing to remember is nobody is an expert in every subject. A geologist will enjoy a lucid read on a new finding concerning dinosaurs, and might even realize new geological connections to that time period, but she won’t take away anything from a clunky piece with assumed or enforced jargon. An expert in one subject is a commoner in another.

Lucid writing is an indispensable tool to attract and retain a spectrum of people. The skill won’t come to you overnight. Or even after months. But what I can tell you is that with practice, as with any intricate skill, simple writing will start showing its effectiveness in all the right places even if you aren’t professionally good at it.

Start by fixing common writing mistakes. Write simple, short sentences instead of unwieldy ones.

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