Distilling science for a lay audience

How to overcome the task of sorting through the volumes of information we gather before we actually write a popular science article about someone's research.

“Just throw it up like a cat does a hairball.” That was one piece of advice Carol Savonen, science communications specialist for Agricultural Communications, gave me before leaving me to fend for myself as a science communications intern.

Carol was addressing one way to overcome the task of sorting through the volumes of information we gather before we actually write a popular science article about someone's research. If you regurgitate your initial impressions, you then have an outline to shape into a final piece.

As a writer with a research science background, I sometimes find it difficult to return from an exhilarating interview with a dedicated scientist, my head filled with 10 years of background on his or her work, and have to distill it to one and a half pages of jargon-free prose.

Distilling the information

An approach that works for me is to key into what excites the researcher, and then convey this enthusiasm to the reader. Usually, non-science readers want to know why a particular area of research is relevant to their lives. So my mission is to tell the reader:

  • why the researcher cares about his or her work
  • why the reader should care about it

Scientific findings may relate to our health, our environment, our sense of discovery, or our finances. A good lead will tell readers something about the research and how it affects them personally. The next few paragraphs should cover what the research is about. This requires accurately reporting the actual research, without bogging the reader down with cumbersome scientific terms.

When introducing difficult concepts, I like to use analogies that the reader can relate to. This can be tricky, as the image must be strong, the comparison valid, and the connection immediately apparent.

Quotes from the researcher help give the reader a feel for the researcher's personality, and also lend the facts a human touch. Following quotes with a summary of what the researcher said helps drive home the point. Finally, if the research is expected to produce tangible results in the near future, a paragraph indicating what can be expected, and when, is a satisfying way to end the article.

Going to an interview with these guidelines in mind makes it easier for me to strike a balance between finding out what my audience needs to know and gathering the pertinent points about the scientist's work. And the “hairball” I toss down as my working draft becomes a lot easier to shape.