Many of us are tightening our belts these days, walking a fine line between what we can do ourselves and what absolutely must be outsourced.
This week, we take on writing your own medical website content. You can always hire a professional medical writer to explain conditions and treatments and write a weekly blog. These kinds of writers specialize in conveying complex medical information into lay-friendly prose. Many physicians are good at this too, but not everyone is Atul Gawande.
Science (medical and otherwise) can be hard for people to read.
“Most people assume that its difficulties are born out of necessity, out of the extreme complexity of scientific concepts, data and analysis,” write George D. Gopen and Judith A. Swan in their seminal 1990 paper, The Science of Scientific Writing. “We argue here that complexity of thought need not lead to impenetrability of expression.”
Gopen and Swan offer several principles based on the science of “how readers read,” taken from fields like psychology, rhetoric, and linguistics. Readers, they say, have certain expectations and derive much meaning from the structure of writing, especially sentence construction.
Based on the expectations of readers, they recommend the following principles in scientific writing:
- Follow a grammatical subject as soon as possible with its verb.
- Place the person or thing whose “story” a sentence is telling at the beginning of the sentence.
- Introduce just one new idea per sentence.
- Provide context for your reader before asking that reader to consider anything new.
Gopen and Swan place special emphasis on context.
“In our experience, the misplacement of old and new information turns out to be the No. 1 problem in American professional writing today,” they write.
Their remedy for this has come to be called the “Known-New Contract.” This is an agreement between you (the writer and science expert) and the reader that you will not introduce a complicated new piece of information without first providing them something known to give it context and meaning.
For example, if you want your lay reader to understand something about the cerebellum, first give them some context regarding the basic parts of the brain.
Gopen and Swan give many more examples in their paper. You can also get a more concise review of this concept in this free download from Carnegie Mellon University and this free download from the Writing Center at the University of Colorado.
Whichever resource you choose to review, getting a good grip on these writing principles will help you produce quality and understandable scientific writing. An engaged reader will be attracted to your practice, while you may lose a confused reader in the shuffle.