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On Writing Technical Articles for the Nonspecialist

This was originally posted at ninazumel.com. I’m re-blogging it here.


WatchPhoto: John Mount

I came across a post from Emily Willingham the other day: “Is a PhD required for Good Science Writing?”. As a science writer with a science PhD, her answer is: is it not required, and it can often be an impediment. I saw a similar sentiment echoed once by Lee Gutkind, the founder and editor of the journal Creative Nonfiction. I don’t remember exactly what he wrote, but it was something to the effect that scientists are exactly the wrong people to produce literary, accessible writing about matters scientific.

I don’t agree with Gutkind’s point, but I can see where it comes from. Academic writing has a reputation for being deliberately obscure and prolix, jargonistic. Very few people read journal papers for fun (well, except me, but I’m weird). On the other hand, a science writer with a PhD has been trained for critical thinking, and should have a nose for bullpucky, even outside their field of expertise. This can come in handy when writing about medical research or controversial new scientific findings. Any scientist — any person — is going to hype up their work. It’s the writer’s job to see through that hype.

I’m not a science writer in the sense that Dr. Willingham is. I write statistics and data science articles (blog posts) for non-statisticians. Generally, the audience that I write for is professionally interested in the topic, but aren’t necessarily experts at it. And as a writer, many of my concerns are the same as those of a popular science writer.

I want to cut through the bullpucky. I want you, the reader, to come away understanding something you thought you didn’t — or even couldn’t — understand. I want you, the analyst or data science practitioner, to understand your tools well enough to innovate, not just use them blindly. And if I’m writing about one of my innovations, I want you to understand it well enough to possibly use it, not just be awed at my supposed brilliance.

I don’t do these things perfectly; but in the process of trying, and of reading other writers with similar objectives, I’ve figured out a few things.

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