Whether you're still getting your ideas together, writing your first draft, or revising and editing, here are some tips to keep in mind to help make your piece work for any audience.
Who is your audience?
Imagine telling them your story in whatever tone is appropriate.
Think of your article as a two-way conversation between you and the reader
Enjoy telling them what is interesting about your story. Anticipate your reader’s questions and answer them.
Keep your sentences short
It doesn't mean you cannot use long sentences, mix up short and long, but experts say that you should aim for 15 to 20 words per sentence on average.
One fact per sentence, one idea per paragraph
Think about the beginning and end of sentences… of paragraphs and of the whole piece.
The beginning of a sentence or paragraph catches the reader’s eye when they skim read, so try and make use of that. And the end of a sentence or paragraph can stick in the reader's mind. You might want to put the important stuff at the beginning or at the end. Or start with something old and end on something new, etc…
Think about breaking the piece up using subheadings
When you first glance at an article, the subheadings stand out. They can entice the reader to dive in or lead them on to keep reading. They can highlight the key ideas and give context to what comes next. The format of your piece – particularly the paragraph breaks, the pictures and subheadings – give your readers space to pause and digest information, before moving on.
Speak your audience's language. It's easy to forget how unfamiliar/misleading common scientific terms can be for a general audience. For example, the term "significant result" can mean something very different to a scientist than it does in colloquial language.
Use technical terms only if absolutely necessary. Does the reader really need to know that word; is there a colloquial term that might do instead?
If you do need to use a technical term, make sure the sentence is readable without knowing what it means. If there isn't enough contextual information to make sense of the sentence, you could give a brief explanation (perhaps in brackets: eg. "this is a type of..." or "you can think of this as...") or you could link to a fuller explanation elsewhere (say an online resource, or an unpacked definition in a box or later subsection). Try not to let the technical term stop the reader's flow.
And avoid non-technical jargon too
Consider using an active voice rather than a passive one.
An active voice is one where the thing doing the action comes first: "The dog ate my homework" is active - the dog did the eating. However "My homework was eaten by the dog" is passive, as the homework was the thing getting eaten!
Similarly, avoid nounification (technically called nominalisation) – that is, turning verbs into nouns. For example, write "This illustrates…" rather than "This is an illustration of…"
An active voice, and using verbs rather than "nounifications", usually makes your writing clearer, more alive, and more engaging. It also often makes your writing shorter.
Simplify the writing, not the science
Don't shy away from difficult ideas, but use metaphors and examples to bring them across.
Use caveats if necessary ("This simplified example illustrates the idea…")
Find a story that winds through the content you want to bring across.
Mind your maths
Don't necessarily shy away from equations, but structure your piece so a reader can get through without understanding the equation — put it in a box, or specifically say they don't need to understand it. Explain in the text around it what the equation is capturing. After all, an equation is just a very succinct way of describing something using the language of mathematics.
Also remember that metaphors are very useful — use your own mathematical intuition! How do you imagine the mathematical concept? Can you visualise it in your head? What does it remind you of? What images spring to mind?
Don't be afraid of uncertainty or the limitations of the science you are writing about. It's important to communicate these both to be trustworthy, but also to raise awareness of how mathematical research is done. See the last section for more tips about this.
"I have made this letter longer than usual because I lack the time to make it shorter."
One of the most important parts of writing is what you leave out. Try to pull out one main idea you want to get across to your reader: what do you want them to remember? Be bold and cut out anything that isn't helping get that message across.
Other things to think about
- Be correct! That includes names, dates, places etc. Even if you don’t think that something is important, there will always be a reader who does!
- Attract attention: The title is the first thing a reader will see: should it be informative, witty, or intriguing? Think about pictures, movies, sound files, etc: these can work wonders in drawing in an audience.
- Do "it", "this","them" and "that" mean what you think they do?
- Beware of empty words and expressions: Examples include "actually", "really", "very", "own", "with regard to", "in the case that". See if you can leave them out. If a word isn't doing any work in a sentence delete it.
- Check that your brackets, commas and dashes around sub clauses are in pairs.
- Check all apostrophes!
- Take care that persons and tenses agree, that singular and plurals match.
This content was produced as part of our collaboration with the Isaac Newton Institute for Mathematical Sciences (INI) and the Newton Gateway to Mathematics. The INI is an international research centre in Cambridge which attracts leading mathematicians from all over the world. The Newton Gateway is the impact initiative of the INI, which engages with users of mathematics. You can find all the content from the collaboration here.