From the Introduction
IN MARCH 2013, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker joined satirist Fran Lebowitz for a conversation before a sold-out audience at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City. In due course, their discussion arrived at academic writing, which Lebowitz complained was "like trying to read cement." Pinker, a famous exception to that criticism, fended off her shot with a point he makes often in talks and essays about academic writing for general readers: what he calls "the curse of knowledge," which he describes as the difficulty of going "back in your mind to the state you were in before you knew something and explain[ing] it to others."
Thus spoke a sympathetic writer who, as a scholar, knows this dilemma close-up. If you're in the predicament he described, believe me: lay editors feel your pain, too, but we look at it a little differently-as a practical matter of solving problems that we see scientists wrestle with, or not notice, in writing about their science for lay readers. The idea behind this book is to help you so that you can solve or avoid most of these problems yourself. Some of them are ridiculously simple to fix. Others take a mental workout that (like a real workout) is easier for some than others to get used to. Solving those problems boils down to thinking differently, when writing lay science, from the way you think when writing for peers. Don't worry: since both lay and scientific writing have good reasons for being as they are, this book is not an attack on your peer-writing habits. Rather, its intention is to offer the reasons and information that can help you adopt other habits-and be successful and happy with the lay-writing task you have in mind.
YOU AND YOUR READER
The first part of this book is about you and your reader, because writing is, in effect, a conversation. Having a clear sense of whom you're talking with and what you're talking about is critical. That's why I called this part "The Meet-up." The goal is to enable you to think about where the story you have in mind, and the way you expect to write it, meet up with your reader. What you and the reader want has to be clear to you before you start, especially if you hate rewriting (which you should not!). And these wants aren't necessarily the same.
In our high school and college writing classes we were told, "Write conversationally." We understood that didn't mean reproducing conversation's shortcuts, bad grammar, and sentence fragments; most of us interpreted the old advice as, "Write like you talk, but in complete sentences." Lucky for editors, writers following this advice produce a feast of writing flaws, most because they forget the nonverbal dimensions of conversation. Because language can either blur or supply that dimension, Part Two discusses common usage practices that muddle or sharpen your writing. Thankfully, bad usage habits are painless to break, and good ones are intrinsically rewarding. If you already have a first draft, you can vet it for usage and almost certainly make it better.
SCIENCE AND STYLE
Part Three is about instances when, for a while at least, you may be at odds with communication habits tagging along from your science life. Deciding what your reader may need to have explained is one part of it. Another part is how a lay reader is processing your words. Still another part is keeping in mind why you think the reader wants to know what you have to say. It sounds like a lot of intuiting, imagining, and guessing-whatever you'd like to call it-beyond the obvious work of gathering, organizing, and writing the content. You must wonder how you can do this while still achieving momentum and flow in the writing. But it's a little like dancing once you've called the tune: after you get going, you remember the moves, and you handle it.
WHERE THIS ADVICE COMES FROM
The Dana Foundation's Dana Press began in 1990 with a lay-oriented newsletter, BrainWork, and grew to publish other periodicals and general interest books about the brain in print and electronic formats. As editor in chief, I got to edit scientists' writing for lay readers for nearly twenty-five years, and the advice here comes from that experience. But if the writing commitment you've made is your maiden voyage in writing for lay readers, you might be encouraged by a different fact about my background. I was a writer and newspaper editor who took a consulting assignment to launch and write BrainWork with the help of three scientific advisors: Maxwell Cowan, Floyd Bloom, and Lewis Judd. Without them, the publication would have been dead on arrival. (Actually, the prototype issue was dead; they hated it.) I had had both zero scientific training and a science-free career. I call Brainwork's first year my yearlong migraine. But with a degree of patience that still amazes me, the advisors explained, suggested, named names, and dispatched me to interview (and reinterview) constellations of scientists. Sure, I knew where readers would be coming from with regard to the brain, but I had to learn as much as I could about the scientists' perspective. Once I could understand what they did and cared about, it was possible to plow a path to common ground, to see convergent points of interest, and to get the science and the reader onto the same page. Thus, my challenge was like yours now, just in reverse. And if I could do it, I have no doubt you can, too.