You've Got Some Explaining to Do

Advice for Neuroscientists Writing for Lay Readers

by Jane Nevins

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What are people who read opinion-page articles looking for? How can you reach people who read general-interest magazines? Hint: It's not the same as your colleagues or science journals.

This compact book offers the reasons and information that can help scientific writers adopt new habits to be successful and happy writing for a non-science audience. Go ahead and write journal-style for science journals and colleagues, says longtime science editor Jane Nevins, but you'll need to try different styles to reach a different audience.

The book is divided into three parts: The Meet-up, Simple Fixes, and Science and Style. In The Meet-up, Nevins describes the different venues for lay writing, from opinion pages to popular magazines, and what readers of each expect and respond to best.  In Simple Fixes, she shows how jargon, "cross-over words," and hackneyed expressions can be remedied, clearing away confusion for your readers. In Science and Style, she discusses what to put first, how to quote and paraphrase in lay copy, and what to leave out.

Throughout You've Got Some Explaining to Do, Nevins gives concrete, specific examples tied to neuroscience.  The author, who served as the first editor in chief of the Dana Press, brings more than 20 years of experience in translating neuroscience to lay readers. 

"No one is better at helping one learn to write for the non-professional public, as I can personally testify, than Jane Nevins."-Nobel laureate Eric R. Kandel, M.D., Director, Kavli Institute for Brain Science, Columbia University College of Physicians and Scientists


Part One: The Meet-up

1. Thinking about Your Reader

2. Thinking about Your Subject

3. What Readers Want

4. Your Voice

Part Two: Simple Fixes

5. Soporifics

6. Taming the Underbrush

7. Making It Clear

Part Three: Science and Style

8. Saying and Not Saying

9. Analogies, Similes, Metaphors, and Anecdotes

10. What to Put First

11. Quoting and Paraphrasing

12. What We Know and When We Know It

13. Masked Men and UBOs

14. Visual Style

One More Thing

Other Reading


One of the great challenges we face as brain scientists is to explain our research to the general public in a way that is at once accurate and lucid, completely understandable, as interesting to the non-professional reader. This is not an easy task, and no is one better at helping one learn to write for the non-professional public, as I can personally testify, than Jane Nevins. I was therefore thrilled to see that she has spelled out her experience in a marvelous book: "You've Got Some Explaining To Do." This book is the Strunk and White for the brain scientist of the 21st century. A must read and a pleasure to read. Don't simply walk, run out and get your copy.

-Nobel laureate Eric R. Kandel, M.D., Director, Kavli Institute for Brain Science, Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons

Jane Nevins observes that "The times are good to write about the brain" but also that "it is hard for scientists to write for lay readers". If you are ready to present your latest success in the saga of your science, then let this very wise editor guide you from a "continually compelling concept" to a final product that will leave your reader inspired and hungry for more.

-Floyd E. Bloom, M.D., Professor Emeritus, The Scripps Research Institute

This brief, pithy, and witty booklet is full of useful information and advice that will help neuroscientists write better books for a broad range of lay readers. Jane Nevins has been guiding them for years, and her wisdom and experience will give future authors a brilliant guiding light.

-Nancy C. Andreasen, M.D., Ph.D., Andrew H. Woods Chair of Psychiatry, The University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics

Nevins distills many years of experience to offer a genuinely useful guide to communicating science. She practices what she preaches! She speaks directly, with a clear voice, avoiding jargon and focusing on what her reader needs to know. Simple fixes promise to unclutter writing and liberate the would-be writer to hold a real conversation with the reader. Without question for me, the lessons here will help improve thinking as well as improve readership!

-Paul Matthews, Professor of Clinical Neuroscience, Imperial College London and co-author, The Bard on the Brain

In a tour de force that takes the elements of Strunk and White to the next level, Nevins captures and conveys the true meaning of communicating through writing. Her approach is as exciting as the neuroscience she promotes. This book is a must-read for every aspiring young scientist and scholar.

-Judy Illes, Ph.D., Professor of Neurology, University of British Columbia