Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Learn from the Journalists

The Wellcome Trust are currently running a competition for science writing. I hope some of you scientists out there can put pen to paper and write about your work in an accessible, passionate way. No easy task, I know.

As part of the run up to their competition they've been getting journalists to talk about how to explain science. A lot of it is obvious, but no less worthwhile because of that. Moreover, many of the points they raise are worth bearing in mind when putting together a grant application.

Of course you need to talk about and justify the detail of your proposal, but you should (as Tim Radford eloquently puts it in his 25 point manifesto for science journalists), never 'overestimate what the reader knows and underestimate the reader's intelligence.'

This is particularly so in the 'lay summary', which is often dismissed as an afterthought when preparing an application. However, in some ways it's the most important part of it: it gives your reader a 'way in' to your application. It grabs them by the lapels and pulls them in to the heart of your proposal. These reviewers and panelists are like you, and don't have much time to spare, so make them care enough to read on.

In fact, a lot of the lessons given by Radford are worth keeping at the back of your mind - or, as he suggests - taped next to your keyboard. Here are my favourites:
  • Always, always always keep the reader/reviewer in mind. They're time poor and eminent, and often don't have first hand knowledge of your area.
  • 'Never be full of your own self-importance. Don't be pompous'.
  • 'No one will ever complain because you have made something too easy to understand.'
  • Beware of long and preposterous words. Beware of jargon. Simple words, clear ideas and short sentences. English is better than Latin. You don't exterminate, you kill. You don't salivate, you drool. You don't conflagrate, you burn.
  • 'Beware of all definitives. The last horse trough in Surrey will turn out not even to be the last horse trough in Godalming. There will almost always be someone who [or some research that] turns out to be bigger, faster, older, earlier, richer or more nauseating than the candidate to whom you have just awarded a superlative.'
  • 'People will always respond to something close to them.' This is true for journalists, but also true for research. You've got to make it relevant and important. Avoid definitives, sure, but make sure the reader knows how relevant and important your research is. You've got to dodge the 'meh, so what?' response.
In addition, Chrissie Giles hammers home the need to get feedback. Show it to anyone and everyone. Read it out yourself and see if it flows and makes sense, that it forms a logical argument. Reword any clumsy or unclear bits, and cut out any flab.

So learn from the professional wordsmiths. In a grant proposal you need to craft text and sell a message to a very specific audience; who better than a journalist to arm you with the skills for this?

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