One Minute Writing Tuneup: Readability
While helping a brilliant scientist revise her abstract to a 10th grade reading level for a foundation award application, I wrote down some tips for converting writing intended for audiences with a scientific background to readers with less formal education:
Smaller words. Half of that Flesch-Kincaid reading score in MS Word comes from counting syllables per word. Longer words make the grade level go up. Try replacing “adipose tissue” with “fat,” or “pulmonary” with “lung.” Less drastic replacements, if done often, help too: “frequently” can change to “often,” or “protracted” to “long.” Disclaimer: If the distinction between a word and its shorter synonym is critical, of course keep using it. All “small” things are not “microscopic,” after all.
Shorter sentences. Sentence length makes up the other half of the Flesch-Kincaid score. Look for places to insert periods, such as commas, semicolons, and “but” or “and.” Keep to one idea per sentence. Avoid passive voice, and write most sentences in subject-verb order.
Only essentials. Adjectives and adverbs are no longer your friends. Delete them unless truly necessary, as with a phrase like “the mTOR-knockout mice displayed more muscle atrophy than wild-type mice.” If you’re trying to stay under a word limit, this also condenses your text.
Watch jargon and complex phrasing. “Mechanism” is so common in science we don’t notice it, but lay audiences will. While they aren’t that different in length, “define the mechanism by which x does y” is harder to read than “understand the reason x does y.”
Abstracts pegged to graded reading levels aren’t common, but the need to communicate your science to non-scientists is, especially as social media lets scientists share their work with more readers. Use these rules to make your lay writing more readable and appealing.