Three Tips for Writing to Non-Specialists
One evening, my professor for Dissertation Seminar randomly grouped us in pairs to discuss our dissertations. A student specializing in Literature became partnered with me, a specialist in Composition and Rhetoric.
“What’s your dissertation about?” I asked.
“Narrative historiography,” my peer replied.
Before giving feedback on his ideas, I had to ask, “Um, what’s that?”
“It uses narratology to examine literature that reimagines historical events.”
“Oh. What’s narratology?”
As we progress through undergrad, grad school, and doctoral programs, we travel a winding staircase that progressively narrows until only the people in our siloed specialty remain with us. We become adept at writing about narrative historiography to people who already know about it, but we forget how to discuss our research to people outside our specialties.
Grant applications, journal articles, and other publications often have broader audiences than our fellow specialists. Here are three tips for writing effectively to broader audiences.
Recognize the Curse of Knowledge
When you understand something, you have difficulty remembering what it was like to not understand it. This difficulty makes it harder to communicate your understanding to others who haven’t obtained it yet. That’s the “curse of knowledge.”
Even after my classmate explained narratology, I still didn’t quite get narrative historiography until he used the example of Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. It’s a detective novel set in an alternate reality in which the Jewish nation-state resides in part of Alaska rather than in Israel. A hard-boiled detective investigates a murder and discovers a secretive group working to bring about the Messianic events required for a Jewish state in the Middle East.
Ooohhh! So “narrative historiography” is jargon for “how we tell stories about alternate reality and history.” Why didn’t you just say that? Because of the curse of knowledge.
To write clearly to non-specialists, you must be aware of the curse of knowledge. Remember there was a time when you didn’t understand your discipline like you do now. Remember that your audience may not understand it, think about how you came to grasp it, and adjust your communication to help them get it, too.
Hunt for Threshold Concepts and Jargon
The term “threshold concept” was coined by Jan Meyer and Ray Land. A threshold concept is a counter-intuitive idea that must be understood before you can fully understand other important concepts in a given discipline. A threshold concept transforms your views of discipline-specific content. Meyer and Land describe it as a “portal” to a new way of thinking. Often, we use jargon to name or describe threshold concepts.
For example, before you can understand “narrative historiography” as a concept in the field of Literature, you first need to understand that literature can be analyzed with a range of different paradigms, all grounded to varying degrees in the details of the text and the author. Once you realize literary analysis doesn’t make stuff up out of thin air, your view of literary analysis transforms.
To understand how CRISPR works, you need to understand DNA, RNA, and viruses. But when Jennifer Doudna explains CRISPR to lay-people, she doesn’t take it for granted that people share her deep understanding of genetics. She doesn’t use jargon like “gRNA,” “tracer RNA,” and “sgRNA.” Instead, she describes CRISPR as “cut-and-paste” and then walks her audience through some basic threshold concepts about DNA replication.
To mitigate the curse of knowledge in your writing, look for the threshold concepts and jargon whose understanding you take for granted. Then explain those concepts in more detail, using broadly familiar language, examples, and analogies.
Pretend You’re Writing to a New Grad Student
Of course, you can’t over-correct when writing to the non-specialists reading your grant application, journal article, or other publication. If you start explaining the scientific method to scientists, then you’ll offend your audience.
Imagine you’re writing to a new graduate student in your discipline. The student understands a lot about the discipline, but the student may not have achieved the threshold concepts, higher-level jargon, and paradigms that inform you as a PhD.
My classmate, for instance, didn’t need to explain the concept of using specific theories and paradigms in literary analysis (e.g., historical criticism, psychological criticism, etc.). I got that in undergrad. But he needed to explain higher-level concepts that hadn’t been part of either my Masters or my Doctorate in Composition and Rhetoric.
By pretending you’re writing to a new grad student, you can strike the balance between condescending to the audience and explaining what needs to be explained, between dumbing down your writing and providing the necessary details.
Say you’re writing an NIH grant to fund research into neural trajectory representation. The reviewers will likely include fellow neurobiologists, neurologists, and neuroscientists. But will any of them specialize in continuous cortical signals, bioengineering, neural prostheses, or robotics? Will any of them understand directional tuning and population-based movement representation in the motor cortex?
To communicate about neural trajectory representation to these relative non-specialists, recognize the curse of knowledge, identify the threshold concepts and jargon that need to be explained, and pretend you’re explaining them to a brand-new doctorate student.
Using these tips, you might write something like the following:
Researching the neuronal connections in the motor cortex that fire when we move some part of our bodies could help bioengineers develop robotic prostheses that can be controlled with the mind. Neuronal firing in the motor cortex creates a neural ‘representation’ of the direction and speed of volitional movements. People can imagine volitional movements, creating the neuronal firing that leads to neural representation of trajectory. If connected neurally to robotic prostheses, imagining movements enables people to control the prostheses with their minds.
Instead of throwing around “neural trajectory representation” and “continuous cortical signals” like everyone knows those concepts, remember that you didn’t always know them yourself and that people outside your narrow specialty likely don’t know them either. Recognize the curse of knowledge.
To explain “neural trajectory representation,” you need to identify it as a threshold concept and explain it with the detail necessary for passing through the portal to a new understanding. Describing neuronal firing in the motor cortex allows you to explain that this firing creates a “representation” of both direction and speed, i.e., trajectory. Then references to “trajectory” in the context of neurobiology will make sense to neurobiologists with different specialties.
But the example doesn’t condescend by defining neurons, neuronal connections, neuronal firing, or the motor cortex. The neuroscientists and bioengineers reviewing the grant may not share your narrow specialty, but they still know a thing or two. Pretending they’re new grad students helps you explain what they need explained without over-explaining, offending, and wasting their time.
Influential literacy theorist Walter Ong says it’s essential to know what the audience knows and doesn’t know. That’s how writers know what to explain and what to assume.
Don’t let the curse of knowledge mislead you about what the audience knows and doesn’t know. Look for the threshold concepts and jargon that should be explained so your readers grasp what you’re trying to convey. Pretend you’re writing to a new grad student so you don’t over-explain.
It will avoid awkward confusion and questions about narratology, sgRNA, and neural trajectories.
Eric Sentell teaches writing and rhetoric at Southeast Missouri State University. He is the author of How to Write an Essay like an Equation and Become Your Own Fact-Checker. Learn more about his work at www.EricSentell.com.
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