Though I frequently post about fiction, a lot of what I edit is nonfiction, especially scholarly theses, dissertations, journals, and books. Every realm of scholarship adds something to our lives, and having the chance to work with scholars from different fields is something I relish about my work. The trouble is that most scholarly research never leaves the halls of academia to find a general audience.
It doesn’t have to be that way, and ideas don’t necessarily have to be dumbed down to reach a general audience. If you’re a scholar who wants to popularize some of your scholarly work, here are a few principles you should follow.
Define Your Terms
In scholarly writing, you and your academic compatriots have a lot of words you use as shorthand for ideas. This is useful: it helps you understand one another, it helps you know who’s done their background research, and it saves you a lot of time spent explaining yourself. But if you’re adapting your research for a general audience, you need to cut back on the clique vocabulary. Try to use more common words for the concepts you’re talking about. If you still want the ease of using your field’s jargon, make sure you take some time to define the term you’re using before you put it in every other paragraph. You should also do this if you’re using a common word in an uncommon way.
Example: My research led me to reevaluate my stance as a prescriptivist, as someone who clings to grammatical rules instead of looking at how language is commonly used.
Make Your Method Clear without Madness
In many sciences (both hard and soft), research papers and articles include a section about the method for a study or experiment. This description is important because it shows your study was rigorous and you did what you could to remove bias and skewed results. However, most of your talk of double-blind studies and chi-squared tests isn’t going to be immediately familiar to a general audience. Complicated setups and endless statistics sometimes end up translating into unmitigated madness.
So ditch your methods section. Instead, weave parts of your method into your conclusions. When you say this chemical probably contributes to cancer, explain that you believe that because your statistical analysis was based on a large sample size and you used a standard level of skepticism; don’t explain how you determined your sample size and set a low alpha value as your significance level.
When you make your method a part of your conclusions, it’s easier for a general audience to understand why certain parts of your setup are important. If a part of your method doesn’t fit in the discussion of your conclusions, you might not need to include it at all for this particular audience.
Put Yourself in Your Writing
To make your research more accessible, it’s important to include a human element. Since you are a human, you can stand as that element. You might want to explain why this research is important to you and why the topic draws your interest. Are you fascinated by the depths of the universe? So are a lot of people you aren’t astronomers. Let them see your enthusiasm and they’ll be drawn into your writing. If you found something that made you reevaluate your previous positions, explain how surprised you were. It’ll make you more personable.
Most scholarly writing aims to remove your personal objectivity from the equation, but when you’re popularizing your work, put yourself into your writing. It will make you a better guide for your readership if they understand that you are a person.
Invite Your Reader In
Another way you can add a human element to your research is to invite your reader (who is also human) into your writing. Relate your research to your readers’ daily lives, to their aspirations, to questions and curiosities they may have had. Use analogies your reader relates to when you explain dense concepts. The more you make the topic relevant to your readership, the more interest they’ll have.
You do this same sort of thing with the literature review that is typical in many scholarly formats. With your literature review you relate to previous researchers and your academic community: your readers. With general writing, your readership is different, so you need to find different ways to relate to them.
Present Your Takeaway Often
The last thing you can do to reach a general audience is the most important: tell your reader why your research matters. If your chemical engineering breakthrough could help create viable and affordable electric cars, explain how (this part of the breakthrough makes the concept cheap; that part makes it super effective); if your study of ancient literature uncovers elements of Jung’s collective unconscious, explain how understanding the collective unconscious helps an individual; if your sociology study unearths an interesting concept about families, point out how it could relate to the reader’s family.
When you relate your conclusions to your reader’s life clearly and often, it’s easier for your reader to understand why your research is important. That’s the reason you started researching in the first place, isn’t it?