Recently Ian Tucker sat down with a group of the world’s top science writers at the Royal Society’s annual book prize event in London. The results of the interview are filled with gems of insight and humor that frame how these writers think about explanation and making ideas easier to understand. The first addresses a question I hear often - how do you explain something without talking down to people?
Tucker asks the question in this form: When you are writing where do you set the difficulty dial?
Steven Pinker with phenomenal advice: Before I wrote my first cognitive book, I got a bit of advice from an editor, which was probably the best advice I ever received. She said that the problem many scientists and academics have when they write for a broad audience is that they condescend; they assume that their target audience isn't too bright, consists of truck drivers, chicken pluckers and grannies knitting dollies, and so they write in motherese, they talk down. She said: "You should assume your readers are as smart as you are, as curious as you are, but they don't know what you know and you're there to tell them what they don't know." I'm willing to make a reader do some work as long as I do the work of giving them all the material they need to make sense of an idea.
I love this idea. There is a big difference between being smart and informed. If we approach explanations with the perspective that the audience is smart, but not informed, it may help prevent us from sounding condescending or “dumbing-down” ideas unnecessarily.
Are science writers reporting on the frontiers of knowledge or imagination?
James Gleik: I don't think anybody at this table would be writing about science if we bought into the idea that the process of science was a matter of rote and grunt work. All five of us have focused on imagination and creativity, not just as the occasional accidental part of the scientific process but as the things that make it work, make it exciting.
Steven Pinker: The only proviso to all of this is that in science it's not enough to be imaginative and creative, it also has to be right. There are plenty of very imaginative people history forgot, because their beautiful, elegant scheme didn't fit the facts.
These are a couple of primary ingredients of great explanations. Imagination and creativity on a foundation of facts. You need both.
Are scientists their own worst enemies when it comes to communicating their work?
Joshua Foer: What you're supposed to be doing in a science book or popular article is distilling, finding what is essential and communicating that. That's not just an act of storytelling, it's an act of thinking and it requires a kind of clarity of communication that not just the scientists but academics in general have moved away from and I think it makes them think less clearly.
“An act of thinking.” I have found many times that writing an explanation and thinking hard about how to make it understandable gives me new perspectives. By working to communicate it clearly, I learn about the subject and start to see it differently. This is a side-effect of explanation that is often forgotten.
NOTE: If you're interested in learning in-depth about the skill of explanation and how to make Common Craft Style videos, check out our online courses at the Explainer Academy.