Don’t Eat Grandpa: Tips for Writing Well in a Nonacademic Setting

Valerie Nirala, ASA Editor and Content Strategist

The transition from writing research papers to writing magazine articles can be quite difficult. After all, no professor ever required a magazine article about scalable Bayesian inference that could be read by a general audience. Most, if not all, prepare their students to write journal articles. Writing for a nonacademic publication such as STATtr@k, however, requires a few considerations beyond knowing your subject well. Let’s chat.

No Introduction Necessary

When writing a nonacademic article, you can jump right into the meat of your message. There is no reason to lay out what you are going to tell your readers, because readers of news or magazine articles are not doing research. Sure, they are most likely reading your article to learn something, but they want to learn quickly and generally, which leads to my next point.

First Things First

Your key message should always come at the beginning of the article, with everything else you write backing up your premise. You can think of it as starting with your conclusion and qualifying it with your methods and results.

Parallel Structure

One aspect of grammar that makes a distinctive difference in how well your message is received is parallelism. Simply put, this is using the same pattern to show two or more ideas have the same level of importance. Following are examples of both the use and nonuse of parallelism:

Charles thought he would go to the store, buy candy, and his friends would be there to share.

Charles thought he would go to the store, buy candy, and share it with his friends.

Can you tell which sentence uses parallelism and which doesn’t?

The first sentence does not use parallelism because the final clause (his friends would be there to share) is passive and changes the subject from Charles to his friends.

The second sentence uses parallelism because Charles continues to be the subject throughout and the verbs are all active. Bonus: It’s easier to read.

Details Matter

By details, I mean proper grammar, spelling, and punctuation. You have probably seen the following example:

Let’s eat, Grandpa.
Let’s eat Grandpa.

One sentence, two distinctive meanings (one a little macabre) based on the use or lack of a comma. Punctuation sets the rhythm for language and can make what you have to say both clear and easy to read. Without punctuation, readers can stumble over sentences and your meaning can become ambiguous.

Spelling is important because you can easily change the meaning of a sentence with the wrong spelling (e.g., There’s no sense splitting hairs/There’s no sense splitting hares [ouch!]). Worse, you can cause your message to lose credibility. It’s difficult to put trust in someone’s point of view when they don’t know the difference between hair and hare.

Grammar is, of course, the glue that holds your message together. Without it, you would not be able to communicate with a broad audience. When you don’t use proper grammar, readers will know something doesn’t “sound” right, even if they can’t point out what’s wrong. This is called a stumbling block. Stumbling blocks cause readers to stop briefly and wonder what they missed or even reread a sentence before moving on. Simply put, they are distractions that keep readers from understanding your message (see Parallel Structure).

Friends Don’t Let Friends …

Until you get the hang of nonacademic writing, make sure to ask a friend with more experience writing for a news outlet or blog to read over your work. A good friend will want to help and won’t judge you.

The good news is being able to communicate with a general audience will make communicating with a scientific audience even easier. Not only will you have the knowledge and vocabulary down, you will be able to finesse away any stumbling blocks.