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Science Writing Tips

Down With Jargon

The funniest (to me) moment of my chemotherapy experience so far was hearing my oncologist tell the nurses to get me some “oral cryotherapy” during my last treatment. This sounds very fancy and technical, right? Except he was asking them to get me a cup of ice.

Doctors aren’t the only specialists who are guilty of peppering their speech and writing with phrases that make perfect sense to them but are humorous (at best) or incomprehensible (at worst) to outsiders. One of the most fun aspects of my work over the past couple years has been editing blog posts written by ornithologists about their research with birds. I’m not the first to observe, however, that many scientists have trouble letting go of jargon-filled “science speak” even when they’re writing something that’s intended to not be so technical. Here are some edits I suggested to a blog post that crossed my desk earlier this year:

OriginalMy Suggestion
“function as proxies”“be good stand-ins”
“temporal changes”“changes over time”
“more mesic habitat”“wetter habitat”
“interspecific differences”“differences between species”
“interannual variability”“variation between years”
“proximate explanation”“immediate explanation”

Most of these would be fine in a scientific paper, written for an audience of other scientists. If you want your blog post to be accessible to a broader audience, though, I’d argue that you’re often better off using simpler language, even if it means sacrificing some precision of meaning. What do you think? Are there any particular examples of unnecessary jargon that drive you nuts?

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