Guidelines for Duke Research Piece

Here is the guideline for the assignment itself.

When writing for the Duke Research blog, there are no specific templates.

However, the first rule of thumb is "don't write like a scientist." Your readers didn't click on your piece, because they want to know more about the miniscule 'details' - they want to know the 'finale', the point. You can't load the the story with a bunch of background and context (i.e., "Introduction" in a journal article). You have to get to the good stuff, the meat of the paper, as soon as possible (really, right from the get-go). That means asking: What did the researchers find? How do they know that? What does it mean to ME, the reader? Is it simple enough to be profound or profound enough to be simple? Identify the message: it should be easily understood, memorable, focused, and framed to be relevant to your audience. See the example graphic below (from here).


Second rule: Go easy on the numbers. Select a few, very powerful numbers and leave everything else out. For example, can your audience VISUALIZE what these numbers mean?

Third rule: Avoid jargon that an eighth-grader may not recognize. That's generally where the average American is in science literacy. They had high school biology 25 years ago, but they might not have been paying attention. Here are some examples of how you can communicate more broadly by using everyday language:

Obviously, there are exceptions to rules two and three. You don't want to compromise scientific accuracy to the point of distorting the truth. If you HAVE to use jargon, 1) keep it to a minimum; 2) define it before introducing the term (i.e., the definition must be provided before you use the term). But mostly try to avoid jargon, including number jargon. Here are some sites that might help you identify jargon: 1, 2. Another way of identifying jargon: Did I know the definition of this word before taking this class?

Fourth rule: The headline and lead sentences are often the ONLY chance you get with most readers - especially in the mobile news age. It is not uncommon to write and revise those multiple times to get those right. Moreover, the headline and lead of a SciComm piece will differ from what is considered interesting to a scientist. For a scientist, we might think about a general statement of the unsolved questions of the field. For example, one of the scientist summary pieces we will read is titled: "How the human brain segments continuous experience." While this is a GREAT headline for memory scientists (summarizing research into how each memory becomes its own distinct event), it is not tuned to catch the public eye; it uses language more oriented to a scientist (segment, continuous experience), and leads with the unsolved question rather than what the paper it covers MEANS to a general reader.

The most compelling stories have a narrative arc, outrageous methodology, compelling characters, extraordinary effort, paradigm shifts -- something that makes you go, "I want to know more." Make the story personal; use analogies and metaphors; use humor and/or drama; provide statistics; hook your readers with something surprising or counterintuitive; and be definitive. Ask:

These tips were largely provided by Jory Weintraub, who teaches Science Communication here at Duke, and Karl Bates, who runs the Duke Research blog and who will work with you on your final Duke SciComm pieces. He will do an annotated edit-track on each paper and return your paper to show what he's thinking before you publish your piece together. He will visit class and discuss how you will revise your piece for 10-15 minutes on June 13th.

Finally, every blog post ALSO needs two or three relevant images (must know the copyrights/provenance/credit on each) AND a headshot of the author with name and position in school. If you don't have a headshot, we can set-up a time to take one of you towards the end of the course. We will discuss in class making sure that you have the appropriate copyright license as well. Make sure you link to, or include a reference of, the article that you cover.

In class, we will deconstruct academic articles as well as science communication pieces so that you become critical consumers of both styles of writing. Here is a list of science communication pieces that we will cover:

We will also spend the first day of class specifically discussing science communication and build each day on that foundational material.

To make the writing process easier, we are going to start small. First, we'll deal with non-Duke articles. You'll write a tweet summary of articles (May 20), write SciComm headlines (May 21), write an opening paragraph for a SciComm piece (May 23), and write multiple paragraphs for a SciComm piece (May 31). After gaining experience with this style of writing, you'll select your specific Duke article, outline your piece (including headline; June 10), write a first draft of your SciComm piece (June 13), and then revise for your final (course) draft due June 19. All along the way, your classmates and I will provide feedback that will help you improve your science communication skills. Ultimately, this piece will be published on the Duke Research blog, which you can show your family and friends and any future employers interested in knowing how well you write to a general audience.

Sounds good? Let's get to work!

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