Science copywriting for a global audience
As marketers in the field of science, we often need to describe complex concepts in our writing. I’ve long believed that the clarity of these explanations is vital – after all, if the customer doesn’t understand the features of the product and how they’ll benefit, they’re hardly likely to buy it. This is particularly important when your writing needs to appeal to global audiences who don’t have English as their first language. So here I’ve compiled six essential tips that will help make your scientific copywriting easier to understand by non-native English speakers.
Writing for global audiences
The other day, a new contact complimented me on the clarity of the text on my website. This meant a lot to me, not just because I’d devoted a lot of effort to writing it, but also because the person in question did not have English as their first language.
I was obviously happy that I’d explained myself clearly, but it got me thinking about how well science-focused businesses explain their products and services to global audiences. Specifically, how do you write in a way that is easily understood by those who have English as a second language (also known as ‘non-native English speakers’)?
The problem with English
Obviously, the very best way of ensuring that your marketing material engages with global audiences is to get it professionally translated and ‘localised’. But with English so widely used in scientific communication, it’s unsurprising that material written in English forms the backbone of the literature offering from many companies.
Unfortunately, written English presents a number of challenges for international audiences – challenges that native English speakers like myself are rarely aware of. So I’ve scoured the web for advice on writing clearly for a global readership, and combined it with my own experience of scientific writing, to give you six tips for making your literature easier to understand. This list is of course just a starting point – but I think it captures the essentials, and should give you a head-start in writing clear copy that can be understood around the world.
#1: Use straightforward language
The most important way of simplifying your language – for international audiences as well as native English speakers – is to find the most straightforward way of saying something.
The failure of much technical copywriting to meet this requirement largely stems from the prevalence of the ‘academic’ style of writing. Two particular problems with this approach are the passive voice and abstract nouns, but rather than bore you with a grammatical treatise, here’s an example of both usages:
✗ The derivation of an algorithm for this process by our team has meant that it has been possible to formulate an explanation of the magnetic behaviour of nanosized systems.
In this sentence, ‘the team’, who should be the focal point of the action, are passive observers, while the abstract nouns ‘derivation’ and ‘explanation’ further enhance the impersonal tone. Such usage is good for conveying a neutral, objective stance in scientific papers. But as shown here, it can also obscure meaning and deaden your enthusiasm for the subject matter.
To improve the sentence, we just need to use the active voice (by making ‘our team’ the ones who are carrying out the actions), and replace ‘derivation’ and ‘explanation’ with their equivalent verbs:
✓ Our team has derived an algorithm for this process, which means that we can explain the behaviour of nanosized systems.
This is much clearer and livelier, and also results in a shorter sentence.
#2: Use words that mean what they say
Idioms (phrases that don’t mean what they appear to) are a particular challenge for non-native English speakers. So for example, we wouldn’t want this sentence to be interpreted literally:
✗ Locating target compounds in complex matrices can be a bit of a needle in a haystack.
Phrases like ‘a bit of a needle in a haystack’ require readers to know the words and recognise the analogy with the topic being discussed. This is challenging for international audiences, and it also makes translation (by algorithms or professional translators) more difficult. It’s therefore much better to replace analogies with words that can be interpreted literally.
So an alternative to the above example would be:
✓ Locating target compounds in complex matrices can be very difficult.
#3: Use simple verb forms
Complex verb forms can be just as bad as idioms in obscuring the true meaning. For example, look at this innocuous sentence:
✗ To cut down on solvent use, it’s worth splashing out on a fully integrated system.
In this case ‘cut down’ and ‘splash out on’ are phrasal verbs. These are ordinary verbs (cut, splash) that are combined with other words (down, out on) to give a completely new meaning. They are most common in spoken English, but are widely used in writing too, and replacing them with simpler verb forms can aid understanding:
✓ To reduce solvent use, it’s worth buying a fully integrated system.
Complexity can also be introduced by the use of modal verbs ‘can/could’, ‘shall/should’, ‘will/would’ and ‘may/might/must’, as shown in this example:
✗ Should you wish to extend the software options, then an extension package may be purchased.
To make this easier to understand, it’s better to state clearly what needs to be done in order to achieve the desired result. This is done by reducing the number of modal verbs, and (where they’re unavoidable) using only the forms that are the least ambiguous:
✓ To extend the software options, you must purchase an extension package.
Notice how eliminating ‘should’, and replacing the vague word ‘may’ with the more emphatic ‘must’, clarifies the meaning of the sentence.
#4: Use simple sentence constructions
To convey nuances in meaning at the same time as writing eloquently, it’s tempting to use complex sentence constructions. These are particularly common in scientific journal articles. For example, you might join together related clauses, or insert a caveat into the middle of a sentence.
But take care – non-native English speakers can find such complex constructions difficult to understand. Take the following example:
✗ If you supply us with information on dimensions, and provided you have selected the ‘custom’ option, we will respond with a detailed airflow model, which will allow the number and size of pumps that you need to be ascertained.
This sentence is both long and rather convoluted, because: (a) it contains the caveat “and provided…” in the middle of it; and (b) the consequence “which will allow…” is added on at the end. Separating these two points from the main message helps to improve readability:
✓ If you select the ‘custom’ option and supply us with information on dimensions, we will develop a detailed airflow model for you. We will then determine the number and size of pumps that you need.
Bullet-points are another powerful way of simplifying messaging for international audiences – and of course they are just as effective in aiding understanding by native English speakers.
#5: Be consistent in terminology and structure
As scientists, it’s natural to be consistent in the way we use symbols and apply formatting. But we don’t always give enough thought to being consistent in the words we use to describe something, or in how we arrange those words in a sentence.
For example, look at the following statement:
✗ We offer two product ranges: dispensers for powders less than 100 µm diameter, and delivery systems for granules with diameters greater than 100 µm.
There are three inconsistencies here: (a) the change in wording from ‘dispensers’ to ‘delivery systems’; (b) the charge in wording from ‘powders’ to granules’; and (c) the change in the way the statement on diameters is structured. All this makes extra work for the reader. Instead, it would be clearer to say:
✓ We offer two types of powder dispensers: those for particles less than 100 µm diameter (powders), and those for particles greater than 100 µm diameter (granules).
Such phrasing might seem to lack eloquence or ‘refinement’ – but in technical copywriting, the most important thing is to be understood and to convince, not to win prizes for creative writing.
#6: Get someone else to read your document
All documents can benefit from being checked-over by someone who wasn’t involved in creating them. Professional proofreaders are available for this sort of task, or alternatively you may be able to find an appropriately diligent colleague. Clearly, if they are a non-native English speaker as well, then that may help you identify any places where your phrasing is not 100% clear.
Whether or not you do this, I’d always recommend setting the document to one side for a day or so, and then returning to it yourself for a fresh perspective on it. I do this with my own writing all the time, and it’s great for spotting where your explanations can be refined, and where unnecessary words can be eliminated.
To get a fresh perspective on your writing, put it to one side and come back to it after a day or so.
Conclusion: A balancing act
The above tips are very far from being comprehensive, but I hope that they give you a few ideas for making your scientific writing clearer and easier to understand by non-native English speakers.
Having said that, it can be difficult. Not only do you have to accommodate the essential scientific terminology used in your field, but you have to avoid patronising your readers with unnecessarily simple language. To attempt to summarise, it seems to me that catering for international audiences is a balancing act between extremes on three scales:
- Formal writing style … informal writing style
- Short, simple sentences … long, complex sentences
- Basic language … advanced, eloquent or ‘refined’ language
Where on these scales your copy sits depends partly on the purpose for which you’re writing it – for example, it’s natural for blog posts like this one to be written in a more informal style than a brochure. But the main consideration should always be the reader. This is why, whenever you embark on a copywriting project, the first step should be to understand the target audience.
Most importantly, this means understanding the reader’s level of knowledge about your technology and products. But if your organisation is striving to be truly global, it should also mean taking into account their experience with the medium you’re using to communicate with them – the English language.