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Graduate Writing: Explaining Research to Diverse Audiences

Explaining Research to Diverse Audiences

While many graduate students may be aware of traditional publication routes (e.g., conference abstracts, journal articles, scholarly monographs), it is becoming more common for academics to share their work with wider audiences. This trend has many benefits: it helps reinforce the value of publicly funded research by making it more readily understandable, broadens understanding of and stimulates curiosity about how the world (and universe) operate, and encourages decision-making based on evidence rather than assumptions. Unsurprisingly, it has become more common for funding bodies to ask for a communication plan as part of a funding application and for journals to require a plain language summary in addition to a traditional academic abstract.

Writing for non-specialist readers requires that graduate students hone a different writing skillset. Fortunately, many of the writing strategies to make it easier to communicate with a wider readership also appeal to other academics and can be incorporated into one’s regular academic writing practice.

Depending on the target audience, you may wish to use plain language principles and/or journalistic techniques to help get your message across.

Plain Language Principles

Standard academic writing can often be dense and difficult to read, so when we share our work with non-specialists, it is important to adopt a plainer approach. Notably, more plainly written academic texts are read and cited more than their jargon-laden counterparts, which suggests that all readers benefit from text that is written more directly, regardless of whether they are a community member or specialist in the field.

By writing plainly we reduce barriers to understanding so that more people can read and understand complicated information. Such barriers can take the form of jargon, complex or specialized vocabulary, and overly long sentences, among others.

There are several strategies that we can use to write more plainly:

  • Use descriptive, specific, and familiar words. 
  • Reduce jargon, specialized terminology, and acronyms.
  • Reduce or eliminate words that have multiple meanings.
  • Use personal pronouns when appropriate.
  • Use active voice over passive.
  • Use parallel constructions.
  • Review visual elements to create a better reading experience.

Modified from Provincial Health Services Authority. (n.d.). Plain language tips & examples. Web Editor Hub.

Unsure of how your academic writing compares to plainer language? Try a self-assessment. Tools like De-Jargonizer, Hemmingway App, and The Writer’s Diet can help writers gain insight into their work.


Want to learn more? Consider a self-directed plain language course.

Journalistic Techniques

If you want to make your prose compelling in addition to being clear, then consider techniques used by journalists to make texts engaging. Experienced journalists focus on story to keep readers hooked. Story elements include everything from the role of character (human or otherwise) to plot elements like intrigue and suspense that keep readers emotionally invested.

When it comes to applying such techniques to your own writing, consider the following principles of journalistic nonfiction writing:

  • Opening sentences that make a strong first impression
  • Compelling introductions that show readers what is at stake
  • Short paragraphs with engaging opening sentences
  • Clear transitions
  • Use of the first person (e.g., I did this…, We discovered that…)
  • Telling stories about real people
  • Minimal lists, jargon, passive voice, and clunky sentence structures
  • Conclusions that return to the intrigue or line of inquiry established in the introduction

Modified from Burke, K. L. (2015, July 31). 12 tips for scientists writing for the general public. American Scientist.

If interested in sharing your work with a broader audience, consider a resource like The Op-Ed Project, which includes tips and recommendations for preparing compelling pieces of public writing.


Looking for more information on communicating with a non-specialist audience?