Up Goer Five: writing excercises

The Up-Goer Five meme of explaining science in less than 1,000 words received some belated criticism of being a poor exercise in science communication. Yes, just like not every article should be a one-draft 5-minute stream-of-consciousness quick-write, not every piece should be limited to “ten hundred” common words, but that’s a silly point to make. Any exercise that gets you writing improves your writing.

I took the short-and-simple route, practicing conciseness with the one-sentence version of what I do for a living, but what I do is also conceptually simple. As a disaster researcher, I try to keep people from getting squished by rocks. As a geophysicist, I try to make guesses about what’s under the ground without actually digging a giant hole to look. As a science consultant or instructor, I try to transmit information. None of these are complex ideas, so for me the challenge was a written version of the 30-second Elevator Pitch.

The really interesting Up-Goer Five Challenge entries were full paragraphs getting in-depth into complex concepts or processes, not just about what the scientists technically do, but why they do it. In breaking the ideas down into simple words, they also had to dissect the concepts, turn them into piecemeal ideas that a pre-schooler could grasp, and tie them together into a coherent package. That isn’t simply running through a list of synonyms until hitting on one the limited vocabulary list would permit, but also deciding on the key, non-negotiable points that absolutely must be communicated. That honing and prioritizing of ideas is a skill worth developing.

I personally find the squishy-smelly sciences very difficult — they were a reoccurring nemesis in school, and I’m grateful to have trusted colleagues to depend upon for my chemistry and biology needs now. Yet here are people who managed to take neurology, genetics, cell division, and developmental biology, and break it down into something as intimidating as a fluffy kitten. That is a skill worth incorporating into more grown-up, vocabulary-sophisticated writing.

The idea of limited-vocabulary writing has an ongoing home in Canada, a bilingual country with high variability in English and French fluency. Bilingual conferences are difficult for those who are decidedly not-bilingual, with the of slightly lag of “simultaneous” translation making the situation worse. A common practice to help the situation is to speak in one language, and have slides in another. For those with cereal-box-and-airports bilingualism, speaking in the stronger language and having slides in the weaker language helps those with opposite fluency follow along. I don’t mind admitting my French was stretched to encompass les glissement de terrains, but when questions were framed to use the same vocabulary as on my slides, I could respond with a similarly-limited vocabulary, helping us all communicate directly if a bit more simply than usual for a technical conference.

If you’re interested in practicing your writing and even your science communication, do the Up Goer Five Challenge. Do timed-writes, quick-writes, word-count-limited writes, assigned-topic writes, interconnected-thematic-writes, epic-writes, and technical-writes. But most importantly? Write.

This post is a writing exercise: make a referenced argument in exactly 500 words. Minor post-publication edits to fix a few missing/duplicate word issues.

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