In the midst of a pandemic, the world is suddenly aware of scientists as communicators. The ability of public health and medical experts to convey the right message to the right audience at this moment is clearly a matter of life and death.
As a scientist who has spent decades learning how to communicate better with military leaders, this is a topic that I have come to see as crucially important to the work of my organization: providing technical and analytical advice that helps military and government agencies carry out their missions successfully. I am convinced that writing is an underappreciated tool for scientists. It is an integral part of the analytical process, not an add-on step when the analysis is complete. Writing is about thinking. By learning to write effectively, we not only make it possible for our analysis to have impact, we also improve our own analytical thinking process.
Thirty years ago, as a graduate student in chemistry, my approach was all about methods — hypothesis development, experiment design, lab technique. Writing was an afterthought. Yes, a dissertation would eventually have to be completed, but my energy and focus was on experiments and discovery. I now realize that approach made it a whole lot harder to pull my dissertation together than it needed to be. And it was even harder for anyone who had to read it. My lab results were great. But because I hadn't spent enough time thinking through what they meant, I couldn't communicate those results clearly to anyone outside of my narrow subdiscipline.
It wasn't until I joined CNA that the relationship between writing and really good analysis became clear to me. CNA runs a federally funded research and development center specializing in studies and analyses for the Department of the Navy, essentially producing a dissertation for every project. That's something on the order of 350 dissertation-sized reports per year, which I now oversee as the chief research officer.
When I was an analyst writing those reports, my research sponsors were mostly Marine Corps generals. I had to explain complicated stuff to very busy people who had decisions to make — important decisions that affected hundreds or even thousands of Marines. In that situation, every word takes on new meaning. Their need for clear, concise writing that answers their questions helped strengthen my own writing process. Getting to clear, concise writing isn’t easy. Here's what works for me.
Write early and write often.
Writing helps me organize my thoughts, so I start writing from the very beginning of a project. Early on, that writing might focus on framing the problem and identifying the questions to address. As my work advances, the writing becomes more substantive — documenting data, methods and results. This writing helps me identify the key insights early so they can be tested, refined and polished. Just as important, crafting a story in sentences, paragraphs and chapters highlights weaknesses and gaps in the analysis. Writing clarifies my thinking. For example, as I'm writing up my methods, I sometimes I realize I have been making assumptions I didn't know I was making. So writing forces me to be transparent about my assumptions. And transparency is a hallmark of good work.
One caveat: I do not think that organizing your thoughts in the form of PowerPoint slides has the same effect. Pages of bullet-point lists don't help me see the holes in my work or expose hidden assumptions. And the reader might take away the wrong point. A slide deck can hide all sorts of lazy thinking that might otherwise be revealed as you write the story of your study.
Share written updates regularly.
As your work begins to unfold in your writing, don't keep it a secret. Let others read it. Most researchers at CNA send a memo of a few pages to their government or military project sponsor every couple of months and as often as every week. I find that even an update that addresses just one segment of the project helps mature my thinking, while providing a natural way to get feedback. This is an extension of the process of writing drafts — recommended in every treatise on writing. But by sharing those drafts, the benefits of writing early and often are magnified. I am rewarded with clearer thinking on the topic through the process of writing, as well as insight into the perspective of the reader.
Pause, reflect and chop.
As with a good wine, time can enhance good writing. One of the most important reasons to write early and often is that it allows you to revisit what you have written when your brain is fresh. Leaving your draft aside for a few hours, days or even weeks is the most reliable way to see your writing critically, as though someone else had written it. The more complicated the subject matter, the more important this is. While writing, I tend to be slogging through a tactical list of ten or more analytical results. After setting my words aside for a week or more to ferment, I can generally simplify the insights and pull out the essence of the work, the meaning revealed by all the various analytical steps and findings.
This is the time to add, cut, rewrite, and generally drain the red pen. Revising may be the hardest skill to learn in the writing process, but it is important. Critically reviewing my writing helps me identify potential weaknesses in my logic and holes in the story line. Seeing my thoughts on paper makes me realize how stupid — or amazing — they really are.
Answer the right questions.
For the decision-maker, I make sure that I answer four basic questions:
- What problem did I address?
- What did my analysis say about that problem?
- So what? What does that analysis mean for my audience?
- What now? What should they do?
You can't answer the most important of these questions — the "So what?" and the "What now?" — until you’ve honestly considered who your audience is. I say "honestly," because it's very common that writers subconsciously have a secret audience in the back of their minds. It could be the foremost expert in the field, your immediate boss or a long-dead thesis advisor. Your real audience probably has much less technical background than your imaginary audience, and is far less interested in things like the programming details of your model, underlying theory in the discipline, or challenges of data collection.
Writing for a decision-maker is different from writing for a technical audience. The decision-maker needs answers to those questions in as few pages as possible. The technical audience wants to know exactly what you did, how you did it, where you got the data, and all the underlying assumptions and caveats. I learned the hard way that I could only satisfy both audiences by writing two papers: a technical paper that completely documents the work, and from that, a summary of no more than ten pages providing the important information a decision-maker needs to move forward.
Writing is hard. Clear writing is very hard. But I've seen the processes described here permeate successfully into an organization of hundreds of scientists and analysts. And I have come to realize that writing well is more of a disciplined process than an intuitive art. Today more than ever, we see that science and analysis really matters to our global health and to the health of our globe. So we see that effective communication by researchers also matters. It's worth the effort.