A Course in Writing for the Public Focuses on Storytelling
By Anne Muthiru
As an early career researcher, writing for the public opens a new experience where we make an effort to explain our everyday research free of technical terminology.
Scientists are trained to write in an authoritative and unemotional way. I recently participated in a training by the Animal Health Innovation Lab where my colleagues undertaking PhDs and I were taught how to write about research for a non-specialist audience.
I am a PhD fellow at The Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Animal Health in Kenya. My doctoral study seeks to understand the adoption of livestock vaccines specifically for the control and management of East Coast Fever among households in Narok and Busia counties. Such an understanding will offer insights into how to bring livestock vaccines to scale and ensure that they reach their full potential in local settings.
Anne Muthiru (front row, center) at the training on writing for the public.
My takeaway from the training was that writing for the public was not a replacement for publications in peer-reviewed journals but rather a deliberate expansion to a new and larger audience through a simplified form of storytelling about my research.
The half-day training emphasized the art of storytelling based on our research. I learned about structuring my articles written for the public to ensure there is a logical flow of ideas, using short and punchy paragraphs, avoiding the use of scientific jargon, and writing simply. I learned that Op-Eds allow for my work to reach larger audiences and provide me a chance to provide thought leadership in areas I have spent time researching as part of my academic work.
Anne Muthiru (right) takes notes during an interaction with the community during a field visit in Kenya.
To pitch my work, I should think of relevant contemporary issues, weave in my knowledge and findings from my research, and think hard about practical applications. The emphasis was to think about my audience and to tailor the message to communicate with the targeted audience for my writing.
I learned about The Conversation Africa, a global news website that publishes articles solely by academics to offer viewpoints supported by scholarly work and research. Articles from The Conversation Africa have an open license, which allows other media outlets to republish them.
By studying several articles in The Conversation Africa, we were able to understand the structure and the flow of public-facing articles. This frequently followed as information on the background for the study, a simple description of the study, a few paragraphs with the main findings of the study, and the meaning of the findings and recommendations that could be drawn from the studies.
I learned of the strict word count limits of 600-800 words as well as the importance of using strong photos and graphics and keeping concepts simple.
Anne Muthiru (right ) with colleagues during a field visit in Kenya.
The highlight of the training was the three-minute thesis (3MTs), where we watched a video of students making three-minute thesis presentations of their work. From the videos, we observed how different students presented their work by giving short stories about how they developed an interest in their study and what the study was all about.
The challenging part of this type of presentation was explaining an entire doctoral study in under three minutes to a knowledgeable, non-specialist audience. I learned several tips from the 3MT sessions: comprehension, content, communication and engagement. During the presentations, I could tell that using images to communicate what the study was about was a key tool for communicating complex ideas to non-technical audiences.
I found the training very insightful and refreshing, and I anticipate writing my first Op-Ed.
About Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Animal Health
The Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Animal Health (AHIL) is a five-year cooperative agreement funded by the USAID Bureau for Resilience and Food Security.
The vision of AHIL is to improve human nutrition, economic welfare and resilience by removing constraints to cattle health and production in Kenya and the East Africa region.
The AHIL consortium is led by the Washington State University with Kenya-based partners including the University of Nairobi, the International Livestock Research Institute and scientists from the Kenya Medical Research Institute and Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization.