I Should Use Shorter Sentences

As a science writer, I often interview scientists. Experts in different fields know what the most important issues are. They understand the details. And they’re often on the front lines of research. They know what’s news.

Expert quotes add depth and insight to my writing. Expert quotes add credibility and authority.

Beyond that, expert quotes add dialogue.

Yup, you read that right. Good nonfiction should be as easy to read as fiction. That’s especially true when you’re writing for kids or the general public. The principle even applies to readers who are generally familiar with a subject. The more readable an article or book is, the more likely someone is to keep reading.

Often I’m lucky enough to talk with experts who provide lots of quotable comments. Yet sometimes getting a quotable comment is a struggle. The expert keeps reverting to jargon. Or, the expert’s comments are so qualified or convoluted, it would take ten times as many words to put them in context.  Articles’ word limits make such situations even more frustrating.

Nonetheless, scientists may be experts in their fields, but that doesn’t mean they’ve had media training or are polished public speakers. Plus, they’re doing me a favor by providing the interview.

It’s up to me, then, to keep pressing until I get something clear and quotable. It’s my job to ask clarifying questions. It’s my job to get the expert to talk to me like a 12-year-old kid, or an average mom, or the average guy on the street.

After all, I’m the writer. I’m supposed to be the expert on knowing what the article needs and how to get it.

And I need to remember that my interview subject is human. In most cases, he or she is not a pro at giving interviews. Nor has he or she usually prepared answers to my questions in advance.

I got a strong reminder about this when I was interviewed last summer for a journalism project of Michigan State University’s Knight Center for Environmental Journalism.  MSU’s Kellogg Biological Station was hosting a conference of journalists and scientists on communicating about climate change. Videotaped interviews asked us to talk about the challenges, barriers, and common ground between journalists and scientists.

(c) Kathiann M. Kowalski

(c) Kathiann M. Kowalski

The edited videos are now up on MSU’s website. The short videos provide a good introduction to issues that journalists and scientists face in dealing with each other.

Yet my own clips also underscored that I need to do more of what I want experts to do for me. In particular, I need to use shorter sentences.

No, I hadn’t known the particular interview questions in advance. So yes, I was speaking off the cuff. Yet many people I talk with are in the same situation.

Just as scientists keep experimenting and researching, I need to keep experimenting and expanding my interview techniques. Seeing my own interview clips gives me some guidance on where I can improve.

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