Rocket science for writers — give your readers a boost

This end should point towards the ground. If it starts pointing towards space you are having a very bad problem and you will not go to space today.

This is rocket science.

And this is how former NASA scientist Randall Monroe explains it using only the 1000 most-commonly used words in English. Monroe challenged himself to describe the blueprint for NASA’s Saturn V Rocket. Unsurprisingly, ‘Saturn’ and ‘rocket’ aren’t on the list and so the up-goer five was born.

Image, Astronaut floating above space.

This way up — keep it simple and bring your readers with you. Image by NASA / CC0

Monroe’s description and rocket blueprint drawing are now famous and have cemented the phrase ‘you will not go to space today’ as a perfect tribute to someone having a very bad day…

The up-goer five text editor, inspired by Monroe and created by Theo Sanderson, forces you to explain any idea, no matter how complicated, using only the most commonly used English words.

A word doctor can make it better

Here’s how one of our editors used the text editor to describe her job.

I work as a person who makes words better. I am like a word doctor.

Today I’m going to look at some paper with words on it. Someone else has written it but not as well as they could have. I’ll make the words better by throwing some away and changing others. I’ll also look at the order of the words. Are the most important points first? Is there a line of words above each piece of writing that shows the most important point? Does the boring stuff come last? Also, is it clear why the person reading the writing needs to read it? That’s an important thing to make clear.

Once I’ve finished making the writing better, I’ll send it to the person who wrote it. If I’ve done well, they will like what I’ve done and come back for more. Then they will pay us money and I will continue to have a job. That will make me very happy.

Try it out yourself. How would you describe making a cup of tea — milk in first, loose leaf or tea bag, mug or cup, brew, draw or mash? (Hint — probably not many of these words are on the list.) Share your best explanation in the comments below.

image, surgeons around an operating theatre

Our word doctors can bring your documents back to life. Image by Pixabay / CC0

Good writers think about their readers

But it’s not just a gimmick. Good writers know they need to understand their audience and write for their readers. How much does your reader know already? Do they understand technical terms? Are they upset or under stress? Is English their first or fifth language? How much time do they have to read your information?

Once you’ve thought about your audience, you can choose the right language, volume of information, and the best way to present it.

Here’s an example of a scientist who has really thought about his audience. He discusses the technical neuroscience concept of ‘connectome’ to different people ranging from a five-year-old to another neuroscientist.

Write can also help you write for your audience

6 responses to “Rocket science for writers — give your readers a boost”

  1. Paula Shelton says:

    My job is to be the best mother, wife, and business person I can be so that everyone around me is happy and I’m happy too. It doesn’t matter which of these things I’m doing each day, my job is always to help other people, make sure everyone has everything they need at the right time, and fix problems. Sometimes I have to work out new ways to do things that no-one’s thought of before. I love doing this — it makes me happy to make other people happy.

  2. Thanks for writing this article! I think all writing students should read it. I’m a great fan and advocate of plain English. In fact, I wrote my PhD thesis using accessible language. While technical terms can serve as a gate-keeping strategy, writers can use such terms to establish rapport with experts of a particular field. If one uses a technical term, an explanation of the term should be provided – the sooner the better. As this article rightly points out, in order to choose the ‘right’ language, it is crucial for writers to consider and understand their audience. Great article!

    • Jayne Dalmer says:

      Thanks for your comments Jeremy and great to know academic writers are writing so different readers can access their ideas. I think technical terms are a useful shortcut if one subject matter expert is writing or talking to another. But if some readers don’t understand them, as you say, you should simply explain what the idea means.

  3. Jill says:

    Perfect Dinah!

  4. Dinah Vincent says:

    I used up-goer five to reduce six years of study to 205 words. I’m not sure how this makes me feel!

    ‘My study is about why and how old women learned to make their own clothes when they were girls and what it meant to them.

    I talked to women, read old books and papers, and went to schools.

    Being old and living a long time ago did not always make you good at making clothes.

    Lots of girls saw their mothers make clothes at home. Sometimes the clothes were great and sometimes they were not so good.

    Sometimes girls who made clothes at school felt they were stupid. Schools did not pay much attention to girls who learned to make clothes. But girls who wanted to be teachers had to be able to make clothes, which was confusing.

    When they left school they could make themselves anything they liked. When they had children, they made clothes for them too. As children grow up, they stop wanting to wear clothes their mothers make.

    Women keep the things their mothers used to make clothes, but the clothes are thrown out.

    I found out that making your own clothes makes you think about who you are and who you want to be. It changes how you see yourself and gives you a way to change how other people see you.’

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