March 12, 2009

Plain English and the sciences

From a friend:
I had this response to the observation on writing for laymen (the Baltimore milkman) from my lawyer brother, who before he became a lawyer, and after he was a reporter for the Dallas Times Herald, was a tech writer for GM in Michigan. I thought you'd get a kick out of it:

Long ago when GM was making cars and money, not just cars, my job title at the Research Laboratories was "science writer," and my duties included visiting with scientists and engineers and translating what they told me about their work into versions that could be understood by (if not a Baltimore milkman) at least folks working on refrigerators at Frigidaire (then part of GM) or locomotives at Electro-Motive or jet engines at Allison or earthmoving equipment at Terex or Army tanks down the road in Warren. Better yet, sometimes I wrote releases for distribution (through PR downtown) to newspapers, wire services, etc. At times it was difficult, but I liked it.

Once I was assigned to interview a strange esoteric fellow in the Mathematics Department who had worked at the Labs for years. Bear in mind that my last math was Algebra IV at Poly (Polytechnic High School, Fort Worth). He was nice enough, but we made no headway, which seemed to frustrate me more than it did him. I couldn't get enough to write much of anything, and in due course, as was protocol, I reported to his department head as well as my boss that while Dr. X obviously was brilliant, I was unable to understand from my interview what he was working on and write a newsletter article about him and his research for distribution to those other parts of GM (such as those above and many others) that, through assessments, supported the Research Laboratories.

I was enormously relieved when the head math dude said something like this: "That's what I expected, and it will help me when I tell Dr. X that if he can't even explain what he is working on to someone in another discipline or department, maybe it isn't worth his time and our money."

Note: The "Baltimore milkman" comes from a phrase coined by former Baltimore Sun Supreme Court reporter Lyle Denniston who once said he wrote his articles for a Baltimore milkman. His goal was to make sure even complicated legal issues could be understood by all.

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