August 19, 2017

Make technical terms clear

How to write about, say, spectroradiometers

How do you make technical, medical and bureaucratic terms clear? Winners of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Magazine Award demonstrate their techniques:

Make technical terms clear

Bring technical topics down to earth Translate the terms in your head into the terms in your readers’ heads. Image by zsoolt

1. Define jargon.

When Elizabeth Kolbert wrote about climate change for The New Yorker, she had to define terms like “spectroradiometer” and “albedo.” Read how elegantly she describes them:

“During the Des Groseilliers expedition, he spent most of his time monitoring conditions on the floe using a device known as a spectroradiometer. Facing toward the sun, a spectroradiometer measures incident light, and facing toward earth it measures reflected light. If you divide the latter by the former, you get a quantity known as albedo. (The term comes from the Latin word for ‘whiteness.’)”

I love learning the Latin ancestry of “albedo” and hearing the word “albino” in it!

Note that even highly educated readers like New Yorker subscribers need to have terms described.

Kolbert’s piece, “The Climate of Man,” earned a National Magazine Award — the Pulitzer Prize of magazine journalism.

2. Write around jargon.

New York Daily News editorial writers Arthur Browne, Beverly Weintraub and Heidi Evans earned a Pulitzer for their series on the declining health of 9/11 rescue workers.

In doing so, they came across unfamiliar medical jargon like “interstitial lung disease. ” But before the writers even introduce that term, they describe how the disease works:

“Actually, DeBiase was on the verge of death. Inch by inch, his lungs were turning into scar tissue, slowly losing the ability to infuse his blood with oxygen and to cleanse it of carbon dioxide.”

3. Write about jargon.

Sometimes the best thing to do with jargon is to acknowledge it and make fun of it. That’s what the Daily News writers did in this passage from their Pulitzer-winning series:

“With his administration far behind the curve, Bloomberg dispatched two deputy mayors to survey how his agencies are responding to Ground Zero health issues and — take a deep, deep breath — to ‘review the availability and sufficiency of resources aimed at assisting those who have been affected by WTC-related illness, and recommend strategies to ensure the ongoing adequacy of those resources.'”

I love the line “take a deep, deep breath.” In fact, I’m hoping to run into some jargon in my next article so I can steal it.

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Sources: Elizabeth Kolbert, “The Climate of Man I” and “The Climate of Man II,” The New Yorker, April 25 and May 2, 2005

Arthur Browne, Beverly Weintraub and Heidi Evans, “Save Lives with a $150 Lung Exam,” New York Daily News, Aug. 7, 2006

Arthur Browne, Beverly Weintraub and Heidi Evans, “Enough Studies: We Need Action,” New York Daily News, Sept. 6, 2006


2 Responses to “Make technical terms clear”
  1. Elizabeth says:

    I think there may be some intentional punning/symbolism in ‘take a deep, deep breath’ as well, since it’s used with WTC-related health concerns, many of which are related to air quality.

  2. annwylie says:

    I’m willing to believe!

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