Recently I spotted a contest sponsored by Alan Alda in which he challenges scientists to explain sound to 11 year-olds. Admittedly, I was a little steamed that the contest wasn’t open to writers but whatever. I’m not really worried about scientists writing me out of a job.
I don’t remember where I saw this quote but the jest of it was this — if you can’t explain something to a 6 year-old than you don’t really understand it. I discovered the truth of this statement as I roughed out Women in Science. Biology and genetics? Easy peasy. Chemistry? Got it. Robotics? That was a little tougher but the mechanics and movement gave me a starting place. Physics? I thought that was tough until I had to do the chapter on higher math.
Once I understood things, I could explain them to my readers. But I had to really understand it and I had to have enough knowledge to adopt a vocabulary that my reader could understand.
If you’re trying to write science for a young reader, but it isn’t coming together do some more reading. Expand your own understanding of the topic. Only when you really grasp virology, genetic engineering or string theory will you be able to explain it to a young reader.
It is often a good idea to find an expert to review your piece. I did this when I wrote a geology article. My research was largely from scientific journals and I wanted to make certain that I hadn’t wharped some concept in trying to make it more accessible. He tweaked a few minor things but for the most part I had it right which I suspected was the case. How did I know? Because it had all come together and I really and truly got it.