The data sandwich isn’t an audience-digestible meal: Tips for science writing

I’ve recently been reading piles of wine science communication texts: viticulture and enology extension newsletters, research articles in Wine Business Monthly and Wines and Vines, and university press releases and news items, among others. Many, many of them exhibit the same dysfunctions: the data sandwich, the shape-shifting audience, and inconsistency in rhetorical framing.

Those are three different ways of referring to the same problem, but each addresses a different audience. “The data sandwich” takes the point of view of the reader. The shape-shifting audience speaks to the author. Inconsistency in rhetorical framing appeals to the researcher. If I wanted to exemplify the problem, I’d now define “data,” “audience,” and “rhetoric.” And then I’d launch into a number- and jargon-laden discussion of how my data illustrate that many science writers (scientists in particular, though by no means scientists alone) don’t hold on to a single picture of who their readers are and what those readers know while writing a piece from beginning to end. And then I might conclude by saying that my data suggest that this is a concern of which it’s worth being aware.

Many science-focused articles begin with big, broad, often obvious, contextualizing statements about wine. The rest of the first paragraph or two introduces concepts and defines terms that are almost certainly familiar already to someone who’s been working in the wine industry for a while, or who took a chemistry or microbiology class in their V&E associates’ program, or who read Wine Business Monthly on and off last year. Having set the scene, the author, somewhere around the third paragraph, begins describing their recent research project as though they’re talking to the guy in the lab down the hall instead of the person they were talking to a paragraph ago who’d never taken Wine Chem 101.* Two to ten paragraphs later, when the details of that project have been exhausted, the author concludes with a paragraph or two about how it all means that we should be aware of something, or that whatever-it-is is more complicated than previously thought, and very important.

Let’s say we’re writing about new research on anthocyanin development in the vineyard. In the first paragraph, I’d describe why red grape color is important in winemaking. In the second paragraph, I’d define “anthocyanin” as one type of a class of molecules called phenols and describe how anthocyanins are mostly responsible for red wine’s color. In the third paragraph, I’d begin talking about how empirical evidence has recently demonstrated that deficit irrigation may intensify color density in Australian Shiraz not only by upregulating anthocyanin synthesis via unknown mechanisms but also by stabilizing the flavilium form of specific anthocyanins via hydrogen bonding with flavanols whose biosynthesis is also upregulated**, and I’d keep that up for a while. I’d finish either with a short paragraph about how the role of anthocyanins in wine color development is very complex and it is necessary for scientists to understand these relationships in order to more accurately model wine color, or suggesting that deficit irrigation might help winemakers reach stylistic color goals.

Anyone who was actually well-served by the first two paragraphs is floundering in deep water for the middle part of that data sandwich. Anyone who could follow the middle bit was bored or insulted or at least skimmed or skipped the first two paragraphs. And anyone who stuck with it to the end might be wondering why they bothered.

We’re used to this. We see it a lot. Because it’s so common, it’s easy to ignore and not remember that there are better ways.

There are. The solution is even relatively easy. First, envision who’s most likely to read what you’re writing, what they do with their days, and what they probably already know about your topic. Next, decide what you hope they’ll get out of reading your piece. Write with those ideas in your head. Then, crucially, revise. Go back through the whole thing and after reading each sentence ask yourself: did I slip up and use a word or take for granted a concept my reader won’t understand, or explain something they surely already know? Did I end having told them what the point was, and preferably finishing on that note?

You may or may not have to guess a bit to get started, depending on whether you’re writing for a publication with a pretty well-defined readership (a newsletter that goes out to regional growers and winemakers, for instance) or a broader one like Wine Business Monthly, where you can still guess most folk are familiar with intermediate-level wine terms, or the local newspaper, where you can’t. But if you make a decision and stick with it, you’re less likely to confuse your readers even if you’ve guessed wrong.

Regardless, you’ll have avoided creating an indigestible data sandwich, or asking your audience to shape-shift as they read, or been inconsistent in your rhetorical framing. However you’d like to put it, you may have saved your well-intentioned reader from toughing it out only to find that they’re not sure how all this is relevant.

*Or, if a non-scientist writer/reporter is doing the talking, they describe the research on which they’re supposed to be reporting using the terms the scientist used when they talked last week or in the peer-reviewed research article that just came out.

**Cortell, J. M., Halbleib, M., Gallagher, A. V., Righetti, T. L, J. A. Kennedy. 2005 “Influence of vine vigor on grape (Vitis vinifera L. Cv. Pinot Noir) and wine proanthocyanidins.” J. Agric. Food Chem. 53 (14): 5798-808.