Reaching People: A Writing Workshop in Cuba

Mark Yokoyama leads a writing workshop at the BirdsCaribbean International Conference. (Photo by Jenn Yerkes)
Mark Yokoyama leads a writing workshop at the BirdsCaribbean International Conference, July 2017, Topes de Collantes, Cuba. (Photo by Jenn Yerkes)

Primaries and ceres, tarsi and rookeries, vagrants and barbules—good words for birders, mumbo jumbo to most folks. Avoiding jargon was one of many tips shared in the writing workshop Reaching People. The workshop was led by Mark Yokoyama as part of BirdsCaribbean’s 21st International Conference in Cuba.

Most people like birds, but many people writing about birds fail to connect with a general audience. We forget to tell a story. Facts are given without context. There is no natural flow from one idea to the next. Often, the writing itself is too difficult for most people to read.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Science writing can be engaging—our favorite writers do it all the time. Complex ideas can be explained simply—great teachers know how. The workshop focused on these two ideas: storytelling and accessibility.

Workshop participants practice and get peer feedback. (Photo by Jenn Yerkes)
Workshop participants practice and get peer feedback. (Photo by Jenn Yerkes)

Picking key facts and ordering them logically helps turn a topic into a story. Adding details that grab a reader, and knowing what to cut are also crucial. Participants worked on their own stories during the class. Some even worked on a press release about the conference to send out when they got home.

The second half of the workshop focused on accessibility. Many were surprised to learn that the average adult in the US reads at about an 8th grade level. Unfortunately, many press materials are written at college level. This is a serious mismatch.

Luckily, we can be more readable just by using plain language and clear sentences. During one activity, participants found they had written sentences up to 60 words long without knowing it. Want to be easier to read? Find out what’s making your writing hard. There are even online tools that measure readability and suggest what you can change.

In just three hours, the group had a new set of writing tools and some hands-on practice. Jealous? Don’t be! You can download the workshop as a handout and run through it yourself. You can also download a copy of the slides and lead your own workshop. With birds and habitats under threat in the Caribbean, it has never been more vital to spread our message. Writing for everyone is a great start.