Not so long ago, I came across a comment suggesting that writing for “the general public” (I have issues with this term, but they’ll wait for another time) is a little bit like writing for children. The implication, I think, is that nonspecialists are ignorant, have short attention spans and will not understand or appreciate complex narratives.
I do not have children of my own, and for the moment (I am far too young) I do not want any. But I’ve done outreach with children and run workshops for young people and watched my niblings grow up into wonderful, vibrant humans who deserve the world.
Engaging children with science is, quite simply, some of the most challenging and worthwhile science communication I’ve ever done.
Children are fearsomely smart. Unlike adults, they are usually not afraid to admit they don’t know something (and to ask questions that will make you rack your brains). They pick up on everything you say and do, and they will learn from your example – though maybe not in the ways you thought they would. They’re also a picky audience – I might give the same explanation to a 20-year-old and a 21-year-old and have them both go away satisfied. The way I engage with an 11-year-old might be completely different from the way I engage with a 12-year-old (though both of them might bristle at being called “children” anyway). And unlike adults, who have (mostly) learned to smile and nod blankly even when they’re bored out of their minds, children will let you know when your engagement isn’t working for them. Which might be fairly frequently, because they’re intelligent and picky and hate anything that looks like condescension.
If writing for nonspecialists is anything like writing for children, it’s because people outside your field are always smarter than they look, will notice you patronising them, and demand that you bring your best public engagement to the table.