January 29, 2024

What is the So What Test?

There is a lot of advice for improving scientific writing, and much of it centers around tightening sentences or avoiding jargon. However, one of the best tips I have seen is a simple idea called the “so what test.” It sounds silly, but it works.

It forces you to focus not just on what you’re saying, but why you’re saying it. It pushes you to think about the customer, and ask yourself what they would need to hear in order to be convinced that you are a good choice for their project. It moves you from a mindset of “telling what we’ve done” to one of “explaining why what we’ve done matters.” Answering “so what?” turns you into a vendor with insight, and customers value that.

The “so what” test is a critical component of every good piece of communication, from press releases to academic papers. In fact, one of the first things journalists do when reading a press release is put it to the so what test.

The “so what” test is incredibly useful for any piece of communication, and it’s surprisingly easy to implement. For example, if you are working on a paper, read through your work and ask yourself “So what does this mean for my audience?” If you can’t answer that question, you probably need to rewrite the sentence. This practice can be tedious, but it can also improve the quality of your work significantly.

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