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Technical Writing: Scientists Who Can't Write

Technical Writing: Scientists Who Can't Write

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T. R. Girill Society for Technical Communication/Lawrence Livermore National Lab. Technical Writing: Scientists Who Can't Write Many of these notes have addressed the skill-development needs of underperforming students--perhaps even doing poorly in science BECAUSE they cannot adequately explain what they have done or read. Inept writing may be part of their inept science or even a hidden cause. Bad Writing By Good Scientists But what about those other science students who clearly do well in labs and grasp well the concepts and relationships to which your class(es) introduce them? Sometimes those motivated and able students also could benefit from some overt coaching on how to PRESENT what they know--especially in writing. In his widely recommended 1986 Bell Labs talk on "You and Your Research," for example, Richard Hamming advised aspiring but ignored young physical scientists that It isn't just a matter of the job, it's the way you write the report, the way you write the paper....You had better write your report so when it is published in the Physical Review, or wherever else you want it, as the readers are turning the pages they won't just turn your pages but they will stop and read yours. If they don't stop and read it, you won't get credit. [available online at many sites, including] Much more recently (Jennifer Welsh, "Shaping Your Postdocs," The Scientist, 24(9), 72, September, 2010) immunologist David Woodland expressed the same concern about even the talented postdoctoral researchers that he mentored in his own biology lab: "One of the major weaknesses I come across is writing skills...if you give a postdoc a blank piece of paper and ask them to write, it usually doesn't turn out very well." Never Too Soon So your feedback and coaching on how they write about technical topics can significantly influence the success of those strong students headed toward professional careers in science (as well as the others). All of them benefit by honing their communication skills in parallel with their analytic ones. This means that even the basic description-design exercises linked from can help focus the technical writing of good students who cannot express well what they know. Other, more specialized, opportunities for those students to prepare for the professional writing duties that come with a life in science also include: Notebooks. Taking notes (on lab or field activities) is obviously technical writing but is often overlooked as needing focused skill development. Yet many working scientists find that they must (belatedly) teach their undergraduate and graduate assistants how to keep adequate, useful research notebooks. See for an overview of the issues and several resources to help students learn how to take notes well. Talks. "Presenting" science often means verbal delivery, even if the text and supporting slides are carefully planned in advance. So showing your students HOW to design and refine an effective technical talk (perhaps a project report to classmates) will help them excel throughout their careers. One useful starting point is the overview at Abstracts. Many science teachers assign abstracts but many students, even the technically astute ones, just practice bad habits when they draft them. You can promote more professional, sophisticated abstract design by suggesting a top-down approach in which students (1) ration their words among the abstract's four typical parts (purpose, methods, results, discussion) and (2) stress their own methods and results over merely copied, stock background comments. (Abstracts will be the topic of a future post in this series).

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Marshall Barnes's picture
Marshall Barnes
Founder, Director of SuperScience for High School Physics

Great idea! One of my strong points in high school was writing, not math. I find having that solid writing background has helped me tremendously when I do have to write science papers. I think there might be a need for a more creative approach to teaching composition and at an early age, some what akin to the early learning methods for violin and swimming.

Gives me something else to think about while I'm traveling...

Conni's picture
Grandparent and Engineer in Oklahoma

I'm constantly working to mentor my colleagues on being clear in their communications, from technical reports and requirements, to basic email messages. From spelling to grammar to content, sometimes they are a mess. Why are they allowed to graduate from grade to grade and from college studies without basic knowledge of communications?

Bonnie Yelverton's picture
Bonnie Yelverton
Still looking for a way to use my credential in secondary math & science

As a new science teacher (but former Technical Writer) I really appreciate this note (which I just discovered.)
It encourages me to ensure that students learn to write well - well knowing that it has to be taught.
The NSTA bookstore has several useful books:

Writing in Science - How to Scaffold Instruction to Support Learning
Questions, Claims, and Evidence: The Important Place of Argument in Children's Science Writing
How to... Write to Learn Science, Second Edition
Negotiating Science: The Critical Role of Argument in Student Inquiry
STEM Student Research Handbook (Coming in August.)

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