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Technical Writing: Scientists Who Can't Write

T.R. Girill Technical Literacy Project leader, STC and LLNL

T. R. Girill
Society for Technical Communication/Lawrence Livermore National Lab.
trgirill@acm.org

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
www.cs.virginia.edu/~robins/YouAndYourResearch.html]

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
www.ebstc.org/TechLit/trgintro3.html
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
www.ebstc.org/TechLit/notes/notetop.html
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
www.ebstc.org/TechLit/talks/talktop.html

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).

Comments (3)

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Founder, Director of SuperScience for High School Physics

Great idea! One of my strong

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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...

Grandparent and Engineer in Oklahoma

Senior Professional Engineer

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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?

Still looking for a way to use my credential in secondary math & science

Thank you for good suggestions

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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
http://www.nsta.org/store/product_detail.aspx?id=10.2505/9780325010700
Questions, Claims, and Evidence: The Important Place of Argument in Children’s Science Writing
http://www.nsta.org/store/product_detail.aspx?id=10.2505/PA010X
How to... Write to Learn Science, Second Edition
http://www.nsta.org/store/product_detail.aspx?id=10.2505/9780873552462
Negotiating Science: The Critical Role of Argument in Student Inquiry
http://www.nsta.org/store/product_detail.aspx?id=10.2505/9780325026077
STEM Student Research Handbook (Coming in August.)
http://www.nsta.org/store/product_detail.aspx?id=10.2505/9781936137244

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