Science, the Write Way

January 24, 2011 · 1 comment

by Emily Morgan, University of Miami-Florida

Writing is a form of expression that has become a difficult task for members of the student scientific community. This is not a remark on the basic skill set for a meteorology student, but rather a result of neglect. A huge part of the academic field focuses more on computer-aided analysis, modeling, computation and processes that can very readily led themselves to good writing but often don’t, perhaps because it’s so much more convenient to move on to the next task without explaining the first.

I’ve often wished the science courses I’ve participated in included an increased focus on written analysis of topics, even just simple written forecast discussions or responses to research results, so that we become more familiar with expressing ourselves concisely and fully to a broad audience. It boils down to trying to communicate through a medium that cannot rely on facial expressions and you-know-what-I-mean’s. There is no “question and answer” session after the essay, aside from disgruntled and confused e-mails from readers, and the writer cannot instantly respond to the blank faces of his readers. So the readers, not able to grasp the main theme of the writing, leave the writer without an audience for his point. A terrible fate this is, as writing in science has vital purpose: to convey important research findings, to apply for funding to allow research to flourish, to explain a complex process to students at any level. So why is this form of communication neglected, shunned, even dreaded?

Dr. David Schultz, presenting “Practical Advice for Students and Scientists,” addressed some of my concerns. His seminar focused on commanding, concise titles and effective abstract writing, his mindset being that these are components of a paper that are the most relevant to the reader, who should be the main focus of the paper. His fourth and final rule of writing was “We write for our audience, not for ourselves,” something he reiterated throughout the seminar. He presented a relationship between an effective writing process and an effective forecasting process, where both benefit from a constant narrowing in focus from broad scale ideas to microscale changes. Active writing, rather than passive writing, he claims, is a much more effective way to write. Not all in attendance were comfortable with these ideas, claiming that they’ve always been told to use the passive voice and including anything in first person is seen as unprofessional. One individual was in awe that Dr. Schultz would even suggest replacing the phrase “it was suggested that” with the phrase “I think.” I believe that it is this mindset that continues the difficulty of embracing scientific writing and it was very inspiring to see someone who was intent on easing people out of these bad habits.

Finally, in what I believed was his most important point, he urged the room to “treat all your writing as if it counted.” So it was wonderful to hear this from Dr. Schultz as a reassurance to a sometimes-bewildered writer. Writing can be an intimidating affair, even with the right skills, so to bolster one’s confidence with the thought that this writing does, in fact, matter can be the difference between long, wishy-washy reports and strong, concise writing.

Editor’s note: David Schultz is conducting a workshop, “Eloquent Professional Communication,”  Tuesday, 1:30 pm-3 pm, WSCC 3B. He is also presenting “Best Resources for Communication Skills for Scientists” at the Atmospheric Science Librarians International session, 8:45-9:45 am Wednesday, WSCC 304.