Just as it takes time to develop strong verbal skills and memorize every element in the periodic table, the same also applies to the writing process. People are not born to be ‘good writers' or ‘bad writers’. Learning to write well is a skill that can be mastered by anyone, regardless of their educational background or existing skill set, if they are willing to put in the time to do so.
As the title of this article proclaims, writing is an extremely useful functional skill that can be applied across many different disciplines. With that said, it is important to note that writing entails so much more than creating compelling argumentative essays, enthralling stories, and detailed propositions.
While it is true that traditional writing relies heavily on maintaining readers’ attention by eloquently reinforcing opinions with statements made by notable individuals, the same cannot be said of STEM writing. In STEM writing, the main purpose is to convey high-level technical concepts in an (1) objective, (2) comprehensive, and (3) straightforward manner so that they can be understood by a broader audience. That is not to say, however, that STEM writing requires absolute simplicity. Nearly all STEM writing uses field-specific technical terms to ensure that the main message is accurate and appropriate for its given audience.
In ‘hard science’ fields such as chemistry, biology, and physics, it is common for researchers to create lab write-ups for their experiments. During this process, researchers should make it a point to (1) list all of the equipment that was used in the experiment as well as their functions and relevance, (2) identify the overarching goal of the experiment, (3) detail the sequential process that led to the result, and (4) identify ways to improve the experiment. By documenting this information, the value of researchers’ work increases substantially because it fulfills the core tenets of the scientific method – observability, measurability, and repeatability. Without this information, the significance of the experiment’s results becomes much more difficult to determine.
In the same way, professionals in the technology and engineering fields are frequently asked to assess the strengths and weaknesses of existing systems and provide detailed mitigation solutions that can rectify those issues. Unless specific information, such as (1) the specific locations of the issues, (2) the severity of the issues, (3) the potential causes of the issues, and (4) the solutions to the issues, is documented clearly, it is nearly impossible to perform any meaningful changes. Furthermore, failing to adequately assess all aspects of the issue could hinder a decision maker’s ability to make an informed recommendation; this may ultimately lead to schedule delays, which could have a devastating effect on the business’s success and the employee’s reputation.
Here are some key takeaways on how to be successful in STEM writing:
(1) Identify the target audience. Every piece of writing is different and therefore requires a unique approach. Knowing who the document is geared towards can help the writer determine the optimal level of formality for their document. In general, it is better to use formal wording than informal wording. A technical report originally intended for a functional manager could eventually wind up in the hands of the company’s CEO. For this reason, writers should never assume their audience’s knowledge base. Some audiences have broader skill and knowledge gaps than others. Consider this in advance and make it a point to include a brief synopsis about the subject matter being discussed to prevent misunderstandings from occurring.
(2) Be specific. The purpose of writing is to communicate effectively. It is impossible for an outside viewer to discern the meaning of a statement if crucial details are missing or vague terminology has been used. Be detail-oriented and make it a point to elaborate whenever possible. Consider the what, when, how, and why of the situation and express that information to the reader in an accessible way.
(3) Be objective, but not robotic. While the primary focus of STEM writing is to communicate with intent rather than flair, it can ultimately lead to an abundance of repetitive and uninspiring verbiage appearing throughout the document. Utilizing transitional devices such as additionally, furthermore, likewise, and nevertheless, can significantly improve the readability of any paper and maintain a reader’s attention. If multiple sentences begin to sound alike, it may be a sign that transitional devices or an alternative word choice should be implemented.
(4) Remember that writing is a process. As every STEM student knows, a good idea requires multiple iterations before it is perfected. The same concept applies to the writing process. No matter what someone’s skill level is, every piece of writing requires multiple revisions before it reaches its final form. Keeping this in mind, it is crucial that enough time is allotted to revise, edit, and proofread a document before its final submission. There is no greater embarrassment than delivering an unfinished document that does not communicate the same meaning as the writer’s original intent. Make a detailed plan of what should be expressed and put it into action, one step at a time.
By applying this advice, writers should be much better equipped to overcome the challenges associated with STEM writing. While this guide certainly does not detail every component of STEM writing, the ideas that were discussed hold true for every writing scenario, even for those in other disciplines. Just as the beginning of the article states, writing, at its core, is merely another method for communicating ideas to others. Focus on achieving that indicated goal and everything will work out just fine.
Contributed by: William Kallal, Writing Center Tutor
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