I have a lot of what I consider great ideas for my engineering communication class, but I just don’t have the time to use them all. When I try, the course becomes a crazy quilt (and I mean “crazy”) of activities and assignments. It becomes way to complicated for students to keep track of. If you’re not living it now, remember or imagine the life of a graduate student in engineering at UCLA. You are pulled in many directions, at the beck and call of your advisor, feeling squeezed between a set of challenging expectations, and trying to meet multiple deadlines. And then I show up to teach your required writing course, all “la-di-da, this is going to be so fun,” BUT you have to check the course website every few minutes to keep up with a large set of mostly-not-very-time-consuming but surprisingly many assignments. That’s just too high a cognitive load to add to the ones these students already have. So, on the course front: simplify, simplify, simplify. And here, at Writineering: get all those other ideas off my chest. If you have the time to try some, alone or with others in your labs, you’ll get multiple positive outcomes. And you’ll be saving some stressed graduate students from my inflicting them with these ideas now! So, just to get you started, here’s big, huge suggestion number one: Read Alan Alda’s book If I Understood You, Would I Have this Look on My Face: My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and Communicating (2017). And then try out some of his suggestions. While you wait for the book to arrive**, you can start trying to identify the emotions of the people you meet throughout the day. Nothing else, just spend a moment pondering their expressions and behaviors, and then think “grumpy” or “tired” or “cheerful” (or whatever else seems appropriate). Why? For one, you’ll start to notice how often you just barge into a conversation without paying any attention to the other person’s receptivity or mood. Second, you’ll be developing a habit of attention. Third, you’ll probably get better at identifying moods, since your subsequent interaction will give you feedback about how accurate you were. And fourth, you’ll be able to choose your words more appropriately, and have a more productive conversation, with this information at hand. Let me know if you find other benefits, too! ** A note about getting books. I have a lot of ways of accessing books, so I’m going to describe them here. You can probably find similar resources where you live, although the collections might not be as huge. First, I can order it new or used online. This is great: you own the book! But you also have to find shelf space for it, and you have to wait a couple of days. (Of course, you could read it, and then start passing it around to your friends and colleagues—this leads to fun conversations.) Second, I can go to Hoopla and connect to the Los Angeles Public Library, and they usually have the e-book or an audiobook that I can download. I can also go directly to the LAPL website, find the book, and it’s often available by download through Amazon or I can ask them to deliver the physical copy to my local branch library. If they don’t have it, I can check the e-resources of other local library systems (in my wallet are cards for the Beverly Hills Library, the Pasadena/Glendale Library, the Santa Monica Library, and the Culver City Library, but between LA and Beverly Hills, I can pretty much access what I need). You, too, can probably join more than one library system near you. Third, I can use the UCLA Library and even interlibrary loans to get almost any book for free. Sometimes interlibrary loans are a long wait, however.
Often, engineering writers tell me that they do not need to define their terms because their audiences know what they are talking about. So this week, I did an experiment in two classes, one of 18 students and one of 23 students. They were to write down words and phrases that they need to use when discussing their work. And then we passed the lists to every other person in class, who each marked the words they did not know. They might have heard them before, but they would have to look them up, or they’d feel that the term was vague or ambiguous. In short, they’d like it to be defined. Here’s the data.
There were close to 400 unique terms, and about half of them were familiar to most people (no more than two people, or about 10%, were confused by them). But about half confused more people than that, and some confused over 60% of the people in the room.
I want to emphasize that everyone was a PhD student in the Electrical and Computer Engineering Dept. at UCLA. They’ve all passed their preliminary exam. They are the most informed audience one might hope to have, beyond one’s lab partners. Yes, we sometimes talk to people in our very specific fields, but others should be able to understand us, too! When you go ranging around the literature for ideas, you’d like to feel that the authors are trying to help you!
I hope to continue this exercise with future classes, so I can collect more data.
One note: if there are several numbers to the right of a term, that means that more than one person put it on his or list list. In the smaller class, no term was listed by more than two people; in the bigger class, some terms were listed by four people.
My class this quarter has gotten used to us talking about the “topography” of any piece of writing. It seems to be a helpful word in many situations, but now I want to discuss the varying levels (or altitudes) of difficulty as one moves through the landscape of the text. Sometimes the writing is hard, and sometimes it’s got to be easy (or the reader will give up). This variation is mandatory in public science writing, but you might be kind enough to give your readers a break in your academic writing, too.
In his (public-focused but pretty difficult) 2017 book Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, Robert Sapolksy writes these two paragraphs as part of the introduction to an early chapter:
This chapter is one of the book’s anchors. The brain is the final common pathway, the conduit that mediates the influences of all the distal factors to be covered in the chapters to come. What happened an hour, a decade, a million years earlier? What happened were factors that impacted the brain and the behavior it produced.
This chapter has two major challenges. The first is its god-awful length. Apologies; I’ve tried to be succinct and nontechnical, but this is foundational material that needs to be covered. Second, regardless of how nontechnical I’ve tried to be, the material can overwhelm someone with no background in neuroscience. To help with that, please wade through appendix 1 around now.
Notice several things here:
1. He offers “metacommentary” that communicates these messages: “What I’m about to say is important.” “This is complicated, but I’m doing my best to make it as easy and clear as possible.” “If you have not taken neuroscience, then go read Appendix 1.”
2. He offers motivating questions for this section: “how does the brain work?” and “how did the brain get the way it is?”
3. That last question is attached to the book’s overall argument in that first paragraph above: he is trying to explain all the factors that go into our behavior, factors that are immediately present and factors that happened long ago. If you’re going to make readers work hard at something, they need to know that there’s a really important reason for them to do so!
4. He uses numbers. Imagine that second paragraph without the numbers, and you will be seeing a less clear paragraph. It’s very satisfying for readers to know exactly how many ideas they are about to get, and then to tick them off. “Two. Okay: One, Two. Done!”
5. He uses the word “distal.” I probably would have avoided that. I had to look it up. It basically means “distant,” but it’s more specific to anatomy.
If you actually go read the rest of Sapolky’s book, you’ll see him describing the way that our emotional experience influences our intellectual decisions. If your readers get frustrated—especially if they think that this is more your fault than theirs—then they are going to be less likely to make positive evaluation. Their emotions, not just logic, will influence their decisions.
You might just want to write about your work, but I recommend backing up a bit and writing some preliminary thoughts. What is your story? How did you get interested in this work? What excited you when you were a child or early in your school years? What was difficult for you to understand, and how did you figure it out?
If you want to get other people interested in your work, you need to express your own enthusiasm for it, but if you are an advanced graduate student (that is, narrowly focused, thinly stretched, over-directed, or just tired) then perhaps you’ve lost your way. You might have let your initial excitement about science or your particular field drown in the details of everyday life. You might even have become cynical.
Writing about your memories is good practice for many things: detailed sensory description, communicating with a lay-audience (outside your field), thinking about your own field from a different perspective, remembering what you used to think when you were outside your field, etc. It will also remind you of your early values and goals and dreams and excitement.
If you are interested in what inspired other scientists, then you might read Curious Minds: How a Child Becomes a Scientist, edited by John Brockman.
And if you are having real trouble feeling connected to your work, perhaps because your lab is full of people who seem to have forgotten their initial enthusiasms, start asking questions. How did they get into the field? What was their education like? What was exciting to them? What did they most love about engineering or science when they were 10 or 15 or 20 years old? These memories can bring you together, re-motivate more than just you, and also help you start to remember what it was like NOT to know what you now know. Remembering that will help you be a better teacher and communicator to an audience with varying levels of expertise.
Writers need to write. And writing to yourself is a good place to start. Take notes, jot down ideas, and keep detailed records of what you’ve done or plan to do in your research project. This way you are using your writing to help you think, not just writing to summarize what you already did and thought. In other words, you can use writing to discover what you have to say. This discovery is one of the fun parts of writing; I think that it’s boring to write down what I already know.
If you keep notes as you go along, you will be able to remember your own process of coming to know this new information; these notes should help you figure out how to explain your findings to people who do not yet know what you’ve already found out.
When you have to write about your project more formally, no matter what the format, you have something more than hindsight to work with. You can paste together what you’ve already written, and then revise it. It’s much easier to write when you have some words on the page, talking back to you, telling you what’s missing or what could be clearer. Writers produce dozens of drafts of any good text they produce. If you are reluctant writer, you might not be as eager to do write all those drafts, but think of the efficiency of working from pieces you’ve already written!
Some of your best ideas—for writing and for everything else– will occur to you when you are falling asleep, walking to class, or standing in line somewhere. Jot these down. Then when you actually have to sit down at your task and produce a draft, or the next draft, you will have something to start with. Respect your random ideas—comparisons, phrases, connections–enough to scribble them down, and you will find it much easier to begin writing.
You won’t know what your choices are until you draft a few different versions of any text, until you experiment. Your decisions will tend to fall in a range between two opposites: predictability and surprise, complexity and simplicity, clarity and confusion, explaining and expecting your reader to know. Many other binary opposites could go here, but you probably get the idea. You can fondly look after your readers, or you can disrespect them and be demanding of them. Guess what works better.
Try to make a plan for yourself. Start by writing x mins/day or y hours/week.
Think about writing with your readers in mind. What do your readers want? How do you know? Well, what do you want when you read an article? And what do listeners hope to get out of a presentation at an engineering conference? Remember your own disappointments and struggles as a member of the audience. Then better satisfy, and even pleasantly surprise, your own reading and listening audiences.
Most of my publications are in academic journals in a different field from yours: American literature. Somehow, however, Gertrude Stein is related to everything, and the hot topics of fame, food, self-expression, identity, and genius are lovely doors into a short (and no doubt edifying!) story about Gertrude Stein.
Writers can learn by reading in any field. What I’m getting at is that knowledge is always communicated by helping a person step from what she knows to what she doesn’t yet know, and from what interests her to what doesn’t yet interest her. The bridges across require the wit of connecting different ideas, interdisciplinary interests, and an attention to current events and hot topics.
So read, and have fun seeing new connections, new bridges.