Tag Archives: featured

“A Scientific Approach to Writing for Engineers and Scientists” by Robert E. Berger (IEEE Press, 2014)

I both love and hate the detail in this book. This approach to teaching writing seems like a great idea, and the book is full of useful information, but 191 pages of examples, boxed definitions, and bullet points is too much (for me) to bear.

Berger categorizes sentences into types and then writes a formula for each one. These get more and more complicated. They include, for example, many small bracketed question marks, which stand for the fact that in some sentences of the form in question, punctuation is necessary at this point, and in some, it’s not. I could list other examples of his layers of code that seem to obscure his message, but let me instead refer to a few things I liked.

1. His term “premise.” Berger uses “premise” to mean “a coherent series of paragraphs intended to support a particular proposition (e.g. whether a particular problem is worth solving, whether a particular technical approach will lead to solving a problem, and whether a market exists for a product)” (6). I’ve always called this a “step,” but “premise” captures the meaning better.

2. His basic distinction between the “core” of a sentence and its various “qualifiers,” which add important information ( what kind of x?  when x happens, why x happens). If you identify the main point of your sentences, you’ll know what to say in the core of it, and then you’ll know what to put in the auxiliary parts. And then your reader would better understand your hierarchy of ideas.

3. Where and how the qualifier is attached to the sentence is important. Berger writes in bold: “The integration of qualifiers into sentences is the most common writing challenge encountered by scientists and engineers” (18). One would generally put the additional information close to the word it describes. Berger offers a lot more information on this decision, but it’s couched in grammar jargon (some of it will be familiar to you, and some of it he invented himself).

4. His ideal of having no more than two qualifiers in a sentence is a good one, even if that’s not always possible (4). Engineers try to cram too much information in a single sentence!

5. His high value on parallelism (what he calls “principle of equivalence”), which means ” all items in a list should be treated the same way” (4).

6. His emphasis on coherence. A paragraph should have one goal, and a topic or thesis sentence helps your reader understand this goal.

7. His attention to flow. Sentences should flow together, paragraphs should be arranged logically. Regarding sentences flowing together, Berger does not just emphasize transition words but also what he calls “linking words,” which are repeated words that appear in neighboring sentences and highlight the relationship between them (153).

If any of these topics are important to you, but you feel that they have not been properly explained to you in the past, then try this book. The Table of Contents is quite detailed, so you should be able to locate the topics of greatest interest to you. Perhaps the author’s scientific approach will be more attractive to you than it was to me.


A first note on preparing presentations

Some people seem to have to give almost fifty presentations a year, of varying formality. Often these talks are given within a research group, so lab members are informed and can better collaborate. Here’s the text of a slide at the beginning of a 60+ slide presentation, given within a research group at one of their weekly meetings.

The first example is the original; the second is a possible revision. Afterward, I explain why we did what we did.

The original outline of the presentation:

• Change of Dephasing-Length-Limited Energy Gain Equation (3 slides)

• Curve-Fitting” Electron Spectra: New way to determine max energy of electron spectra (10 slides)

• 4 Finalized Experimental Figures (6 slides)

• Simulation Results (6 slides)

• Effective Dephasing Length (20 slides)

• 5 Proposed Simulation Figures (5 slides)

The revised outline:

1. We changed a major equation we were using (3 slides) OR “We moved from the engineering equation to the theoretical equation.”

2. We developed a new way to determine the max energy of the electron spectra (10 slides)

3. Four experimental figures for your critique: improve them now or forever hold your peace (6 slides)

4. Our major findings so far (20 slides)

5. Five proposed simulation figures: any feedback on how to improve them? (x slides)

There was one main goal: increase the action. We did this two ways:

First, some of these changes are meant to invite the audience to become more involved (the audience is now invited to do something!) For example, we made it clearer on points 3 and 4 that we wanted feedback. We also numbered the parts, so that they were easy to refer to, and they became more linear—the slide show is organized linearly, after all!

Second, we made some changes to make the researcher more active. She did not just sit there thinking up abstract nouns; she had to do a lot of work to come up with this stuff! In fact, for point 2, she even thought of writing something like, “We developed a new and improved (seventh!) way of determining max energy.” Tell them a story of your work (“we did this” or “we changed our mind about this” rather than just listing a NOUN—which is static, and it’s not clear what you’re doing with it. Also, it’s impressive that it’s the seventh way: it shows hard work, the challenge of the problem, and may even increase the sympathy and emotional interest of the audience. What a saga!

Learn to Write by . . . Writing

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.


Why read? or, how to connect to your audience

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.

Jared Lanier’s Book “You Are Not A Gadget: A Manifesto”

This is the kind of book I like: one by a knowledgeable person in a scientific field, a creative even quirky person, in fact, and one taking a contrarian point of view. Lanier was certainly raised to be different; his entry in Curious Minds: How a Child Becomes a Scientist reveals the perfect if somewhat lonely childhood for a creator, to the extent that he got to design his family home. He seems to have gone to public school, but his peers seem to have been scientists working at Los Alamos.

But back to that point of view. Lanier’s not a Luddite—he’s a computer scientist, after all, and most Luddites are not especially tech-savvy. But Lanier’s not so sure that the internet has made us better or happier people. Valuing the development of the individual person, Lanier’s suspicious of at least two different and important creeping ideas caused (he says) by the ways that computer scientists set up computer interfaces, software, and the internet. For one, humans are induced to think of their minds as computers, at least to some extent. And second, the “hive mind” is seemingly validated as having a “legitimate point of view”—over those of unique individuals (4).

Lanier’s assertions and questions, though, while reassuring that there is someone prominent in computer science who cares about philosophy and the human experience, largely supply more reasons to be concerned about technology’s effect on humankind. Because this technology forms “extensions to your being” and influences how people “connect to the world and other people,” it can “change how you conceive of yourself and the world” (5-6). As Lanier says so well, “We tinker with your philosophy by direct manipulation of your cognitive experience, not indirectly, through argument” (6).

The big obvious problem with this is that we don’t know when our experience is being manipulated. Doesn’t that sound Orwellian to you? It reminds me of the time that George Orwell sent an article about WWII England to the USA, and the editor happily reported that it came with nothing censored out; in fact, the censor had retyped that page so it was not apparent that anything had been removed, and Orwell only figured this out because the government (possibly accidently) wrote him a letter telling him that his letter had been censored. According to The Filter Bubble, when I Google a topic, I’ll get different answers than someone else googling the same words. In both cases, we don’t know when or how we’re censored or directed.

We get what we want, or at least what we’ve wanted in the past. And that’s one of the problems that Lanier touches upon: “Being a person is not a pat formula, but a quest, a mystery, a leap of faith.” Will Google let me become the person I’m capable of becoming if it only shows me stuff I already know and/or like?

Of course, I live in a world beyond the internet. But that real world is much less cooperative than the one in front of me on the screen. I don’t notice it much, but I see it with my son: he’s in control on the computer, pushing buttons makes him jump, climb, shoot. It’s all fast and easy. Once his mother lets him on the computer—and there’s some big friction on that topic—the friction stops. Lanier discusses this himself: a creative mind can communicate more easily at a younger age via technology than speech. In other words, a smart kid can take a lot in at an early age, but sometimes has difficulty expressing himself. Technology can help him. But as technology becomes more ubiquitous, the child may never wean himself from this too-easy media of not-quite-full self-expression.

I’ve raised only a few of the topics that struck me as most interesting, but Lanier’s book raises multiple issues that engineers would do well to consider and try to address.

The Plan, the Hope

If you do research in electrical engineering–or if you are in another field of engineering and want to publish research in academic journals–please stick around. I intend for us to create a supportive and productive community.

I am lucky to work regularly and closely with a highly intelligent and ambitious population of graduate students in Electrical Engineering (at UCLA). Over the last eight years, I have learned more than I can say from them, and I expect that will continue.  I have not found another graduate program in engineering that requires a course in academic rhetoric, and so I am uniquely positioned to see the needs and develop the support mechanisms for this group of writers.

I’d like to believe that all this experience will not just evaporate and that I can create a growing and broadly useful body of work online.

I also hope that this choice of media will welcome an increasingly rhetorically-aware group of advanced engineers to contribute to that practical and very specifically targeted body of knowledge.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from engineers, it’s efficiency. If we can build on each others’ knowledge, we can each optimize our own design for writing.