Tag Archives: writing advice

“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.

 

Remembering what drives you

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.

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.