The Art and Science of Writing Excellence
By Stacy Coleman Symons
What constitutes ‘excellence’ in scientific writing, and how do we help our students achieve it? The longer I ponder these questions, the more challenging it feels to craft a set of worthy responses. ‘Writing excellence’ can be (and is) objectively defined by criteria that vary by institution, genre and culture. Such criteria are intended to capture the complicated concepts and processes associated with the production of writing that is clear, effective and tailored to its intended audience. When I reflect on writing excellence,however, it is not a list of criteria that first comes to mind. Instead, it is my many memories of working with a wide cross-section of our students as they develop the awareness that writing, in science and in general, is a hard-won skill, an essential tool for personal and professional expression.
When I have the pleasure of instructing newly enrolled, first-year students, I am always encouraged by how quickly this awareness can develop in students, even during the fifteen (or so) weeks of a single semester. By encouraging beginning writers to read and contend with the language used in scientific publications, I try to help these students gain broad awareness of audience and purpose before the writing process even begins. Though often thwarted by the many technical and curricular demands of these early classes, initial glimmers of writing excellence do emerge. Sometimes it comes in the form of a well-structured lab report, sometimes in the form of a particularly engaging study summary. These glimmers typically reflect not only a student’s strong early writing skills, but her ability to target the broader audience that lies beyond the classroom.
Because science is like a grand conversation, the student who is aware of the wider scientific audience can enable this perspective to shape her ongoing writing development, aspirations and efforts. Rather than simply emulating jargon, the student who aims to ‘participate in the conversation’ knows she has numerous stylistic choices: she knows a single set of facts may be described in a variety of ways. She is, therefore, challenged to develop her own critical voice, even as she works to summarize facts and implement the many rules that govern formatting and scientific expression.
When I have the pleasure of working with such students across several semesters, often as part of our Antonian Honors Program, I have the privilege of watching these early skills develop. Such ongoing mentorship allows me to guide an individual student beyond competence, toward writing that reflects original, skilled and scholarly expression. In my experience, these students are uniquely positioned to achieve writing excellence, as they must learn to contend with additional scrutiny and incorporate suggestions from a variety of mentor-colleagues over time. These suggestions are designed to push the student toward a final document that stands up to scientific and/or disciplinary scrutiny: one that accurately summarizes key areas of scholarship, incorporates critical findings, contains original analysis and, of course, demonstrates impeccable formatting and documentation.
Most importantly (and some scientists would debate this!), truly excellent scientific writing should be clear, compelling and engaging to the reader. It must be capable of igniting meaningful dialogue within a relevant scholarly audience that extends well beyond our university’s walls. In aiming to help our students achieve this, perhaps we will learn better how to achieve it for ourselves…