Good Thinking Makes for Good Writing
Cindy Norton, Biology
With keen interest, I read Alison Adrian’s post on the power of personality in student writing. I have often heard my colleagues in the Arts and Humanities talk about helping their students “find their voice”. Yet this search for one’s personal style is exactly what we discourage in scientific writing. As scientists, we are much more concerned with clarity, accurate description of complex data or concepts, synthesis of what others have discovered, or summarizing the evidence for some theory, and convincing the reader of its validity. I often tell my students, “I don’t want to hear your voice.
Scientific writing has often been dry, uninspiring, and understated, as when Watson and Crick, upon publishing their model for the structure of the DNA molecule, stated: "It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing that we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material." [This stuff cannot only code for all of the proteins in every living organisms, it can also explain how this information is passed from generation to generation! The is a type of realization about which we suspect scientists shout “eureka!”] Or when Darwin, near the end of his On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, mused, “Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history”. [Yep! I just wrote this book that not only describes in glorious detail the current evidence for evolution and provides a mechanism for evolutionary change, but these ideas are going to dramatically change the way we view humanity!]
This is not to say that scientists are not excellent writers, or that they should not write in ways that engage. Darwin did write eloquently, and there are many scientists today who write for the general public, using their unique voices to bring scientific concepts to the interested, yet not scientifically trained majority. But the “meat and potatoes” writing of most scientists is dry, matter of fact, and voiceless. So how do we teach our students to write well?
My colleague, Jan Pechenik, whose Short Guide to Writing about Biology is now a staple in our department’s writing intensive courses, says that “Bad writing often reflects fuzzy thinking,” so what we really need to teach our students is how to think better. He also states, “The hard work of thinking about biology is at least important as the work of doing it. Writing provides a way to examine, to evaluate, to refine, and then share that thinking. Writing is both a product and a process.”
One of the first steps in good scientific writing is thus learning to think. So our challenge in teaching writing is to structure assignments that require students to summarize what they have read, or what they see in a graph, and then analyze what they see. What is the purpose of this study? In what context are these researchers working? What have these researchers found, in your own words? How do these data fit with what you already know? What questions does this study make you ask? This mode if inquiry forces “intellectual interaction” with the material, and makes writing much easier; you can only write well about what you understand. Of course, scientific writing also involves good sentence structure, attribution to sources, structuring different types of papers, and responding to feedback with careful revision, but the heart of scientific writing is good thinking.
Jan Pechenik will be visiting St. Catherine April 10 & 11 to facilitate several STEM writing workshops for students and faculty. Look for more information on the Daily Update and in your email inbox.