Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Literally Doomed

At a recent faculty meeting, my colleagues and I debated the eternal question of how to teach our graduate and undergraduate Science students to write. We went over all the usual ground, everyone had their say (at length), and nothing was resolved. It was a typical faculty meeting, in my experience.

The usual approaches were mentioned:

Should we encourage our grad students to take additional writing courses in the English department? No, this doesn't typically tend to help with science writing, although it may help with some of the most appalling problems with grammar.

Should we assign a lot of writing in our undergrad and grad science classes? We already do this in some classes, but other classes can't reasonably incorporate a writing component.

Should we, as grad advisers, continue to work on writing issues with our advisees? Yes, of course we should, but this is likely to continue to be a major effort without dramatic positive effect for some students.

At about the same time that my faculty colleagues and I were having this most recent discussion of the writing issue, a visiting lawyer-relative bemoaned the lack of writing skills in many of her lawyer colleagues, young and old. She wondered: How did they get through law school without learning some basic writing skills?

How does anyone get through any high school or college without learning basic writing skills? Clearly some people do just that.

In our graduate students, my colleagues and I see no difference in the writing skills of graduates of elite liberal arts colleges vs. large universities, public or private. We encounter excellent writers from small colleges and from large state universities, and we encounter abysmal writers from small colleges and from large state universities.

From what I've seen over the years, the problem of writing-challenged students is not confined to science vs. non-science majors or to university vs. small college students.

This is not a rant about lousy writers. This is a blog post that wonders what to do about lousy writers. Who can help them? And how?

The answer to the question about how people with > 16 years of education can have such a problem writing is surely because writing is so difficult for some people, even when they have been given much advice and have had years of opportunities for practice and improvement.

Note: I am not talking about writer's block or other emotional issues about writing, although such problems may be connected in some way to writing ability. I am speaking here of the ability to construct a clear and logical document.

Some people, with practice and advice, learn to improve their writing skills, but is it possible that some cannot? And if so, what can we do for them?

For a couple of my graduating graduate students with particularly severe problems writing, after years of efforts by all concerned, I have had no further advice for them on the topic of how they can improve their writing skills. Instead, my departing advice to them was that they collaborate with people who can write well. In a research team, each person can bring a strength to the group effort; those who can write can help those who can't write (but who can add something else that is important to the research project).

I am certainly not saying that if my students haven't learned to write with my help, they'll never learn, but of course I am not the only source of writing advice for my students. They have numerous opportunities for writing documents of various length and purpose (term papers, exams, conference abstracts, proposals, thesis chapters) before and during their grad school experience, and they get feedback from many people (fellow students, writing tutors, advisers, other professors) during revisions of drafts. Nevertheless, despite all this input, improvements for some are minor to non-existent.

Of course it would be best if every science PhD could write well on their own, but if someone hasn't been able to do this by the time they get to their dissertation, and only get through the dissertation writing with great pain and a lot of help, what are the chances they will ever write well?

Can we conclude that further improvements in these cases are unlikely, or am I being too pessimistic and not realizing that perhaps all the writing advice over the years may have been insufficient and/or of the wrong sort?

If we can give up on a writing-challenged person's potential for improvement, the options are for them to seek a non-writing kind of career or to find alternative ways of succeeding in an academic career in science despite this handicap (e.g., seeking collaborators with writing skills). I don't know how often the latter arrangement works, but I do know that such situations exist.


muddled postdoc said...

What I find in our small lab is that those who can't write properly have one thing in common - they also don't read! Whether its journals or textbooks or just plain old fiction, they will only read what is required and stop there. Those that have a problem with English not being their native language still manage to write decently if they read a lot regardless of the language they are reading.

Morgan Price said...

Maybe students just need more writing practice? I have heard that engineering students often have worse writing skills when they leave college than when they enter, presumably due to lack of practice. I suppose this must apply to starting physics grad students as well. And although I personally haven't found most humanities classes to be that useful for writing skills, I did take an excellent essay-writing class in high school. Maybe we need more of them?

quasarpulse said...

It's possible that some are doomed, but you can probably hold out hope for all but the worst cases. However, you're quite right that writing classes taught by English departments are unlikely to help. Only some English professors and TAs still correct spelling and grammar; nearly none penalize students enough for it that these students are required to improve in order to meet the requirement.

Some students graduating from college have never in their lives been required to write clearly, coherently, and correctly at length in English. The American students of the current generation are products of an educational system that believed that correcting for grammar or spelling would stifle their creativity and damage their self-esteem irrevocably. It's a fair bet that Canadian, Australian, and British students had a dose of the same. The ESL students may simply be struggling to write lengthy technical documents in a foreign language.

What can be done? Implement a required science writing course taught either by your department or jointly with other science departments. Flunk students who are unable to write a reasonably coherent paper by the end of the course. Be merciless. Their future advisors' sanity depends on it.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Count me among the pessimists (though I haven't stopped trying). Once I point out and explain individual grammatical and stylistic problems to my students, they can correct them. But the step before that, when you recognize, on your own, that a sentence you've written has *something* wrong with it, is the product of a lifetime of reading, and I'm not sure that any amount of nuts-and-bolts instruction can make up for the instinct that such reading develops over the course of many years.

zed said...

I wonder if PhD candidates who can't write a clear and logical document should be allowed to continue past the qualifying exam. The ability to write is not just some random skill, akin to the ability to use a pipette, or to document code, it reflects the person's thinking process. Can you be a logical and clear thinker if you can't write logically and clearly? In my opinion such students are not qualified to pursue a PhD.

As to how to improve bad writing, practice, and feedback and more practice and feedback is all I can think of.

Anonymous said...

We have a course in constructing reasonable arguments hosted by the philosophy department regarding that, maybe that is an option?

Anonymous said...

A related question - to what extent do the students who are writing-challenged realise that they are writing-challenged? I think if a student (person) fully appreciates that they are lacking an important skill, then they can buy the books, attend the courses, work on their writing skills and improve. But the student who writes badly and thinks that his/her writing is just fine may never improve, even with the implicit feedback of manuscripts heavily edited by co-authors.

qaz said...

The only thing that helps with writing is writing... a lot. Literary classes teach that most major writers write millions of words and throw most of them out (even a Hemingway or a Beckett [both famed for writing terse stuff] wrote volumes and volumes of stuff they threw out or burned).

That being said, there are tricks and techniques available from writing classes (note: not English departments, those are writing about writing, what you want are the "creative writing departments"). One of my favorites is the vomit draft (a term from Beckett) where you spill everything on the page with no editing and then only later (say the next day) come back to re-edit what you wrote.

Unfortunately, the only way to teach writing is to have them write a lot and then make them actually read what they wrote. Writing is like playing an instrument, instruction only gets you so far. At some point, you really just have to practice.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

By the time you reach college, you can either write a coherent sentence, or you can't. If the former, then you can be taught to construct decent paragraphs and longer pieces, such as essays, manuscripts, and grant applications. If the latter, then there is simply no hope.

Anonymous said...

Oh it would be so super helpful to get some tips on how to get a grip on all this writing.
If people have any suggestions on good books to teach yourself writing..... it would be grand to share those.

I am just in the process of writing / correcting my thesis and it is all done, but according to my supervisor, the quality of the writing (not the analysis) is not so good. And I need to seriously work on this because I will fail if I cannot manage to make myself understandable to other people.... (I know she has a point, but sometimes it is hard to improve, especially since the rest of our department is a bit more laissez-faire and never gives critical feedback) :(

I think for me it is not the grammar and the writing as such. But the following points:

1) What are the exact words/expressions one should use - I seem to memorize the broad concepts and the full story rather than single definitions and their respective relations. My brain just seems more wired like that, so it is sometimes hard to translate from one "language" to the other.

2) One of the main points of my supervisor is that I try to cramp to much information into one sentence or half sentence. I should rather keep it clear and short instead of crowded and too challenging.
The reason for this is (I think): I very often feel that what I did was fully trivial and not really that interesting. So that basically everybody would just be able to glance over it and think: "oh, yeah, sure, easy, so what is your point?". By cramping stuff in, I try to prove, that I actually do know my stuff.

3) And sometimes I am just helpless in separating the relevant bits from the not so relevant bits. Discussing the stuff with other people would help and actually does help, but only if I am not under major stress (because they are important people, because there is only little time, because I am having a major self-confidence crisis) :(

4) also, because I feel I should be able to do it just like that, I probably also spend far too little time on structuring and writing well formulated sentences than I should.... (well my fault really).

Kevin said...

My experience is that most of the writing instruction that students get in high school and college favors a rambling, discursive style that is completely unsuited for modern scientific publication. They get almost no instruction or practice in writing in science or engineering classes. While students who can't do the math or who fail at some other aspect of their initial scientific field are eased into less demanding majors, those who can't write are never selected against. With no selection pressure, there is no improvement in the population---in fact, since there is a belief among undergrads that scientists and engineers don't have to write, there is selection happening in the wrong direction.

The situation can be improved only by making undergrads write a *LOT* more and holding them to high standards on the writing.

A technical writing course in their sophomore years might also help. It needs to be taught by a tenure-track science or engineering faculty member (to indicate the importance of the material---handing it off to contingent faculty would indicate that the permanent faculty don't really care about the course). I made the mistake of suggesting such a course in a curriculum revision when I was a new assistant professor over 20 years ago, and ended up teaching the class for 14 years.

The book "Technical Writing and Professional Communication for Non-Native Speakers" by Thomas N. Huckin and Leslie A. Olsen is a good text---much better than most tech writing books (which are often very badly written). The chapters on article usage are the best I've seen on explaining the idiosyncrasies of English articles to people whose native languages have none (Russian, Chinese, Japanese, ...). The chapters on establishing flow within and between paragraphs also provide handy heuristics for those students who can't seem to create a coherent page.

A lot of the problems students have with writing can be addressed, but direct instruction in the skills is needed (which most have never gotten), and the students need to be aware that the skills are worth the trouble to develop (a message most science students get far too late to be helpful).

Anonymous said...

One of those poor-writing PhDs has found me as a collaborator. Luckily I love to write, and I'm happy to keep doing collaborations where I do all the writing.

Anonymous said...

For the students who do not improve--perhaps it's that they fail to see the importance of writing clearly?

Have you ever given them examples of extremely poorly written documents, and asked them to edit those? Maybe they can't see that their own writing is bad, until they've seen an example of someone else's bad writing.

Anonymous said...

In leading a large-ish research group, I would say that lack of writing skills is my number one frustration. Not only is it a drain on my time, but inability to write even a simple document clearly will torpedo anyone's hope for a productive, independent research career.

I would be delighted to hear other's ideas on ways to work on this issue.

One thing I do is to give my whole group an optional "weekly writing exercise". This is a short paper/opinion piece (from, e.g. Science) that they should hopefully find interesting and quick to read. They are encouraged to write a 1-2 paragraph summary. If they do, I quickly edit their summary trying to point out some ways they could improve. In my experience, close to 100% in the group agree that improving writing is important, but < 15% actually will spend an hour a week with this exercise to do something about it.

It is hardly surprising (to me) that someone who can't write a coherent single paragraph will fail utterly when attempting to write a full technical paper.

Anonymous said...

1. Read more. Not just textbooks, but widely. It really helps.
2. Keep a diary (or a blog) and try to write coherently.
3. Read the book 'The Elements of Style' by Strunk and White.

Anonymous said...

this is an interesting discussion for me as I am about to embark upon teaching a half semester of scientific writing to our incoming grad students. The course has never been offered before and i've pieced together a curriculum from the text of Write Like a Chemist, papers of seminar speakers this semester and a lot of writing. They will all be peer reviewing each others' writing during the course. I hope this exposes them to a lot of different writing and helps them cultivate their own abilities. I honestly have no idea if this will be an effect class or not.

kyla said...

I had to read "On Writing Well" (William Zinsser) at some point in college, and this makes me want to track it down and re-read. But I agree with Morgan that practice is probably the most important thing - most writing classes involve writing lots and lots, with good, constructive feedback along the way.

Anonymous said...

I completely agree with 'muddled grad student': the only way to learn to write Science is to read lots of Science. Every field has a style that you can learn to emulate if you read enough papers in that field. I think writing classes and other similar exercises are a complete waste of energy.

siz said...

I agree with Quaz. The best way to get better at writing is to write. For a PhD department, that translates into making the PhD students do a lot of writing. Not for courses but for departmental requirements. Make them write an 8-10 page paper on their research every year that goes to their committee. Make them write literature reviews.

You must make your students write for them to get better.

I have a colleague that writes all of his students manuscripts for publications and then he wonders why they have such a hard time writing their theses. Well, easy answer, they don't know how to write because they were never made to write. Even if you are going to completely rework a students manuscript they should still have to write it, for the practice.

I also agree with muddled grad student, make them read read read read. Forced journal clubs, etc. Reading how others word things in journals can help immensely when it comes to writing about your own research.

Labgrab said...

I am going to go with the first comment and agree we (being a bad writer) just don't read enough! Plus, internet writing is so casual it has bred more bad habits. I am so conversational in my writing that I am able to communicate openly and clearly but it isn't compelling or eloquent. Cut out my non-verbals and its like reading an email or blog comment!

b(oston)s(cholar) said...

I'm a graduate student in English--I have a lot of experience teaching writing classes and tutoring students from a lot of disciplines. First of all, it *is* possible to teach someone to write clearly, concisely, and correctly in college. I see progress in my first year students all the time.

But part of the problem is that college students may only get one course in writing over their whole career and no course dedicated to teaching the specific requirements of writing for their discipline. Plus, once you hit grad school, there is a big jump in expectations for the quality of writing and the things you are writing about are much larger in scope and complexity than most student ever encounter in their undergraduate research and courses. The best thing that ever happened to me in grad school was a writing workshop that offered me instruction from a professor in my field and input on my writing from my peers--I learned what was expected from me from the prof and learned how to identify problems better in my own writing from my peers.

From tutoring and teaching I learned that there are a range of different problems that can make a "bad writer. Some students are mystified by the requirements of logic or supporting an argument with appropriate evidence. If a student is having this problem at the grad level--eek! I don't know what to say for these...

Some are horrible grammarians or stylists by nature (but not by fate); and some struggle with ESL issues. Some students have just a few grammar or style issues that can be solved by forcing them to look up the rule and having them fix the problem in their own writing a few times. For more serious issues, maybe they should find out what resources are available for both native speakers and ESL/international--my university offers free tutoring for grad students of all disciplines. If not, there are probably lots of starving English grad students willing to tutor on the cheap at your institution or in your area.

Other, bigger, problems:

Some students don't understand how to communicate the logic inherent in their argument with appropriate paragraphing, signposting, and overall organization. Others don't know the standards for writing in their discipline. Others have some idea about the standards of good writing but don't know how to apply at this new level of difficulty.

For these issues, I recommend a book like "The Craft of Research" by Wayne Booth, Gregory Columb, and Joseph Williams (or any of several good books on writing), a peer writing group, and lots of practice. If a faculty member is willing to advise the group about expectations for writing in the discipline, all the better. Having a group of "problem" writers alone doesn't get as much mileage as a group with a range of levels. More experienced peers can make effective teachers. A good writing group sets ground rules for how criticism is communicated. You don't want people to be too soft and complimentary, but you do want thoughtful criticism to communicated with tact and respect. Most significantly, peers should offer suggestions for better alternatives--what better way to learn?

Hope this is helpful!

Kim said...

I've taught a junior-level writing-within-the-discipline course for nine years. (It's been the second writing course required for graduation, but now there are two composition courses required, so we're taking it off the books.) And... I don't think it has helped much. Even with a content emphasis on preparing for senior thesis research (which means there's a lot of reading as well as writing involved). (And with discussion of examples of good science writing, and picking apart everything from sentences to the structure of entire documents.) The biggest problems seem to be that students don't think they should be expected to write well, and that the class is a lot of work for everyone involved (including the thesis advisers, who have to give content feedback on thesis proposals).

I've had a few students who were so-so writers and improved a lot with practice. But mostly, the students who write well at the end are the students who wrote fairly well at the beginning. It's incredibly depressing, and I don't have any solutions.

Cloud said...

I've got a brand new baby in my lap, so no time to read all the comments.... apologies if this is repetitive. However, I do have some advice for people who want to improve their writing (beyond the usual "practice").

1. Try writing an outline before you actually start writing text. This allows you to focus first on content and organization (while writing the outline) and then on style and flow (while writing the text).

2. For grammar advice, check out Strunk and White, The Elements of Style. It is short.

3. In grad school, we were assigned to read a book on scientific writing. Unfortunately, it is on my bookshelf at work and I am at home. So all I can remember is that it had a red cover. I do remember that some of my classmates found it useful.

Anonymous said...

I suppose I was lucky. Even though I went to a public high school, we were taught that a paragraph has a main sentence. The rest of the sentences support that first sentence.

In college, as science majors, our lab reports were structured as papers. While they may not have been the best one ever read, they had an Abstract, Introduction, Results, Discussion and Cited literature. Every lab. Every class, whether O.chem or P. chem or Physics I, II, etc. etc.

Deconstructing a paper in graduate school was highly useful. What was the hypothesis? What were the results. I think being able to give a good talk is directly linked with writing well. A talk is the paper and if you're not giving an outline in the begining, then you're losing your audience--the same as not clearly outlining your thoughts in a paper.

Having a good talk, I found, actually made the writing simple.

Jen said...

I am a postdoc at a MRU, volunteering as an academic coach for early-stage grad students who need help with specific skills (reading, writing, etc.) As @muddled grad student suggested, reading and writing issues go hand-in-hand. I work with one or two students each term, and we do extensive literature analysis and practice with writing (starting with basic summaries of papers we've read, and progressing to News & Views-type articles, and finally to writing the intros to what would be their research proposals. With most students I've worked with, what they really needed was one-on-one time and practice. I provide students with feedback (general and specific), teach them how to use writing resources (such as Strunk and White's classic), and have them write multiple drafts. At a regional comp university I'm familiar with, there are no postdocs, but there is a Center for Writing with advisors in each major discipline who will provide similar one-on-one help for undergrads and masters students. Most universities do/should have similar resources that faculty can refer their students to.

butterflywings said...

I have had ~17 years of education, and almost *no* formal teaching on writing.
When I was at school, once you had passed the stage of actually learning to read and write - by which I mean the 'Dick and Jane are playing with a ball' stage - it was just not PC or fashionable to teach writing. I swear I didn't know what a verb is until I took evening classes in Italian, as an adult.

I pretty much just picked it up, but I feel sorry for those who don't - I'm not talking about those with learning disabilities and so on, but those to whom it doesn't come naturally. Or who aren't encouraged to read. I agree with the comments that reading is important and helps develop writing skills; there are class issues there, with having books in the home, being encouraged to read, and so on.

Writing really should be taught in school. It's that simple. No-one should leave high school unable to construct a decent essay.

Anonymous said...

It is disheartening to see what many here seem to believe—that a graduate student either has it or he does not, as far as the scientific writing skills go. And if he does not have it, then well, it is not our problem—there must be something wrong with his high-school or undergraduate education. If the graduate education is where one can develop supposedly more difficult skills, namely the research skills, then the scientific writing skills can also be developed in undergraduate/graduate schools. Seriously though, do we really believe that it is the responsibility of the high-schools to teach scientific writing skills? Give me a break.

I came here looking for specific tips on how to improve my writing skills, but there are so few. I like Anon's idea of the weekly writing practice of summarizing the interesting articles. If I have my own research group someday, I would like to implement that idea. Or how about asking the students to prepare 2 or 3 paragraphs describing what they did during the week, and then asking them to bring it during the weekly review meetings?

Female Science Professor said...

I've had grad students do weekly summaries, for the purposes of discussion of important topics/papers and for writing practice, but for some it is a continuing disaster with no improvement. Sorry to be so negative, but some people improve with practice and advice and some just don't. I think that those who can't/won't improve at all are few but not extremely rare.

Doctor Pion said...

One common suggestion is to get the person to talk about the subject, but that only works if they can produce a coherent (but grammatically questionable) verbal argument. If they can, the problem is "writing", but if not, it is more fundamental.

Does the writing impaired student have a clear understanding of logic, and how a logical argument is constructed? A "logic" course may not meet this goal, but diagramming a paper - like diagramming a sentence or a paragraph - could be a learning tool to use in grad seminars when a new paper is discussed.

Anonymous said...

I am a post-doc and I find the most helpful thing to do with students about writing is to have them start making outlines of published papers in the same field/genre that the want to publish in. After doing this for 3-4 papers, I then have them make an outline of their paper, and only after editing that, do I have them start writing.

I also think another common mistake is to wait until the student has all their data before they start writing a paper. Making outlines/drawings of potential results and what order you would put them in a paper is very helpful in organizing one's thoughts and can be done long before all the data is collected.

Finally I keep a notebook of elegant statements and interesting phrases that I see in other scientific papers. When I get stuck or find that I am getting repetitive in my writing style I read through my notebook, not to plagiarize but to remind myself of other ways of framing a thought.

Anonymous said...

I'm a postdoc now but as a graduate student I was a pretty awful writer for the first 3-4 years. Two experiences in grad school helped me to improve my writing : (1) grading 75 papers written by undergraduates on the same topic. This experience helped me to recognize my own mistakes in writing. (2) being told by my advisor as a 4rth year grad student to work on my topic sentences. The second experience made me realize that for me to become a better writer and a future PI, I needed better writing skills. To obtain these skills, I attended an intense week long class that dissected sentence structure and bought an english grammer book for my bedtime reading.

So, I think that (1) you cannot fix your mistakes until you recognize them and this recognition can be taught and (2) fixing your mistakes also requires that you have the tools and motivation to fix them/find tools. (1) requires knowledge and (2) requires knowledge and motivation. The question is, can all students get the knowledge to recognize their mistakes and will all such students become motivated to fix their mistakes?

American in Oxbridge said...

This goes back to the question of whether someone should be dragged across the finish line for the PhD... I think if they can't write, and need lots of "help" to make a dissertation that could be not embarrassing, they should not be getting the PhD.

Rosie Redfield said...

I'm still learning to write better, after 25 years of writing papers.

A wonderful little book for learning to write is Style, the Basics of Clarity and Grace, by Joseph Williams. It's not specifically for science writing, but it's all about how to write expository sentences that make it easy for the reader to understand what you mean.

luisa said...

one thing that i can think of that might help (both with the writing skills and the larger issue of how to survive in science) is to have a class in proposal writing, which includes in it a mini proposal review. i've heard of classes at some schools where they review real proposals submitted to the department (in this case, for telescope time), with the real names stripped off, but everything else intact. the students then have their own proposal review, and discuss which are the best proposals and why. they often come to the same conclusions as the "real committee." in that context, you see immediately examples of good and bad writing all aimed at the same goal (of getting observing time or money). and you at least start to learn what makes a good proposal. this is a different sort of experience than a journal club, or other situation in which the class reads published articles, which are more diverse than a group of proposal would be.

Narya said...

People aren't taught to write any more; who can still diagram a sentence? On top of that, though, is tremendous anxiety about it, and, often, lack of clarity, and those two things work symbiotically to create really shitty writing.

Best book of advice I've seen:
Howard Becker, "Writing for Social Scientists: How to Start and Finish Your Thesis, Book, or Article." Lots of helpful advice on how to be clear, concise, etc.

yolio said...

I believe it is a mistake to focus on the technical problem. If you focus on rules for building sentences and paragraphs, it conveys the idea that there is some magic set of rules, and if you master these rules then you will write well. And that isn't true. Rules can help you out around the edges, but at its core, writing well is about thinking clearly and understanding your audience. If your thinking is muddled or you are not empathic enough to see the world from someone else's point of view, then you are screwed on the writing front.

Also, we are all bad writers at some point. Writing well is something you do, not something you are.

Anonymous said...

I am the general reader/editor for my lab. When other students ask me for advice about how they can improve their writing, I suggest that they read more. Reading really is the key to better writing. We learn to speak by emulating our parents' speech; we learn to write by emulating the writing of others. Tell your students to read the NY Times (or similar newspaper) every day. It will provide a nice example of professional-level writing, as well as remind them that there is an entire world outside of the lab (something which scientists all too often forget).

yolio said...

Seems like there is interest in this thread for tips and advice. So, here are several books that I have found very useful:

How to Write a Lot by Paul Silvia
10 lesson in style, clarity and grace by Williams
Adios Strunk and White
On Writing Well by Zinsser
Bill Bryson's dictionary of troublesome words
The Chicago Guide to Communicating Science
Writing your dissertation in 15min/day
The craft of scientific writing by Alley

Anonymous said...

One issues missing from this discussion is that
writing difficulties can stem from neurological
conditions such as dyslexia and ADHD. It very
possible for people with such conditions to make
it to a PhD program without being diagnosed. It's
important to understand if there are underlying
issues. The approach to improving writing skills
may be very different when compensating for one's
neurology than when compensating for one's lack of

fBm said...

Reading = ability to write. Plain and simple. Muddled grad student is dead on. The problem is that the solution resides within the student. Ain't gonna get no student to read who don't wanna read. Period.

Anonymous said...

My English 101 writing teacher threatened to fail me unless I improved. My paper was,

- too long ... 5x requested length
- contained too many parenthesis
- contained too many footnotes
- thesis unclear
- etc.

I made those improvements. Compared to professional writers I know I could improve much more. Still, the professor made her point.

What's difficult to understand here? Fail the student if the writing under performs.

I attended university in my mid-30s. I applied the basic principles operating in most work environments. Those in charge identify areas of weakness and require improvement in their subordinates. And either the worker improves or risks being replaced. Ideally this improvement is done with the cooperation and support of the boss.

Anonymous said...

"Seriously though, do we really believe that it is the responsibility of the high-schools to teach scientific writing skills? Give me a break."

No. It is the responsibility of elementary schools to teach students to write coherent sentences and, later, coherent paragraphs. It is the responsibility of high schools to teach students to write coherent multi-paragraph documents (essays, stories, etc.) It is the responsibility of universities to teach students to write coherent scientific documents.

SilverRowan said...

....my comment was lost :(

Basically: I read a lot, but my writing still sucks. Anyone have advice for my situation? I can tell its not very good writing, but I don't know how to fix it...

Dog Training Tips for Beginners said...

Great post. I agree that it is not clear why some people can write easily, coherently, and clearly and others can't, and what to do about it. I don't think there is an easy solution other than study and LOTS of practice and feedback.

Two practical suggestions:

1) They should read this great book on science writing: "Why Not Say it Clearly?: Guide to Scientific Writing" by Lester S. King (hard to find since it is out of print but I'm sure university libraries might have it). One of the very best books I've ever read on scientific writing. As a professional technical writer, I've learned a lot from this single volume.

2) They should also visit my web sites: http://www.how-to-write-anything.com and http://www.technicalcommunicationcenter.com

Best regards. Ugur

NJA said...


I use this useful article in helping my students to write - http://www.psychologicalscience.org/observer/getArticle.cfm?id=2499

It takes the position that good writing is a combination of clarity and style and opens with the following quotation:
"Force, elegance, and variety of style are more difficult to teach, and far more difficult to learn; but clear writing can be reduced to rules."

I usually ask students to go through their drafts with these guidelines in mind before they send them to me. If I scan a draft and think they haven't bothered using the guidelines (glaring errors in structure and language, etc.), I send it straight back. The next draft is always better.

Good luck!

amy said...

If you're thinking of getting supplementary instruction from the humanities, I would suggest philosophy. The writing is completely focused on logic and the structure of one's argument. Students learn to formulate a precise thesis and make a coherent, concise argument for it. Terms are to be defined precisely and used consistently (no substituting different terms from a thesaurus to make the writing more "interesting"!). Only one style of writing is taught; in English classes, there's often pressure to learn several different styles of writing in one semester. There are some differences between a philosophical paper and a scientific one, but not that many.

However, no department likes to do the grunt work for another department without compensation. Writing instruction is incredibly time-intensive. So the sciences would need to pitch in more money than they already do, to keep our class sizes down.

hkukbilingualidiot said...

I am currently taking a philosophy class in constructing persuasive arguments and after only two lectures I can already see the improvement among my peers as we were made to argue on a topic online on a weekly basis, critisizing weaknesses in the arguments posed and more importantly giving names to the problems we've noticed...it had definitely made me think twice about constructing a document that will inevitably be disputed.

Unknown said...

I'm a science education specialist with a PhD in a science. Lately I've been involved with designing and teaching a course for undergrads involving reading a lot of primary literature, along with a substantial amount of writing. When comparing this course with similar ones in other departments on campus, we found our students were more successful at writing about science than students in courses with less reading and more writing. We think that having them critically evaluate published papers (in writing as well as in discussion), along with specific instruction on HOW to read papers (another difficult thing for undergrads/new grads!) and LOTS of feedback on their writing assignments, really helps.
So, I agree with the suggestion by many here that reading more helps, but having really structured feedback (with chances for students to edit their work and turn it back in) seemed to help our students too.
And, there wasn't a strong relationship between students' prior coursework in writing and their performance in the course - and some students we interviewed suggested that they got the worst feedback from us when they tried to follow formats they had learned in writing courses. What we were asking them to do was different than what they had learned about writing in other contexts. Again, several comments noted something similar. Practice in science writing seems much more useful.

daisy mae said...

have multiple copies of the following book available to students:

How to write and publish a scientific paper by Day and Gastel

it covers the basics well enough that i've seen it help a multitude of poor writers in our lab, and also improve the writing of already proficient writers.

it's an indispensable resource!

Michael E. Lopez said...

The doom draws closer, faster than we think.

Literally and Literarily are not interchangeable.

Michael E. Lopez said...

Now to be constructive instead of just snarky:

Believe everything that quasarpulse said.

And in addition: consider that the division in writing instruction between substance, or content, on the one hand, and mere form (i.e., grammar, spelling, sentence coherence) on the other has been widened till many academics, working comfortably in their little intellectual niches, grade their students' papers solely on the "content-based" merits as they relate to the grader's chosen discipline.

After all, it's both easier and more interesting.

Picking apart sentences and correcting them properly with your bright red pen is hard and unfun.

Walter Underwood said...

U. of Chicago has had a writing course for grad students for years. See: http://writing-program.uchicago.edu/

Also look up "Style: Towards Clarity and Grace" by Joseph M. Williams.

Linda Fox said...

I don't believe that this is a skills issue.

The issue is that there are no consequences for writing badly. That student, one way or another (including buying papers), will continue on in his/her education.

When we take this seriously, students will be told "no, you cannot continue on in your education until you improve this skill".

Oh, the horror! Holding students (at ANY level) to a standard. Isn't that unconstitutional or something?

Kitty said...

I struggle with this so much as a grad student advisor. I think part of the problem is that many students have multiple problems, and each student has a different set of problems. Thus, no one strategy works for every student, and what works for one student won't work for another.

I really liked b(oston)s(cholar)'s characterization of problems with logic, signposting, and overall organization. I have had several students struggle with this. Students also often struggle with how to pitch their writing, swinging between being too vague and then too detailed.

Of course, although I think I can sometimes characterize for myself the problem with a student's writing, I have been pretty unsuccessful is effecting much improvement in my poorest writers. It just feels like years of fruitless, painful struggling (and probably feels worse for them).

But, thanks to the people who have written in with concrete tips and references. I plan to look them over.

Linda said...

Strunk and White often fail to take their own advice, which is for the best as it is often bad advice.

Geoff Pullum, a linguist who blogs at Language Log, has chapter and verse, e.g.,

Anonymous said...

The answer to the question about how people with more than 16 years of education can have such a problem writing is surely because writing is so difficult for some people, even when they have been given much advice and have had years of opportunities for practice and improvement.

No. Saying "surely" does not make it so.

You are wrong. You simply assume that they MUST HAVE received proper education in grammar and rhetoric, in spelling and writing.

There is no reason to believe that other than you find it unfathomable that it is true.

But it is true. In 16 years, they did not receive much advice or opportunities to practice or improve their grammar or rhetoric.

Instead, they received the advice to "journal" their feelings, practicing writing in the first person without anyone attending to their spelling or grammar. As such, they practiced their errors.

They receive no formal grammar anymore. Almost no formal spelling, and certainly no systematic spelling.

They receive no rhetoric classes whatsoever.

If you want to improve their writing, don't send them to the college English department. English departments don't teach grammar or rhetoric either. Design a course that teaches grammar and rhetoric. If you explicitly teach them writing, and you explicitly demand that they practice writing, then maybe you can assess whether or not some students are bad at writing regardless of instruction. But as of now, you've got zero data to support the idea that they've had proper instruction.

Start asking around your middle school and see. Or spend some time on Kitchen Table Math, http://kitchentablemath.blogspot.com, a group blog that talks about the current failings of education, not just in math.

Anonymous said...

1. I second Kevin's recommendation of Huckin and Olsen's Technical Writing and Professional Communication for Nonnative Speakers of English

2. I second yolio's recommendation of Michael Alley's The Craft of Scientific Writing

3. Essentials of Writing Biomedical Research Papers by Mimi Zeiger

4. Academic Writing for Graduate Students by Swales and Feak, especially for those in the social sciences. It's actually geared to non-native English speakers (as is Huckin & Olsen), but has a lot of advice useful for anyone looking for concrete guidance in writing

5. English in Today's Research World, also by Swales and Feak -- for non-native speakers -- focuses on genres such as conference abstracts, conference posters, literature reviews, and the dissertation

6. And yes, read a lot in the genres you need to write in and take notes on expressions that seem particularly useful for particular purposes (establishing the importance of your topic, acknowledging limitations, discussing results that differ from previous results, etc.)

erica anne said...

I'm smack in the middle of writing my thesis and prepping some papers for publication and while I have never been criticised for my writing in the past, I've never written much more than essays and the occasional lab reports. I realise that not everyone in the sciences are aiming to publish journal articles (I never thought it was the path I would take), but I wish my undergraduate (and even first year postgraduate) courses had introduced more scientific writing into the classes. There is a certain amount of structure, phrasing and scientific jargon that I wish I had encountered earlier so that my transition from essay writing to article writing would be going more smoothly and I wouldn't be pulling my hair out now! Or at least not quite so much...:)

Tas said...

I find that I learned to write way back in high school, and didn't pick up much more from any of my courses in college. I suspect students who end up lacking the basics in their k-12 education don't get a chance to pick that up in college, since college doesn't really do the whole "basic level education" very well.