This website presents lessons to teach the most important principles of scientific (or technical) writing to undergraduates, graduate students, and professionals in engineering and science.
Introduction: Why scientific writing is important and how it differs from general writing.
Challenges that engineers and scientists face in their writing.
Scientific writing is both important and challenging. First off, scientific writing is important. One reason is that the content of scientific writing addresses the largest challenges of our day: providing enough food for a growing population, combating diseases, transporting people safely across cities and continents, generating energy, and protecting the environment. Not only do people read our writing, but they make important decisions based on our documents. Scientific writing is also challenging--much more challenging than many people realize. One reason is the inherent complexity of technical content. Another reason is the wide variety of audiences and their differing levels of knowledge about the content.
General writing courses do not prepare students enough for the challenges of scientific writing. The general writing courses that engineers and scientists take in grade school, middle school, high school, and first-year English do not address the specific challenges of scientific writing. Granted, most engineering and science undergraduates now take a technical writing course, but many of those students often do not do so until their junior or senior year of college. By that time, many of those students have already had to write reports in other courses and write emails and reports for summer internships. For these students, a gap exists between what they have learned about general writing and what is expected in scientific writing. The writing lessons at this website (and in particular the Summary Lesson) attempt to bridge that gap for undergraduates in engineering and science.
These lessons also discuss specific challenges of research writing for graduate students. For graduate students who have never taken a research writing course, these lessons also bridge a gap. In effect, these lessons provide you with many insights and examples for the research writing that you do. Such insights are valuable not only for your own drafts and revisions but also for your reviews of documents written by others.
These lessons serve as a refresher for professionals. For professional engineers and scientists who have taken a technical writing course, but some time ago, these lessons serve as a refresher. The thousands of you who took my own courses and workshops on scientific writing will note several changes in the lessons. Truth be told, these changes have arisen from your questions, comments, and suggestions. Over the past thirty years, you and other engineers and scientists have honed these lessons, enriched them, and made them more precise.
Table of Contents
The lessons given below present short instructional films about principles of scientific writing. The lessons target undergraduates, graduate students, and professionals in engineering and science. The Summary lesson targets undergraduates who have not yet had a technical writing course.
Summary: Writing as an engineer and scientist
Lesson 1: Writing emails
Lesson 2: Being precise and clear
Lesson 3: Avoiding ambiguity
Lesson 4: Sustaining energy
Lesson 5: Connecting your ideas
Lesson 6: Beginning with the familiar
Lesson 7: Organizing research papers
Lesson 8: Emphasizing details
Lesson 9: Organizing reports
Lesson 10: Incorporating illustrations
Appendix A: Essence of grammar
Appendix B: Essence of punctuation
Appendix C: Avoiding common errors of usage
Appendix D: Choosing a professional format
What Distinguishes These Lessons
The writing lessons at this website are designed to help engineers and scientists make their reports, papers, proposals, and emails more informative and persuasive.
These lessons contain scores of professional examples. One feature that distinguishes these lessons is the large number of professional examples. Carefully chosen, these examples provide insights into what separates scientific writing that succeeds from scientific writing that does not.
These lessons are well vetted. Another feature that distinguishes these lessons is how well vetted they are. In the past thirty years, I have taught these lessons to thousands of engineers and scientists at institutions such as Simula Research Laboratory in Norway, Pratt & Whitney, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Sandia National Laboratories, Pennsylvania State University, Virginia Tech, the European Space Organization, and Shanghai Jiao Tong University. While most universities and laboratories have preferred a focus on research writing, most companies have preferred a focus on project writing. These online lessons accommodate both preferences.
These lessons provide support for technical writing courses. The purpose of these online lessons is not to replace current courses on scientific or technical writing. On the contrary, the purpose is to strengthen such courses. In fact, instructors of those course are encouraged to assign specific lessons from this site to supplement their own instruction. Doing so allows these instructors to focus more class periods on critiquing the writing of their students and cover advanced topics such as strategies for a particular type of document.
Sponsors and Editors
Leonhard Center, College of Engineering, Penn State
National Science Foundation, NSF EAGER Award 1752096
Michael Alley, Teaching Professor, College of Engineering, Penn State
Kaitlyn Pigeon, Senior, Industrial Engineering, Penn State
Richelle Weiger, College of Engineering, Penn State
Casey Fenton, College of Engineering, Penn State
Elaine Gustus, College of Engineering, Penn State
For the academic year 2019-2020, we are collecting comments, questions, criticisms, and suggestions for the films, text, and quizzes of each lesson on scientific writing. To help us understand your input, would please let us know what your discipline is and whether you are a student, professional, or faculty member?