Scientific writing is important. For one thing, the content of scientific writing addresses the largest challenges in our day: providing enough food for a growing population, combating diseases, transporting people safely, 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.
Sadly, the general writing courses that engineers and scientists take in grade school, middle school, high school, and first-year English do not prepare students enough to meet the challenges of scientific writing. Granted, most engineering and science students 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 or professional writing. The writing lessons at this website attempt to bridge that gap.
Introduction to Scientific Writing (Part 1): This film discusses why writing as an engineer or scientist is important and how scientific writing differs from general writing.
The writing lessons at this website are designed to help engineers and scientists make their reports, papers, proposals, and emails more informative and persuasive. 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. 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.
The purpose of these online lessons is not to replace courses on scientific writing (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.
For students in design and laboratory courses that require reports and papers, these lessons address many writing questions that the instructors do not have time in class to address. For professionals and graduate students who have not taken a scientific writing course, these online lessons provide you with many insights about the 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. For the thousands of engineers and scientists who have taken my professional course on scientific writing, these online lessons serve as a refresher. Those of you who took the course some time ago will note many changes in the lessons. Truth be told, those changes have arisen from your questions, comments, and suggestions. Over the past thirty years, you and other participants have honed these lessons, enriched them, and made them more precise.
Table of Contents
The lessons given below consist of short instructional films about principles of scientific writing followed by exercises and quizzes. In their current order, the lessons move from analyzing your constraints (Lesson 1) to writing at the sentence level (Lesson 2). To see a big picture earlier, you might prefer to view Lesson 7 or 8 after Lesson 1 and then proceed back to Lesson 2. Also, before starting Lessons 4 and 5, you might want to review the essence of grammar in Appendix A to help you recall important writing terms such as subject, dependent clause, and infinitive phrase. Finally, for those students who have time for only one lesson during a busy semester, please view the Summary, which focuses on the stylistic aspects that distinguish scientific writing in laboratory and design reports from general writing in first-year English courses.
Summary: Writing as an engineer and scientist
Lesson 1: Analyzing audience, purpose, and occasion
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: Organizing technical reports
Lesson 9: Designing and incorporating illustrations
Lesson 10: Providing proper emphasis
Lesson 11: Writing emails, instructions, and proposals
Lesson 12: Using your writing time efficiently
Appendix A: Essence of grammar
Appendix B: Essence of punctuation
Appendix C: Avoiding the major errors of usage
Appendix D: Choosing a professional format
Introduction to Scientific Writing (Part 2): This film discusses the attributes of a successful writer in engineering or science.
Introduction to Scientific Writing (Part 3): This film recounts the struggles of my own first experience in writing a scientific document.