Advice for STEM professors on how to improve their writing (opinion)

January 11, 2024
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Science and science education face significant threats these days, whether in the form of bans on what types of science can be taught in schools, criticism from mainstream politicians who seem to have an antiscientific agenda or other perils. Indeed, for a dangerous number of Americans, science has become unpopular—or worse, seen as not true. Yet as scientists, mathematicians and engineers, we have distinct points of view and basic facts that people should know about, as they can have a significant impact on many individuals’ lives.

That information needs to be shared. We have to get our ideas out there—because if we don’t, no one else will. And that means we have to expand our communication strategies. This is where writing comes in.

It’s amazing how much time those of us in the STEM disciplines in higher education spend writing. We write papers, grant proposals, white papers and notes for classes. But many of us often follow certain academic formulas and conventions that aren’t always accessible or understandable outside the narrow fields we are writing for. In fact, that is becoming more and more of an issue, according to a news article from Nature: “Science is getting harder to read. From obscure acronyms to unnecessary jargon, research papers are increasingly impenetrable—even for scientists.”

Here’s the problem. Many of us are terrible writers. And honestly, when I finish a large grant proposal, the last thing I want to think about doing is more writing. But we need to make science more understandable and digestible to the general public if we stand a chance at combating the rise in antiscience rhetoric. I’ve found writing op-eds, magazine articles and posts for websites outside the narrow physics world can be rewarding, and it is helpful because our fields keep getting more and more complicated.

Communicating didn’t always come easy for me. I vividly remember trying to find ways to write essays in high school and college without using the word “different,” because I couldn’t spell it. (Spell check wasn’t yet around.) Now a professor of physics, I joke with my students at Adelphi University that if they knew how low my verbal SAT scores were, they would run into the president’s office and demand their tuition dollars back. Someone reading the first draft of my thesis questioned if I had ever taken a college English course. In fact, when I lived in a country where all the members of the team didn’t speak English as their first language, people still didn’t listen to my grammar recommendations. I have even been held up for promotions solely because my writing has been so poor.

Recently, however, I have managed to successfully publish 18 op-eds in higher education publications in just a couple of years, as well as a bunch of peer-reviewed articles, and I am in the process of actually signing a book deal. People now walk up to me and say, “You are such a good writer.” I usually blurt out a giant belly laugh. But my writing success started when I realized that I had good ideas, but if I couldn’t communicate them, I could never, ever be successful.

I started working on that. It’s been a slow and painful process, and I’ve experienced many setbacks. But I have made it a career mission to become a better communicator.

Here are the lessons I’ve learned about how to be successful as both a scientist and someone who writes about science.

Use a framework. As a management consultant, I was given the book The Pyramid Principle: Logic in Writing and Thinking, which has a simple. straightforward framework for writing. Sometimes, as a professor who is nearly 50 years old, it seems a little silly to use a framework. But it helps so much whenever I am unsure of what to do next.

Be honest and humble with students about your difficulty writing about your ideas. When I admit how poor a communicator I was—and, in many ways, still am—it seems to help me in the classroom. It enables me to identify strongly and empathize with students who are still learning and don’t have all their professional skills yet. Whenever I get annoyed about how a student can’t solve what appears to me to be a particularly easy problem, I remember how much trouble I’ve had writing.

Surround yourself with communication experts. I have been sucking up every piece of advice I can find from people whose writing I admire, even if some of the feedback is critical and quite difficult to hear. Most of them have been in my university community. So many wonderful people have helped me put together strong pieces about higher education. I even married a writer!

Recognize that writing for us scientists will always be a team effort. When I write op-eds for higher education publications, it always takes many eyes and editors. I lean on people. I bounce ideas off them, and they introduce me to other big ideas. They help me work through my arguments. They help me focus my words. I never want to be a nuisance, but I’ve found that people will happily give you feedback, as long as it goes both ways and you are working together.

Practice with a blog. My blog, wrightresearchlab.wordpress.com, is a great platform for me. It allows me to develop ideas and keeps me writing. Sometimes it’s as silly as sharing stories about my guinea pigs. Other times I dive into professional issues that really matter to me. For starters, I personally make it a point to share when my students do amazing things—and fun things that are amazing. Physics is difficult, and I want my students to know how much I value their hard work and accomplishments. The blog also provides an opportunity for me to share information about projects, new teaching ideas and physics outreach successes.

Communicate with TikTok or YouTube. If you don’t like writing, don’t write. You can choose from many other amazing tools to share your ideas. I am particularly fond of TikTok and making fun videos about whatever is happening in my life or in the lab. I am not the best at it, but I still have gotten the word out about a number of issues that I care about.

In my case, writing outside the lab tends to be about advocating for undergraduate students. For your part, you might want to write about quantum or environmental science. Both those subjects are in the news continuously, and we need more experts. Each of us is going to have a different focus of concern, but whatever it is, we have a responsibility to communicate and share with other people our STEM experience and knowledge.

The fact is, my raw language skills are very poor, even though I am a passable experimental physicist. But I am committed to getting my ideas out there. Our voices as scientists are important, and we are going to need them to navigate our future successfully.

Matthew J. Wright is the department chair and professor of physics at Adelphi University in New York.



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