The good news: You are passionate about studying in a STEM program. You can imagine college courses focused on science, technology, engineering and math.
The not-so-good news: You still have to know how to write.
That’s because STEM subjects, like every other field of study, are about communicating ideas.
Think of communication as a bridge. You’re at one end, trying to make someone at the other end understand a message. Obviously, the shorter the bridge, the easier it will be for your message to be heard. Good communicators – good writers – use effective language to shorten that bridge.
Your recipient might be a college admissions office (it would be great to get into that school), a professor (it would be great to ace that paper), a researcher (it would be great to get on that project team) – or your roommate (it would be great to get him to clean up his mess without making him angry).
The process is the same: The shorter the bridge, the more likely your words will be understood.
But, you say, writing isn’t your strong suit. (On the other hand, watch your writer friends try to figure out what 20 percent of a restaurant bill is so they can leave a tip.) That may be because you think of writing as a mystery. Instead, think of it as a set of skills anyone can develop.
Of course you might need some help. Where can you get that? Try the writing center at school, a tutor, or even a high school summer program that's centered on writing or communication instead of your favorite science topic.
So, without further ado (because brevity is key in writing), the five writing skills every STEM student needs to master:
You must be able to answer the question, “What is the point of what I am writing?” So, before you start your research, before you read the journal articles that will help craft your paper, your experiment, your set of instructions, think about what the point of your writing is likely to be. If you have been assigned a paper on a scientific development, will the point be an analysis of pros and cons? A comparison with a similar development? A history of how it came to be?
Knowing the focus ahead of time will help you choose sources and – this is so important – what kind of notes to take. Of course, your focus might change as you do your research, and that’s fine – it’s part of being a scholar. But going in without a focus is like entering a highway with no idea of what number your exit is. You might stumble across it, but you probably will drive by it, have to get off and go back.
You need to repeat this focus exercise once you’re ready to write. Before you type in your name, write this sentence: “The point of this paper/experiment/project is ...,” and fill in that blank with as few words as possible. Especially with papers or projects that are lengthy and/or complicated, writers can get into the weeds and lose their way. That focus sentence is like the flag at the end of the corn maze: It shows you the way home.
You want your reader to understand what you are writing? Keep it simple. Take a hatchet to extra words, fancy phrases, jargon and overly technical or puffed-up language that you think makes you look smarter. Most writing is better the closer it is to speech – but good speech.
A simple exercise: Try to reduce the words on every page by 5 percent. (Start with croaking unnecessary adjectives and adverbs. Stephen King once said the road to hell is paved with adverbs.) You will be surprised at how easy it is and how much clearer your writing is. An even simpler exercise: Ask a classmate to read what you have written. That blank look means you should try harder to be clearer.
There is no getting around this: Spelling, grammar, usage, punctuation all count. Writers who ignore them look unprofessional and sloppy, which subjects their work to skepticism. You do have to know when to use “who” over “whom.” You do have to know the difference between “imply” and “infer.” You do have to use SpellCheck. And – the horror, the horror – you do have to know when to insert a comma. There are books, computer programs, editors (and, sometimes, moms and dads) out there to help you. Use them. Yes, writing is a creative process, but it also has rules.
There is no getting around this, either: You have to outline. Do not panic. This does not mean Roman numerals. It simply means jotting down, in order, a few lines that indicate how your paper or experiment or project is going to go. First, this. Then, that. As you work you way through this progression, you might add in details (great quote here from Text A; add info here about Smith’s approach to this problem). Your reader should be able to detect a plan – a guiding intelligence – in what you write. That requires bringing, ahead of time, a sense of order to the material you have gathered.
5. A critical eye.
When you’re done writing, and after you come back from Starbucks, you must do one more thing: Be a ruthless editor. Check for errors in spelling, usage, grammar, punctuation. Look for run-on sentences, last names without first names. Do the math over, check that if you said there are 10 steps you actually listed 10, make sure you spelled the plant’s Latin name correctly. Make sure your footnotes and bibliography are in order.
Then, look at the big picture. Is it well-organized? Is there something missing (an obvious source, the other side)? Have you proven your hypothesis or made your point?
As with every other process, writing skills take practice. You just have to keep at it – keep going forward knowing that your goal is understanding, not perfection.
After all, seeking perfection, Neil Gaiman reminds fellow writers, “is like chasing the horizon." His advice? "Keep moving.”