Class Warfare Blog

January 6, 2020

Academic Writing

Filed under: Education,Science — Steve Ruis @ 10:41 am
Tags: ,

The Conversation web site ran an interesting article on the third of January (Academic Writing Can Be Boring – But There Are Good Reasons for That) which gave some history of academic writing and why it tends to be dry and, well, dull.

Since I taught academic writing to my chemistry students I have some interest in this topic and I think there were a few things left out, at least as they apply to serious writing about chemical subjects.

Academic journals all set their own formats so that topic will not be covered but in addition:

  • Chemists are writing about their experiments which all occurred in the past, so they use past tense. In fiction writing exclusive use of the past tense is a manuscript killer because it implies that everything already happened, and so no change can occur. So, some history can be covered but there is no tension as to what might happen next because everything has already happened.
  • The only “actors” are the chemicals, so everything is written in passive voice, e.g. “water was boiled, chemicals were mixed, heat was applied.” They do not write “I boiled some water, etc.” because it doesn’t matter who boiled the water, just that it was boiled, so passive voice–impersonal (no pronouns other than “it,” etc.) is the rule of the day. This adoption would be lethal in fiction writing because there are no actors in the writing, so no characters.
  • There is no suspense because all formats start out with an abstract, which tells all regarding the article. This is so very busy scientists can read a synopsis of what was done to decide whether reading the details is worthwhile. (There is even a publication called “Chemical Abstracts” which published just the titles and abstracts of all of the chemistry articles appearing in the other journals. There is way too much stuff published to not supply these tools. (Of course, with the advent of computers and the Internet, there are tools that automatically search journals for a set of key words you supply, and many others.)

As a consequence, chemistry journal articles are dry and lifeless, exactly the way we want. The focus is on the chemicals and what they did . . . when . . . etc. The names at the top of the article tell you who did it, and there is no other mention of them otherwise. (Although this “rule” is breaking down somewhat.)

An Anecdote As a teacher of freshmen chemistry to freshmen, part of the lab portion of the course involved writing formal reports. Just before I retired, I got the number of such required reports down to exactly two. All students were supplied with written instructions as to how to do this. They even got a lecture going over these things. If something egregious showed up in the first set of reports, a “grade killer” provision was made for the second one. As an example, students seem to be addicted to formatting titles as if they were sentences (first word capitalized, period at the end). Since I was a part-time editor I made an attempt to figure out how this came to be and I believe it was from a practice of modern magazine ad formatting. The ads in magazines used to have “zingers” at the top, which were essentially titles, to attract attention. At some point, magazines figured out that having a sentence at the top of the ad implied something was being said and made it more read-worthy. Since students read a lot of magazines and very few books, this “format at the top” became their exemplars of “titles.”

In any case when this started showing up, it became my first “grade killer.” After leading a discussion of title formats (which resulted in the meta rule “If in doubt, capitalize all of the big words.”) I told them that if they instead formatted their title as if it were a sentence, they will have effectively killed their chance of getting an A on the report. (The grade being killed was the possibility of getting an A, not an automatic F on the report. I was not an ogre. If they formatted their report title as a sentence, the max grade they could get was a B.)

The first time I imposed this rule, the percentage of reports with titles formatted as sentences was ____ ? What do you think? I though it should be 1-3 percent. If you guessed 40% you hit the mark. I was shocked. What happened to all of the grade grubbers that were supposedly filling our college classrooms?

I tried all kinds of things, like supplying them with checklists of things to look over before submitting their reports (and lots more). The effects of these were small. (This ineffectiveness on my part fueled my early retirement to some extent.) End of Anecdote

Scientists have to learn how to write for other scientists. Even non-scientists (and I assumed the vast majority of my students would not become scientists) have to be able, from time to time, read something written for scientists and be able to decipher it, just as all U.S. citizens need to be able to read the Constitution and be able to decipher it . . . usually with some help.

I like my chemistry writings like I like my Martini’s “dry, shaken, not stirred” or some such.

Having said all of the above, I absolutely love the writings of gifted science writers. These are people who make science come alive for lay audiences. This is another gift altogether.

 

 

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