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Why Writing Matters

Why Writing Matters in Physics

"The more comprehensible the writing and talking we physicists do, the stronger and more comfortable will be the overall connection between science and society."

~Laurie Reed, Physics Department


Why Writing Matters in Physics

If research ideas and results are to be clearly understood and taken seriously by the scientific community and by society in general, scientists must have well-developed writing and speaking abilities. But the same person who has an innate ability for doing science may not necessarily be comfortable writing or presenting a complete yet concise description of a project; more often than not, communication skills need to be developed as part of a scientist’s overall educational training. Physicists usually have to work a little harder at this. We are often stereotyped as “eggheads” or “brainiacs” who have difficulty communicating with “real” people about the work that we do.

While it is true that every scientist will have to give verbal presentations, writing skills are far more critical on a day-to-day basis. From an academic or research point of view, scientific ideas, descriptions of data analysis techniques, and summaries of experimental results must be written clearly and completely if grant proposals are to be evaluated positively, journal articles accepted for publication, and applications for promotion and tenure taken seriously. Editors, evaluators and other scientists simply do not have time to wade through poorly written documents and try to discern what the author was trying to say. Professors of physics must clearly communicate course requirements, test and assignment questions, and the physics concepts themselves. While some of this is done verbally, an increasing fraction of course material is often presented solely in written form either in print or online.

Writing for “real” people is one of the most important forms of communication a physicist can undertake. In general, members of the public are intrigued by scientific developments but often have both fears and misconceptions that even the basics of the science are impossible to comprehend. A good physics communicator is someone who can explain a concept or a result so that anybody with a typical education can understand it. The more comprehensible writing and talking we physicists can do, the stronger and more comfortable will be the overall connection between science and society. The importance of science to the economic and intellectual growth of this country cannot be overstated.

Typical Writing Assignments

Writing Assignments vary greatly across the SVSU Physics curriculum. General Education Physics students (those enrolled in 106A Geology, 106B Meteorology, or 106C Astronomy) often write short explanations of scientific concepts covered in class as an indicator of how well they understand the material. Astronomy students in particular use short papers found in an online archive as idea generators for writing a more comprehensive paper. They also try their hands at writing short explanations specifically for a non-science audience and quickly come to realize that writing about science for a general audience is not easy to do well.

Students in our Physics survey courses (111 and 112 General Physics I and II and labs, and 211 and 212 Analytical Physics I and II and labs) learn how to properly write lab reports based upon the results of weekly experiments in which scientific data are collected and analyzed.

Students in our upper division courses learn to read and summarize journal articles, to write more comprehensive and technically rigorous lab reports, and eventually to write longer research papers based upon their own research projects. They also learn how to put together a good poster paper (a space-limited explanation of a research project using both writing and graphics), and the poster is then presented to science students and faculty at the yearly Dow Science and Engineering Symposium.

Qualities of Good Writing

Good physics writing is clear, concise, technically accurate and complete, and makes correct usage of the rules of grammar, spelling and sentence structure. It engages and informs the reader about a particular aspect of physics and is not condescending. It includes supporting references where appropriate, and numerical information is quoted using one consistent system of units.

Appropriate Types of Evidence & Support

Experimental conclusions cannot just materialize out of thin air into a written physics research article or lab report. A complete description must be included to the point where a suitably equipped reader could set up and run the experiment himself. A course instructor or journal referee would be quick to flag any missing pieces of information, and such an article or report would likely be rejected until the details are made complete.

Supporting information such as raw data must either be included in the article or made easily accessible to any reader upon request, depending on the conventions of the journal or the rules laid down by the instructor. References to work previously described in refereed journal articles must be included in the text and cited at the end. In short, there should be no information gaps or questions in the mind of a reader about the evidence supporting any claim made by the author.

In writing a non-technical article about physics for a more general audience, essentially the same rules apply. While an author may be, say, summarizing the work of several scientists on one aspect of physics, reference information for scientific facts stated in the article must be included at the end of the article.

Note that Wikipedia (or any similar online wiki site) does NOT count as a refereed source of citable information and must not be used in any serious physics article, report or assignment, whether technical or not.

Citation Conventions

The rules for citation are often not strictly adhered to in the lower level physics classes but become increasingly important as students tackle writing projects in the upper division courses. Any decision about the use of citation conventions is made by the individual course instructor. If a written student research paper is deemed appropriate for submission to a physics journal, the formatting rules and conventions of that journal are respected.

Special Comments: A Few Things to Remember

  • Read voraciously! Books, newspapers, novels, science magazines--everything. The more you read, the more likely you will be to recognize good writing, improve your vocabulary and develop your own writing skills.
  • Do not ignore the basic rules of grammar and sentence structure. And spelling does count! Just because "becuz" is more convenient for text messages on your cell phone does not make it appropriate for use in any form of serious written work.
  • Include source information for any facts quoted in the work.
  • Remember that units are a must-have for any numerical data quoted. Do not mix inconsistent unit systems (e.g., English and metric).
  • Watch the physics jargon and acronyms; don't assume that everybody reading your lab report will know what a "centripetal force apparatus" looks like.
  • Remember that a lab report is a summary of an experiment already performed at some point in the past. It is not to be written as the steps of a recipe for how to perform the experiment in the future.
  • Have someone from outside your class read your paper or lab report to see if it makes sense. If it doesn't, your work may need some adjustment before it is submitted.
  • Talk to your professors about your writing abilities. We don't bite.
  • Visit the SVSU Writing Center for help with all aspects of writing development.

Resources

www.americanscientist.org/issues/pub/the-science-of-scientific-writing/9