1. Limited time only! Sign up for a free 30min personal tutor trial with Chegg Tutors
    Dismiss Notice
Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Taking a Course in Writing for Science

  1. Dec 28, 2014 #1
    The general question:

    Has anyone taken a course geared toward writing in the sciences? If so, did you feel that the course was useful? Alternatively, do you think that writing for the sciences was something that was better learned through the actual science courses you took?

    My specific situation:

    I have a degree in English, and I was a high school English teacher for several years before returning to school to take physics, math and computer science. I have some space in my schedule, and I am trying to fill it. There are a few courses that I can fit in amongst my physics and math courses, but none of them are really science courses themselves. I was thinking that the course described below (which does fit my schedule) could potentially be useful going forward:

    "Writing in the Sciences introduces students to the basic principles and genres of writing required for science students in their undergraduate careers: lab reports, summaries of scientific research, and scientific review essays. The course will focus on drafting and revising various reports written on scientific topics."

    There are a few other possible courses that I can fit into my schedule, but I am curious as to whether or not people feel that this writing course would be useful? I recognize that writing about literature and philosophy is quite different, but is it different enough that it is worth taking a specific course, or is this something I could better learn simply by doing it in the physics courses themselves?

    Any advice is appreciated, as are stories of your own experiences with such a course.
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 29, 2014 #2


    Staff: Mentor

    Given your background as an English teacher I would definitely ask the instructor of this course what it entails. It may be an easy cake walk for you and I would think you'd want to spend it on something more useful. However if they cover writing popular science articles or real technical writing like a thesis then it may be of interest.

    During my undergrad years, I don't remember taking any course on writing better science reports. I did find the book On Writing Well by Zinsser to be a great reference. Specifically, chapters 15 and 16 cover science, technology and writing for work are pretty good.
  4. Dec 29, 2014 #3
    At my school most science major students take scientific writing. I took it last semester and personally have found it to be very useful and interesting. It's also pretty much the only class that I have never heard anyone complaining about. I always recommend that course to my other classmates. On the other hand, another university that's very close to my school had to cancel their scientific writing class because no one likes that class and too few people signed up for it. :(

    Since you're an English teacher you probably have much more experience in writing than I do, but at least in my experience what you learn in writing courses very much depends on the professor and the school, unlike actual science courses where what you're supposed to learn is quite universal. (correct me if I'm wrong :P)

    I would definitely inquire the instructor about what you should expect and also ask other people at your school who took that course before. I find other student's reviews and opinions more helpful than any other "official" course descriptions.
  5. Dec 30, 2014 #4
    Thank you both for your responses. I will send an email to the professor tonight. I agree that it is the best approach; the only reason I haven't done so already is that many professors here don't answer email over the break (I don't blame them), and the course begins on the Monday back.

    I will take a look for the Zinsser book, jedishrfu. I see that Amazon has copies, but I would imagine it is in the library here, too. Thanks again!
  6. Dec 30, 2014 #5


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    Most technical, engineering, and hard science students will complain about classes other than the math and physics, since the humanities get "in the way" by taking time from studying the main course. If given the choice, few will elect to broaden out so to speak, so some schools make it ( a humanity course ) mandatory as part of the curriculum. Students consider the elective as being "easy", or so they say, until they are tested.

    Technical writing is a different beast, from say journalism, politics, advertising, short story writing, novels, poems, songs....where imagination is key and some facts are unknown or left out. You are probably 50% there already anyways, but expect to pick up some worthwhile pointers. You write a technical report so that it is entirely descriptive, so that the reader can follow along, understand, analyze and repeat with few (if any ) doubts.
    Lab reports from your classes, such as for chemistry ( mainly I found ) and physics ( also ) where person and "descriptive" language are important should be your first immersion in writing for a scientific audience.
  7. Dec 31, 2014 #6
    Thanks, 256bits. I agree that imagination is key in all of the forms of writing that you mention. I focused a bit less on creative writing and more on writing essays and on other forms of argumentative writing, but that writing would not have been as technical as the writing for a scientific audience. I read a lot of popular science non-fiction books, which is one of the things that sparked my desire to return to study science, but I recognize that the writing in such books is unlike writing for scientists aimed at a scientific audience; they are called "popular" science for a reason.

    The more I look in to the course, the more it seems like jedishrfu's book suggestion (Zinsser) may actually be of more use than the course itself. I found an old course outline, and there is a fair bit of time set aside for grammar lessons, many (although certainly not all) of which wouldn't be of particular use to someone with my background. It seems like I would be better served by taking an earth sciences course. Alternatively, I could take a course in the philosophy of science. I really wish that I could take the more application-oriented linear algebra course offered at my school, but (as I mentioned in another thread), that isn't possible without another course that I will be taking next semester.

    Thanks again to everyone for the advice.
  8. Dec 31, 2014 #7


    Staff: Mentor

    Last edited: Jan 1, 2015
  9. Jan 1, 2015 #8
    While I was reading Pliny's account of the effects that nearly reached him in the third link, all I could think of was images of the atomic bomb. Then I see in the Vesuvius link that the eruption released one hundred thousand times the energy of Hiroshima. Wow. I knew they were powerful, but that is some scary stuff. Pliny's descriptive power is excellent, albeit terrifying, particularly as he describes the darkness changing to light due to fire: "It grew lighter, though that seemed not a return of day, but a sign that the fire was approaching." Yikes. I enjoy reading the ancients, but, prior to just now, I had never read Pliny. Thanks for this.

    The course I may take will likely explore some of this. Here's a description:

    "An overview of the origin and development of Earth and solar system; constitution and active processes of Earth interior; how these processes have shaped Earth evolution in the past and how they continue to control surface phenomena such as earthquake and volcanic activity. Labs will introduce the main resource exploration techniques."

    "An introduction to the Earth as a large heat engine; topics will focus on large scale dynamic processes that occur in the deep interior (mantle and core convection) and their relation to activity and phenomena on the face of the Earth (tectonic plate motions, plate interactions, earth magnetic field, etc.)."

    There are two descriptions above because the course can be taken as either a first- or second-year course, with the second-year course (the latter description) requiring an essay. As far as I can tell, that is the only thing that differentiates the two courses, despite the differing descriptions.

    Neither course is an anti-requisite for any of the astronomy courses I will need to take in the physics concentration (or the astrophysics one, should I choose that route), and it will certainly provide me with a better understanding of what is going on with the Earth.
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook