More Than the Information: How I Learned to Like My Science Writing

Somehow science has acquired the reputation as a discipline in which writing doesn’t matter. Science students with whom I’ve worked as a writing tutor commonly ask, “Isn’t it the information that counts?” In the end, it is the information that counts, but only if it’s written in a coherent way. Both science professionals and students have to write competently.

It all starts with the lab report. In every introductory lab course, students learn about the sections of the lab report and what information goes in each section. This is practical information, as most science majors write many lab reports, but also because most research articles are written in the same format. The instruction I received about writing lab reports never included any advice about grammar, sentence structure or making writing sound good–except for one thing: the passive voice. I was taught to always use the passive voice. The passive voice is objective: if you write, “the cells were grown” instead of, “we grew the cells,” you remove the personal aspect, “we.”

I never liked writing exclusively in the passive voice, as I found it impossible to make a fluid and intelligent-sounding paragraph using so many “to be” verbs. I tried to sneak in sentences in the active voice without using “I” or “we,” hoping this still maintained my objectivity. Then, I took a science class focused on writing–and not just putting the right information in the right place, but about clarity, conciseness, and diction. My professor hated the passive voice, calling it “weak and pathetic.” I felt liberated in my science writing. I had permission to use the active voice and personal pronouns as I saw fit.

I had thought of science writing as a means of conveying information, never as a way to make writing that I actually liked. My newfound license to use the active voice, coinciding with my completion of a creative writing class where I learned to talk about my writing, changed my mind. Lab reports and research papers could be more than good writing; they could be writing I liked.

It seems strange that a science major can graduate without ever talking about writing in a science class. Writing is practical: professionals in science fields write grants and publish papers. Writing also allows students to be more creative than they can be on tests. I’ve learned a lot about science writing through my role as a writing tutor. I’ve seen what my peers do that works, and I’ve had the opportunity to talk to science professors about writing. I encourage science majors to apply to be writing tutors. I also encourage science professors, especially those who require lab reports, to take advantage of the course tutor program, providing their students with someone trained to talk about writing. Talking about writing made me more engaged in my writing, and if this worked for me, it will work for other students. There’s no reason science majors should write off writing.

-By Kelsey Tyssowski ’11

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