Lecture: MIT Guide, Ch. 1

Note: Unless I hear otherwise I will assume you understand the readings from The MIT Guide to Science and Engineering Communication. Therefore, lectures on readings from the book will tend to be short, focusing on specifics I want to highlight. Just because I don’t address something doesn’t mean that it isn’t important. For instance, in the lecture I only address a few issues. This doesn’t mean that the book’s discussions on recording information as a basis for writing; on actively planning, designing, and preparing a professional approach to writing; or the visual nature of scientific writing aren’t important. They are, and I assume that in reading those sections you understand what the book has said and why it is important.

If you have any questions or need further elaboration on anything about the readings, including material not covered in the lectures, please ask.

The MIT Guide, Ch. 1: Writing and Work

Some key concepts to remember from this chapter:

Scientific Writing Is Social

Writing within the sciences and engineering is often social, that is it is often the product of more than one person, and it helps guide, shape, support, and develop other kinds of work. While you’re probably most familiar with school-based writing (writing that you do for a teacher in order to complete an assignment in which you demonstrate knowledge of course content), professional writing within the sciences and engineering is often involves writing for multiple audiences, some of whom will also comment on and edit if not rewrite what you have written. (See page 5, figure 1.1.)

Likewise, as we’ll see when we study proposals, a proposal isn’t just a bid to get a job or a grant. If accepted, a proposal serves as a kind of promise or contract as to how you will undertake a task and the conditions under which you will do that work, and as such a promise, it becomes the guiding document that defines your responsibilities to the people who have accepted your proposal.

Scientific Writing is Often Action Oriented

Whereas school-based writing often ends with the evaluation of the assignment by the instructor, evaluation of scientific writing is often leads to further action. Feedback on a rejected grant proposal may lead to additional research and revision in order to resubmit to the same funding agency or to a different one. Recommendation and environmental impact reports outline how courses of action should be taken. And an empirical research report may provide the knowledge and data upon which new experiments are designed and further research is conducted.

Scientific Writing is Often Political

Because scientific writing is action oriented it is often political in nature, whether the politics in question are the internal politics of a company, the politics of an academic field, or the politics of governments (local, state, federal, international). Whether we like it or not, scientific and technological development often involves winners and losers — the creation of a better cancer treatment or a less expensive and more environmentally energy source means that someone else’s hard work, capital investment, and business model is at risk of becoming obsolete, and that’s even before we consider research that as ethical, legal, ideological, or religious implications.