ENGL390 is the professional writing class for scientists here at the University of Maryland. The class is designed to prepare students majoring in the sciences to write about topics in their field for both their peers and non-science people. The class satisfies the professional writing requirement for graduation. Here are 5 concepts you need to know for ENGL390.
1. The topic is scientific writing
If you don’t like science, you probably won’t like what is done in the class. The entire class revolves around scientific writing from analysis to decomposition. You may be stuck in ENGL390 if you need to take a professional writing course and this is the only one left. It is not a difficult course per say, but a lot of people just aren’t comfortable writing about science for some reason. Register early for another writing course if you don’t want to write about science.
2. Know how to use proper citations
Plagiarism as defined by Mariam Webster is “the practice of taking someone else’s work or ideas and passing them off as one’s own.” This may mean taking someone else’s work without citing their work or not citing the information correctly. Now plagiarism is a serious offense in any academic setting, but especially so in the sciences. If you don’t cite another researcher’s findings properly, you may think it doesn’t matter but you are actually stealing their work. One of the most infamous cases of plagiarism was the Wakefield study which linked Autism to vaccines. The study has since been discredited because Andrew Wakefield manipulated other scientists’ work and falsified data to make it seem as though the link was irrefutable. Don’t find yourself on the wrong side of the law! Learn to cite before you get in trouble!
3. Find out if you want to go to graduate school or find a job
Now what does this have to do with science writing? Oh, you’d be surprised. The first assignment you are given is to write either a resume and cover letter or a curriculum vitae. This is to prepare you for after graduation because people usually go to either graduate school or they find a relevant job. You will need to find a job that you are qualified for and then write up a resume telling them why you are a good fit by listing your job experiences. Or if you go the graduate school route, you will prepare a cv telling the admissions officer why you are a good choice for admitting to the graduate program. None of this matters though until you figure out what you want to do.
4. Prepare to dumb down the scientific jargon
One of the key learning outcomes for this course is to prepare you to communicate with people outside of your expertise. Maybe you need to find someone willing to invest in your company and you need to tell them why they should give you money. Maybe you need to hire a lawyer to defend your company against sleazy customers. You need to be able to communicate your intentions clearly and without the jargon. Consider the term ‘heavy metals’ usually in reference to the toxic metals lead and mercury. A reader has no way to quantify how much an atom must weigh to be considered “heavy,” and there are nontoxic elements with greater atomic weights than either mercury or lead. Unless the reader already knows exactly which metals the jargon describes, the term offers little clarification. Don’t confuse people who don’t know what you are talking about!
5. Don’t write so much
Perhaps somewhere in middle school you learned that writing more was better. Maybe your teacher told you it made you mature and you sounded more intelligent when you wrote more than was expected. In high school maybe you wrote a lot because you were hoping the teacher would get bored and just mark you up for an A. That won’t work here in college because the professors have a lot more time on their hands. You may also get penalized for writing too much. Also, writing more just shows these professors that you cannot get to the point and you like to ramble. It’s not a good thing. Keep the writing short and everyone will be happy.
ENGL390 is only one of the professional writing courses that you can take but it may be the best one if you are a science writer. Science writing always takes up a lot of space so if you can’t always reach the page minimum, you should try talking about some more scientific concepts. Just don’t go over the page limit! Keep in mind who your audience is and simplify the language if need be. And always remember to cite your sources!