Academic Writing in STEM
Clarity, organization, and citation are key features of academic writing. However, expectations for each one differ from one academic discipline to the next depending on the norms and conventions of the researchers, writers, and readers that comprise that discipline. One way of describing these norms and conventions is in terms of “genre.” Genre provides a way of understanding how similarities in clarity, organization, and citation across kinds of writing are indicative of shared attitudes, practices and habits, and positions amongst researchers, readers, and writers within disciplinary communities (Giltrow et al., 2021). In other words, the purpose for writing, the audience, the kinds of questions asked, the use of evidence, the writing conventions, and citation styles are all influenced by (and in turn, help to shape) the discipline and genre in which the author is writing.
While STEM disciplines and associated professions vary in scope and practice, writing in STEM disciplines shares many features of genre (or generic features). Although by no means an exhaustive list, here are some of the key generic features of STEM writing in scholarly genres like academic research papers, literature reviews, lab reports, and research proposals:
- STEM writing is audience-specific. When writing for a specialized audience knowledgeable in the discipline, writing may feature discipline-specific terminology. However, when writing for a general audience, STEM professionals may have to change their language.
- STEM writing is often specific and to the point. Aim to write short, succinct sentences.
- STEM researchers used to default to the passive voice, but now most STEM researchers write in the active voice.
- STEM writing often needs to incorporate lots of visual representations of data. Whether you are writing up your lab notebook or giving a PowerPoint presentation to your peers, you will likely to need to include specific numbers, units, tables, and figures.
- Scholarly and professional STEM audiences require you to support your work (and opinions) by citing relevant sources that you have used to build the quality of your content. However, the citation style used by distinct disciplines is very different, so it is necessary to learn these intricacies.
- STEM writing often follows a clear organization: IMRAD.
Writing Journalistic Articles and Blog Posts
Writing journalistic articles and blog posts requires very different skills than writing academic papers because the target audience is very different. Think about the last science-based news article you read in the newspaper or online and consider how much more accessible it was than a journal article. Specific detail is important in journal-style articles; however, informal, even quirky, writing without too many details (like those found in a science journal article’s methods section) is more likely to capture the imagination of the casual reader.
There are many ways of attempting to structure a journalistic article or blog post. One such approach is to try to include ‘The 5 W’s’ (the who, what, where, when, why) in the first two paragraphs of an article/post. Journalists sometimes refer to this as ‘the lead’. In the interest of creating an engaging opening to your story, you should aim to do this in no more than 50 words.
Giltrow, Janet, Richard Gooding, Daniel Burgoyne and Marlene Sawatsky. Academic Writing: An Introduction. Fourth ed. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 2021.