At last year’s Grace Hopper Conference, I organized a panel that focused on the vital connection between the everyday work of computer scientists, engineers, researchers, industry professionals, and academicians, and the mastery of excellent written and spoken communication skills. The topic of the panel was a direct expression of my own experience teaching Academic Writing and Great Presentations at the University of California, Santa Barbara and Columbia University in New York -- It is crystal clear to me that our potential to affect change, mentor, and lead is directly aligned with how well we are able to develop and apply our language abilities.
Let’s begin with writing, and look at both what we write about and why we choose to write in the first place.
When I first started to teach academic writing, I would say to the students --- “The single most important part of the writing process is the writer’s understanding of the story she wants to tell her readers. But you all know the stories of your research work, so we won’t spend much time here -- Let’s move on to other issues of the writing process.” So on we went to discuss other ingredients of excellent writing, like audience, genre, transitions and flow, introductions, data commentaries, abstracts, word choice, grammar, editing strategies, and so on.
It didn’t take long for me to see that my assumption about “knowing the story” was not accurate. Many of us, and perhaps all of us at one point, struggle with the precision of our topics. What is the context for my story and where does my specific contribution fit in? What are the details that are necessary so that a reader will know what I mean? What is the best ordering for the unfolding of these details? What can I leave out? Where am I going with all of this -- what is my point?
Well, now I spend a lot of time talking about stories in my classes. In fact, my view is that it is the unhesitating commitment to your story that is the foundation for the clear communication of your ideas, and without this clarity in communication, you cannot expect your readers to understand your meaning. And why else do we write if not to communicate a specific meaning to our readers?
So having a story to tell is the key ingredient for the writing process. Decisions we make about what to say, how to organize our ideas logically, how to glue the ideas together so there is a flow, which specific words and phrases capture the precision that is required, how serious or humorous or collegial we want to sound and so on -- are decisions made for the sole purpose of advancing our story; making our point; and presenting our ideas so that our readers can follow our meaning and learn, be motivated, be inspired.
But how we approach the actual writing requires another kind of understanding. In my view, before we make the commitment to share our knowledge and ideas through our writing, and before we sit down to compose, we must look at our philosophy of writing. It is vital to examine your thoughts and convictions and develop a personal writing philosophy. You will rely on your philosophy to drive your approach to your composing, and you will find that you will always go back to your personal philosophy as you reflect on each and every choice you make as you write your story for your specific audience of readers.
Consider these questions:
1- Why do you write?
2- Why do your readers read?
3- What does it mean to create meaning and knowledge?
4- How does your writing contribute to the creation of meaning and knowledge?
5- What gives a paragraph its strength?
6- If your intentions in writing are, for example, to inform, motivate, challenge, expand, create meaning, create knowledge, and so on, what principles should you embrace in your writing? For example,
• Clarity - Why is it important in your writing and for your readers?
• Precision in word choice, logic, and expression - Why are these principles important in science writing?
• Readability - What is it and why should we care about it?
• Organization - Is there only one Way?
7- What does excellence in writing mean for science writing?
These questions ask you to consider a number of very important ingredients of excellent writing, including such things as audience and the type of reader you will write for; your purpose and intent; the language you choose; the flow and development of your argument; the standard of excellence that you embrace and the respect that you are willing to extend to your readers. All of these elements are deserving of your careful reflection, so that when you sit down to write you have a clear orientation and framework for the hard work of composing, redrafting, and refining of your story.
Going forward, my idea is to look at The Art and Craft of Writing and Speaking -- to consider some of the universal characteristics of written and spoken discourse that will be useful as we prepare for the exciting events of Grace Hopper 2011. So take some time to contemplate your feelings about the world of words -- and excellence in communication.