Scientific and technical writing

I recently attended an information session for civil engineering students enrolled in a one credit technical writing course. The students must write a fifteen page technical paper on a civil engineering topic of their choice. They will be graded on content, organization, paper presentation, and quality of writing. The benefits of being able to write well cannot be overstated. Students who are preparing for a career in a technical profession might not appreciate how important writing skills are. Without strong writing skills, it will be difficult to advance in your career. McGill Library has a great selection of writing and style guides, specifically for science and engineering students. Below are some examples:

1. The ACS style guide: effective communication of scientific information 

2. Making sense: a student’s guide to research and writing : engineering and the technical sciences

3. Pocket book of technical writing for engineers and scientists

4. Style and ethics of communication in science and engineering (eBook)

And be sure to visit the McGill Library webpage, Writing tools, where you will find links to resources on topics ranging from grammar to academic integrity.

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To cite or not to cite?

I take the BMW (bus, metro, walk) to work each morning and, on the way, I read the newspaper back to front, i.e., I start with the comics’ page.  My favorite comic strip is Zits, which is about the daily adventures of a teenager named Jeremy Duncan.  Last week, there was an amusing episode involving a bibliography.  Read the episode here.

This reminded me of a question that I am frequently asked by students.  When should I cite a source in my paper?

You would cite a source when the idea is not yours, i.e., when you obtained the information from elsewhere.  The source could be a book, journal article, website, etc.  Whether you quote the source or paraphrase it, you need to cite it within the text of your paper and include the reference in your bibliography.  The only cases in which you would not cite a source are when the idea is yours or when you state a common fact, such as “the earth is round” or “Stephen Harper is the prime minister of Canada.”

Image from Microsoft Office Clipart

Writing in the Sciences

Writing is not only a duty for the students in humanities and social science majors, students in sciences at different levels all face the challenge of good writing. As a librarian in a science and engineering library, I often receive questions on this matter. A hands-on course with quality examples and practice may address this need.

Starting tomorrow, Sep 24th 2012, Kristin Sainani, a professor at Stanford University and also a health and science writer, will offer an online open access course on Coursera, Writing in the Sciences.  As the introduction says, “this is a hands-on course that focuses on examples and practice. In the first four weeks, we will review principles of effective writing, examples of good and bad writing, and tips for making the writing process easier. In the second four weeks, we will examine issues specific to scientific writing.”  Read more at Writing in the Sciences.


Have you Wordled yet?

Wordle is useful in helping you quickly find themes in any text that you need to read.  For example, you can use it to find themes in:

  • reports,
  • Web pages,
  • books,
  • dissertations,
  • journal articles,
  • database search results, etc.

You just copy your text and paste it in Wordle to generate a word cloud that shows you, by default, the 150 most frequently mentioned words in your text.  The bigger the word, the more often it has been mentioned.

You can also use Wordle to visually summarize anything that you have written.  Visit Wordle and give it a try!

Image of a Wordle created from the text of this blog

Eating cereal out of the box

Puffed MilletWe couldn’t be more thrilled to bring you this blog. We at Schulich Library have been thinking about it for some time, bookmarking interesting sites and writing little notes with “idea for the blog?” on post-its. We get excited about science and technology and how it intersects with popular and scholarly communication. We hope to fill The Turret up with entries that are timely and topical and now that it is up and running there will be no more procrastinating.

I’m sure that everyone knows a thing or two about procrastination but one great tip for getting those projects off the ground is to write a little every day. A quote from Paul Rudnick that someone shared recently resonated with me:

As a writer, I need an enormous amount of time alone. Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials. It’s a matter of doing everything you can to avoid writing, until it is about four in the morning and you reach the point where you have to write.

Writing a little each day can seem like a chore but here is a tool that was recommended to my librarian colleagues and me: It will remind you to get that writing done whenever you have some time. No one has to ever see it and it doesn’t have to be stellar – you just have to start writing. I promised myself to give it a few weeks to see if it will become habit forming. Wish me luck.

I would be remiss if I did not include at least one procrastination aid. Here is some fun with Google that got me through a patch: type ‘askew’ or ’tilt’ into the search engine or ‘do a barrel roll’ and watch it go, check out the “did you mean” options for ‘recursion’ or ‘anagram’, or just play around with Google Gravity.

If you are wondering what 750 words looks like – it is almost twice this length. I used to inaugurate The Turret and made it as far as 397 words. It is my first time after all. It wasn’t at all painful so I’m not sure why I had put it off for so long, although I did shamelessly fill up space with a block quote and pause twice for cereal.

Welcome to the blog. Happy reading (and writing)!

Image by Jimmy Coupe