Course Review: Writing in the Sciences

Created: In Misc

A review of the Writing in the Sciences online course that I recently finished. The course is taught by Dr. Kristin Sainania a Professor of Health Research and Policy at Stanford University. It is a free 8-week series of canned videos, online quizzes, and homework assignments designed to improve your writing.

Course Structure

Each week is a series of videos, around 1-2 hours, and an optional 20 minute editing demo. My rough estimate is around 16 hours of material if you watch it all. The quizes are quick multiple choice, with some minor edits on the topic of the week. The two homework assignments require a writing piece, and peer reviewing others, I spent about an hour each.

Course Outline

  1. Introduction, Cutting Clutter
  2. Active voice, Use verbs
  3. Punctuation, Parellelism, Paragraph editing
  4. Paragraph Practice
  5. Scientific manuscript
  6. Peer Review
  7. Other publications (Grants, Recommendations, Reviews)
  8. Communicating with broader audience

Weeks 1-4

The main focus for the course is (obviously) writing for science and research, with a slight biology focus. Scientific knowledge is not necessary to take the course — though does help to understand the examples.

I took to help improve my technical writing. I’m a software engineer, not a scientist, so my writing consists of documentation, blog posts, and general communcation (bugs, reports, PRs).

The first half of the course, weeks 1-4, are excellent and highly recommended to help improve your writing. The writing recommendations are similar to other guides such Strunk & White, or On Writing Well, so if you’re familiar with them there will be little new.

The real value of the course is Professor Sainani, she leads you through numerous examples with clear explanations. I found watching her process of editing raw text quite useful.

You get out what you put in

One important aspect for any online course, and life itself, you get out of it what you put in.

If you sign up and then play the videos while multi-tasking, doing just the minimum to pass the course, you likely won’t get much out of it.

To get the most, treat it like a “real” class. Set aside time, remove any distractions, take notes while watching and actively study and practice the material.

Weeks 5-8

The second half of the course, weeks 5-8, are geared strongly to scientific writing and far less applicable for myself. I do not plan to write a scientific manuscript and get published. However, there are still good ideas on how to structure your thoughts and how to think through problems.

I did work my way through the second half and found it valuable, just not quite as useful for me as the first four weeks and thus harder to engage with. For example, in the first half I would stop the video often to take extra notes, whereas the second half I starting speeding up the video to get through.

Tips

A few key writing tips from the course:

  • Majority of time should be spent in pre-writing: researching, collecting information, organizing, and formulating your thoughts. The more work you put in up-front will save time later. (70% time)
  • Speed through your first draft (10% time), and then revise, revise, revise. Spend more time revising than your first draft (20% time)
  • Cut clutter. Complex ideas do not require complex language.
  • Verbs move sentences, drive action. Use verbs not nouns.
  • You don’t have to be at your computer to work; your thoughts and clear thinking is most important, this can be done anywhere.

See my Notes on Technical Writing for more writing tips.

Summary

I recommend the course to help improve your technical writing, I’ll definitely revisit my notes, plenty of good information.

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