I’m about to teach a writing course, and I’m very scared

I start teaching a new course in just a few weeks.  For the first time, I’m teaching a whole course in scientific writing.  I’m supposed to know something about that – after all, I wrote The Scientist’s Guide to Writing – but nevertheless, I’m scared.

I’ve resisted teaching scientific writing for many years, despite agreeing with my colleagues who argue that it’s one of the most valuable courses a student (undergraduate or graduate) can take.  I’ve resisted in part because teaching a good scientific writing course is a lot of work; but mostly I’ve resisted because I’m not sure that I know how to teach a good scientific writing course.  I’ve never taken one, and so have no model to emulate or to avoid.  On top of that, I don’t actually think of myself as a very good writer.  I’m slow, and although I’ve worked hard to become an adequate writer, my papers are never going to be celebrated as outstanding in our literature.  So how can I teach writing?

Well, in writing The Scientist’s Guide I argued that my mediocrity could actually be an asset. Most writers are like me: not geniuses, but craftspeople struggling to get better at a difficult craft.  I think (I hope) my own history of working to improve can make me more useful, not less, to early-career writers following the same rocky path.  And if it’s true for the book, surely it can be true for the course.

So there I’ll be, at the front of the classroom, teaching scientific writing.  What am I actually going to do?  I wish I knew (because it’s surely time to have this sorted).  But here are a few of the major elements of my course design.

  • I’ll follow much of the content of The Scientist’s Guide to Writing. I wrote it, after all*.  It will be interesting to see what works and what doesn’t in a classroom setting.  When I wrote it, use as a course text was far from my mind.  I wrote, instead, for an imagined grad student reading solo.  (Actually, that imagined grad student looked a lot like younger me.)

  • I’ll have students do as much as I have them listen to me. Writing advice is useful, but writing practice to put that advance into action is essential.
  • I’ll rely heavily on peer commenting. Writing improves when someone else comments on your drafts.  But a model where students write and instructor comments doesn’t scale well, and I’ll never be able to serve enough students to matter that way.  In any case, I think students can learn as much by commenting on their peers as they do from receiving those comments.  So they’ll exchange drafts repeatedly, but only occasionally with me.
  • We’ll divide and conquer. While the goal is to teach students to produce complete works – papers, theses, and so on – thinking about whole such project can be so intimidating as to freeze progress in its tracks.  So we’ll work on small pieces, and only assemble them late in the course.
  • We’ll do real writing. This part I’m not sure I’ve got right, but I’ve restricted enrolment to students who have a research project ready to write up (or at least, a project mature enough for writing to begin).  I don’t want writing to seem like an academic exercise.  It isn’t.  It’s a real, and central, element of what it means to do science every day.

All this sounds like I have a plan. Maybe I do; and maybe some of it will even survive its collision with the real classroom.  But I’m still scared.  Wish me luck.

© Stephen Heard  December 19, 2017

*^And of course this makes me one of those profs who assigns their own book.  Although wouldn’t it be odd if I didn’t, really?  But I’m uncomfortable with the notion of profiting from the assignment, so on the 1st day of class my students will choose a charity to receive the (rather trifling) royalties I’ll make from their book purchases.



13 thoughts on “I’m about to teach a writing course, and I’m very scared

  1. sleather2012

    I used to run a scientific writing class as part of a final year undergraduate course that I ran at Imperial College. I divided the class into teams (research syndicates) and provided them with a choice of unpublished data sets that they had to analyse in their groups, but the assignment was assessed on each student submitting a “paper” written in the style of an appropriate journal. Each ‘practical’ session was preceded by me giving a lecture on ‘The Art of Scientific Writing’. I started with the “Why do we publish?” question, journal choices, impact factors (what they are, are they useful), telling a story, structure and content, titles, how to write an abstract etc etc. The best ones were (after appropriate minor tweaking) submitted by me with their names on as co-authors, so as well as getting a grade they got something on their cvs and some went on to become Professor and Heads of Department e.g the final author on this paper (Leather, S.R., Beare, J.A., Cooke, R.C.A., & Fellowes, M.D.E. (1998) Are differences in life history parameters of the pine beauty moth Panolis flammea modified by host plant quality or gender? Entomologia experimentalis et applicata, 87, 237-243.) All three went on to do PhDs. And here is another who also went on to a PhD, albeit it took us a while to get around to submitting it! Goodwin, C., Keep, B., & Leather, S.R. (2017) Habitat selection and tree species richness of roundabouts: effects on site selection and the prevalence of arboreal caterpillars. Urban Ecosystems, 19, 889-895.

    I have been meaning to write a book about scientific writing for some time but having seen yours I figure you have cornered the market 🙂


  2. Emilie Champagne (@MissEmilieC)

    Looks like an excellent class! About the part you are unsure (“real” writing), I think it’s excellent. Take for example all the R seminars everybody takes. For me (and I suspect for other people), trying to learn code without use to my reality is not very useful.


  3. Willa Wu

    Good luck given that we all expect there’s ONE writing course that could solve all writing problems! How exactly are you going to restrict enrollment: Requiring students to submit an acceptable research proposal to you or interviewing each student before taking them? How many will you recruit? Please keep us updated! Here I also want to recommend “Writing Science: How to write papers that get cited and proposals that get funded” by Joshua Schimel.


  4. Ambika Kamath

    From experience in the class that I TAed for Andrew Richardson (that you skyped in for!), one thing you’ll likely find is that people often *think* they’re ready to write up their project but then actually aren’t. Which isn’t actually a big deal for continuing to write and getting a lot out of a class like this, but it does mean that the goal keeps changing! But the pros of having people definitely invested in what they’re writing outweigh the cons…


  5. nmichalcup

    Any thought given to the submission process itself, namely peer review (how it’s conducted, how feedback should be incorporated, how/when to know when to resubmit)? I haven’t read your book, so don’t know if it’s covered there, but while the course seems well tailored for the creation of the article, that should only be the first step in the process for the students (and, in fact, knowing it will be peer reviewed and likely adjusted may impact their initial writing of it).


  6. Brian Waters

    Good luck, Stephen. I’m sure you will do fine. I’m getting ready for the sixth semester of my scientific writing course.


  7. Kare

    I “edited” — a word to get around legal stuff — a science writing program at Caltech a couple of decades ago.

    Check out Alan Alda’s speech to graduates (or ask me for a copy). It’s kinda amazing.



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