Should ecologists teach writing?


I could start this post with a back-in-my-day story and bemoan the state of student writing today but I think you can probably fill in the blanks without me hashing out a familiar tale*. Sufficed to say for a ecological methods course I team teach, we’re finding that the quality of writing from the students is poor. The course includes a major project where the students design and execute a survey for insects, birds or plants and culminates in a written report in scientific paper style.

The reports we get back range in quality but most of the issues are stylistic. Students clearly don’t know what to include in a paragraph. Have a few random sentences? Sure, why not leave them orphaned all on their own? The idea of describing your results seems foreign. What does one put in a figure caption anyway? My students don’t seem to have a clue. How should you present data? Tables of every last thing offered up from your stats program might just be the thing. Abstracts, who needs to consider that? Just throw it together at the end. Titles? Are they really that important? And so on.

We comment on drafts and include time for peer-review but it doesn’t seem to make a huge difference. So this year we’re trying something completely different.

We’ve scrapped a literature review assignment to specifically address scientific writing. Instead of exploring the literature, we’re going to explore how to write it.

I’ve broken down the subject into five lessons that will include some brief lecturing from me and a whole lot of practising for the students. We’re going to deal with the structure of a paper and break down the general way to writing introductions, discussions, etc. Then we’ll work on basic sentence structure. How to cite (and not plagiarize) will deal with not only how to find relevant papers but how to build those into a sentence and an argument. How to visualize data is as important as writing about it so we’ll discuss tables, figures and what to put in captions. Finally we’ll talk about abstracts and how to summarize your paper.

Throughout the activities, we’ll be working with lots of examples and I will have the students do short writing activities. I’ve done some of this before, such as getting students to write figure captions or describe data. Here we’ll also be improving previously written work culled from old reports. Each lesson has about two hours so it is a considerable chunk of time. Given that students tend to assume they already can write by the time they reach us (but clearly have a lot to learn!) and the fact that I want them work through examples, I’m guessing it will go quickly.

I wonder about my role in this. I never received much training on scientific writing (or otherwise). To be honest I often still feel like I am learning how to write. I struggle with how to teach my graduate students how to improve their own scientific writing. Should I give detailed comments and let them figure out for themselves? Or rewrite to show the example of how it can be done? I learned how to write papers organically through doing and getting feedback from advisors, collaborators and reviewers. So distilling down that organic process to directed lessons is challenging. I’m doing a lot of reading** and thinking about what is important.

To answer the question of the post: I don’t know. Perhaps students should receive training on writing from a more general or experienced source. The ecologists are certainly not the only students in the masters program that need to learn how to write. So maybe ecologists shouldn’t shoulder the responsibility of teaching writing. But on the other hand I will certainly feel like I have failed my students if they walk away from our course/program without knowing how to write better. And maybe my best qualification is that I care.

I am certainly interested to see how this experiment works. If anyone has suggestions on how to teach writing skills, I’m all ears!


*I’m not actually sure we were any better back in my day.


**I may write a future post about how helpful these were.

18 thoughts on “Should ecologists teach writing?

  1. This is very close to my heart (I’ve written a book, not yet available, but some info here: Like you and like most students, I was never taught to write, so I learned it the hard way. I wasn’t smart enough to take full advantage of writing books, either… So a writing course, or even a segment of a course, should be invaluable for students in any branch of the sciences. Problem is, writing courses are enormously time-expensive to teach. I don’t know what the solution is!

  2. This sounds wonderful. Kudos to you for thinking about how to fix the problem. I hope to borrow your idea. Any chance you can make your slides / exercises available?

  3. A great idea. I have been trying to give my first year students a few of the building blocks that will help them in both understanding and writing about science. When tasked with studying for the course exams, I ask them to put the pieces of info they learn into a coherent narrative in their minds. In other words, tell themselves a story! I think that this approach will also help them when it comes time for them to write about their own work.

  4. I remember that for my undergraduate major (Ecology and Evolution), we took an Ecology Laboratory Writing” course, which was essentially a work-study course where we wrote a review of an issue in the style of a journal, had it ripped apart by the professor in charge of the course, then re-wrote it into something that could potentially be published. The course was independent study, so there wasn’t a lot of face-to-face instruction, but it 1) showed how critical reviewers can/will be (rightfully so in this case, the paper wasn’t very good), and 2) provided at least a baseline from which I could cultivate my writing style and abilities. I am far from an excellent writer, but I think that at least having some sort of introduction as an undergraduate has helped to some degree.

  5. Have You read any of John Janovy Jr.’s books? “On Becoming a Biologist” or “Dunwoody Pond”? somewhere on one of his webpages i think there might be ideas on this. Or he himself might have some advice.

  6. I was discussing the issue of writing skills with my graduate student just yesterday! I was surprised to find that he had received no formal training in scientific writing or experimental design during his undergrad. I think a good first step is to become aware of the assumptions we make about the past experiences of our graduate students and that many of these assumptions are wrong. I look forward to hearing how your writing classes are received by the students and whether they produce an improvement in the writing that you see produced by the students in your program.

  7. I highly recommend Josh Schimel’s book “Writing Science.” It is a book that I will read again and again in an effort to improve my science writing, but it’s appropriate for beginners as well. It’s written mostly using examples from ecology, but provides advice that would be applicable in all the sciences.

  8. I was just talking about this a few weeks ago when talking to a job candidate. The candidate had asked what surprised us most when we transitioned from post-doc to faculty. Lots of people talked about balancing conflicting demands of teaching, research, and life. I spoke about the fact that I spent a considerable amount of time teaching students how to write, a task for which I was never trained. This semester, I transitioned to specifications grading in my animal behavior course and we are reading a lot of literature and the students are writing summaries about the literature they read. For each of these, I have science specifications as well as writing specifications and we spent an entire lab period discussing a literature review they had read and which they were required to find the most common (according to me) 19 writing mistakes. We also talked about the process of writing (are you a “quick and dirty” drafter or a “slow and clean” drafter?* What does this mean for your work flow and how you schedule when your first draft is completed and how many drafts you might need?). They now know why they should avoid using “it”, what a “running jump” is and how to avoid them and why, how an introduction can be efficiently structured, etc. Also, rather than students coming in to my office to chisel points to get a particular grade, they are coming in to talk to me about how to improve their writing so that it meets the specifications.

    I find the chapter on revising in Pechenik’s A Short Guide to Writing about Biology to be worth the cost of the book.

    terminology from The Craft of Research by Booth et al. Also a good resource.

  9. FWIW…Good luck, it’s great that you’re doing this. But I think for the benefits to undergrads of a single writing course, or a single course in which they have to do some writing, is very small. Totally ancedotally, I think students need the volume of practice that they can only get if they have to write in numerous courses. I still thank my lucky stars I was able to go to a small liberal arts college where most of the courses demanded a lot of writing, and where the classes were small enough that we got detailed feedback on every written assignment. Probably the single most useful courses for me were the two intro Philosophy courses, each of which had you writing short, closely-argued essays (1-2 pages) every week.

  10. Writing more good is an important skill to develop. I think a lot of students miss out on the idea that writing is a habit that has to be built and maintained. And that first drafts usually aren’t good. Revision/editing is always necessary. Feedback is important too as are tips and techniques, but just doing it is more important than a lot of tips/techniques. I’m not sure if I’m a good writer even though I do a lot of it (maintain 2 blogs, write in notebooks, taken a few classes and am in the middle of Mimi Zeiger’s book on biomedical writing).

    My friend Johnna is having similar feelings and is doing a series on her blog about writing a scientific manuscript:

  11. Having my work re-written by more competent people was one of the best things that ever happened to my writing. It turned all those abstract rules and guidelines and advice into something I could actually implement. It’s showing instead of telling – I remember getting back a draft and thinking, “Oh! So that’s how it works!” Reading examples is also helpful, but nothing beats seeing my work reshaped to really learn.

    This wasn’t a onetime event, though the first time it happened really stands out in my mind. When I start to work with new forms of writing, I always look for someone who will edit like this.

  12. In my former position at Imperial College I ran a course for my final year applied ecology undergraduates called ‘The Art of Scientific Writing’ which I like to think was useful. So yes I think it is a good idea.

  13. Yes! Yes! Yes, I have been struggling with teaching this to my students this year. I went in naively thinking that breaking up sections/figures etc would be sufficient, but I’m have to include LOTS of instruction on things that have become second nature to me, but are nowhere on the radar screen for my students. We’re just kinda struggling through with multiple rounds of revisions on each of the pieces. These comments are great- will definitely be checking out the references given above!!! If anyone feel like sharing their two cents about suggestions for science writing on my blog, I’m over at

  14. Seems like struggling with student writing is a common experience for everyone. I will try to write more about the experience and what works (and doesn’t!). I’m still in the development stage and appreciate all the comments!

  15. I second Lauren’s recommendation of Schimel’s ‘Writing Science’. That said, it may be a bit advanced for undergrads and/or students who haven’t done much reading of scientific literature. I had seniors read it for a class in the fall, and while they seemed to like the book, it hasn’t made muc difference in their writing in the few months since reading it.

  16. I have been quietly following your blog for some time. This one hits the spot for me, as I’m thinking about doing a similar course next semester. A big challenge for me would be teaching how to write good scientific English for non-native speakers in a non-English speaking country. Anyone has experiences on how to deal with this?

  17. Very good blog you have here but I was curious about if you knew of any community forums that cover the same topics discussed here? I’d really love to be a part of community where I can get responses from other knowledgeable people that share the same interest. If you have any recommendations, please let me know. Many thanks!

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