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Let’s give them something to talk about: “good” STEM writing

Title: Defining a flexible notion of “good” STEM writing across contexts: Lessons learned from a cross-institutional conversation

Author(s) and Year: Sara M. Grady, Jenna Morton-Aiken, Caroline Gottshalk Druschke, Ingrid E. Lofgren, Nancy E. Karraker, Scott R. McWilliams, Nedra Reynolds, Elaine Finan, Patti L. Wolter, Donna R. Leff, Michael Kennedy (2020)

Journal: Frontiers in Communications Perspective (open access,

TL;DR: Examining two universities’ science communication programs, this paper outlines four best practices for “good” STEM writing (in either academic or public contexts) and provides novel grading rubrics for assessing texts from a variety of fields in the hope of strengthening STEM writing.

Why I chose this paper: By far, the hardest part of my STEM PhD was the writing. I was shocked to learn that the expectation was to produce writing in academic-ese (within the first year!), even though I was never taught this critical skill. As the gap between science fact and science fiction is steadily growing, I am very happy to see this article present strategies for clear STEM communication.

The Takeaway

Four best practices to adhere to while writing in the STEM fields:

  1. Connecting to the Bigger Picture

  2. Explaining Science

  3. Adhering to Genre Conventions

  4. Choosing Context-Appropriate Language

The Details

Writing is hard. Academic writing is harder. Good writing from an academic for non-academic audience is the hardest. Research shows that the readability of scientific abstracts is decreasing and current science communication programs show little evidence of improved practice. In this article, Grady and the authors delved into two separate but complementary science communication programs at Northwestern University and University of Rhode Island that answered the “what is good STEM writing” question. Using rhetoric, the art of persuasive communication (think MLK’s I have a dream speech), the authors define good STEM writing using four broad strokes which can be masterfully applied to a range of genres and audiences: connecting to the bigger picture, explaining science, adhering to genre conventions and choosing context-appropriate language. Additionally, they provide rubrics which can be used across disciplines to facilitate both the implementation of good STEM writing practices and its assessment.

The science communication program at Northwestern University titled Skills and Careers in Science Writing is a semester-long graduate level course for any STEM doctoral student. The program is led by journalism faculty and covers best practices in writing, public science communication and science reporting, including principles of structure, narrative and voice. Critically, it lays the groundwork of how to both discuss and write audience-friendly science stories.

SciWrite, the program at University of Rhode Island (URI), shows graduate students how to gracefully move between the academic and public writing worlds by first layering rhetorical training into graduate student curricula and secondly, training faculty to support writing skills in classrooms and laboratories. In contrast to Northwestern’s program, SciWrite is a cross-disciplinary, 2-year program that includes internships and workshops, alongside a four-course sequence where students gain rhetorical foundation for writing through a series of both academic and public writing projects.

Taking into account the varied practice of teaching STEM writing to graduate students, the authors mapped their commonalities and developed rubrics assessing three separate but interrelated purposes: 1) assessing STEM writing with flexible and locally informed instruments 2) empowering STEM faculty to engage more heartily with a rhetorical approach to writing training 3) communicating with students about important aspects of rhetorically savvy writing.

The Results

The authors created rubrics such as the “Science in Society” rubric, that tackle “good STEM writing” in a 4-step framework that is not only interdisciplinary but applies to a wide variety of audiences.

Connecting to the Bigger Picture

Inspired by the CARS model, this facet of “good STEM writing” tests whether the writer drew from existing understandings and varied their writing depending on the purpose of the intended audience. Take a middle school classroom for example. If the presentation is titled “How the COVID-19 vaccine works,” the scientist should make sure to explain the use of vaccines in the larger context of a global pandemic, connecting each individual dose of vaccine to the larger purpose of global health.

Explaining Science

Effective science communicators use easy to understand, colorful graphics with zero jargon to explain their premise. This section of the rubric covers whether the writer understood the technical detail and is free of jargon that can prevent a variety of audiences from understanding the message.

Adhering to Genre Conventions

If the scientist is explaining how the COVID-19 vaccine works to the President of the United States, the presentation should change from cartoonish to professional. Each writing piece is nestled within a different community and it is the writer’s job to elegantly navigate between each space.

Choosing Context-Appropriate Language

Finally, rhetoric tools such as style, tone, register and grammar can aid in the message’s absorption and elevate any science communication piece to its meaningful stage. For example, when speaking about the importance of getting vaccinated, Dr. Anthony Fauci highlights that an empathetic, open and understanding tone is most effective.

The Rubrics in Action

Based on Northwestern’s science story-telling approach, the Science in Society rubric focuses on persuasive narrative elements such as metaphors and analogies and assesses how the work is connected to real world experience by defining whether the writer “Clearly defined context and application of this work” or “Consistently built bridges from existing knowledge.”

On the other hand, URI’s approach spans both academic and public-facing audiences and encompasses a range of formats including visual representation. For example, the category “Is the text appropriate for the target audience?” features measurements of whether “the text consistently incorporated appropriate definitions and explanations of key terms to make the research engaging and comprehensible to the audience.”

The Impact

Metrics such as the rubrics created by these authors provide the opportunity to more consistently assess “good STEM writing,” perhaps for the first time. In a politically divisive and psychologically challenging zeitgeist, clear scientific communication across disciplines holds the power to engage audiences and create societal change.

Edited by Carolyn Decker, Jacqueline Goldstein


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