With the recent focus on reviving the economy by nurturing science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) students, one might conclude there’s little economic value in honing a basic skill like writing.
Not true, say Stephanie Roberson Barnard and Deborah St James, authors of Listen. Write. Present: The Elements for Communicating Science and Technology (Yale University Press; 2012), www.ListenWritePresent.com. They cite the American Society for Engineering Education in which researchers ranked technical writing No. 2 in a list of 38 necessary skills for engineers.
Engineers aren’t the only ones who need to write effectively in order to get ahead, says Barnard, a communications consultant who specializes in training medical professionals to speak and write clearly and persuasively. A recent ad for a pharmacist read, “Clinical Pharmacist: Strong Writing Skills Required!” Basically every job in the science and technology fields today requires effective writing skills, she says.
“Whether you’re requesting funds for a research project, a loan for a business venture, or writing a cover letter, resume, or abstract, you’ll want to write with confidence and conviction,” says St. James, deputy director of publications and communications for a biotech company in North Carolina.
Unfortunately, science-rich educations often leave little room for students to learn how to craft a strong written message. They suggest you ask yourself four questions before you start any written communication:
• Is it reader based? Ask yourself who are my readers? Are they colleagues or people outside my field? What do they know? What do they need to know? How can I best present the material to these readers? Knowing who your reader is will help you decide what words to use and exactly how much detail is needed.
• Is it purposeful? Your second question should be, Why am I writing this? Today we live in an over-communicated society: emails, text messages, tweets, ads, letters, newspapers, magazines, books. In fact, most of what we write no one reads. Make sure every word is useful and relevant to every one of your intended readers.
• Is it clear and concise? Generally, the cause of unclear writing is too many words. Many writers will read a long, rambling sentence they’ve written, and to clarify it they’ll write another long, rambling sentence to clarify the first one. Big mistake. If a sentence is unclear, take words out. Be wary of long sentences, unclear antecedents, poor transitions, jargon, clichés, and an alphabet soup of acronyms.
• Is it correct? Nothing puts the kibosh on a grant application, business plan, or resume faster than grammatical, punctuation or spelling errors. Choose a good dictionary and a reputable style guide for your trade or industry and use it consistently. A style guide is a good investment that will answer questions on grammar, punctuation, and word usage. It will help you appear polished, professional, and well-educated.
Finally, St James and Barnard suggest two final tips to improve your writing:
• Read more: You’ll increase your vocabulary and see how other writers craft sentences and argue points to make those points more effective. Good choices for reading material: general non-fiction, scholarly journals, and award-winning books specific to your trade.
• Practice: Writing is a skill. The more you do it, using the suggestions above, the better you will become.
About the Authors
Stephanie Roberson Barnard has trained thousands of pharmaceutical industry professionals on how to be more effective speakers, writers and communicators. She has also coached hundreds of health-care professionals on presentation skills for FDA hearings, CFO reports and scientific speaker programs, as well as national and international congresses.
Deborah St James is Deputy Director of Publications and Scientific Communications at Grifols. She has worked in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industry for more than 20 years.