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Writing Skills Development for Graduate Studies and Career Readiness in Science and Aging Fields: A Case Study Approach

Associated data.

The datasets presented in this article are not readily available because the qualitative data generated for this article are unable to be sufficiently de-identified. Requests to access the datasets should be directed to ude.cs.liame@15sa .

Increasing the number of racially and ethnically underrepresented students who pursue scientific graduate studies in programs focusing on science and aging offers an opportunity to increase the number of aging specialists while simultaneously promoting diversity in the research labor market and supporting new ideas. This case study aims to better understand how students participating in an academic preparatory program experience a writing class contextualized within (1) students' writing background and (2) students' future ambitions related to science and aging. The individually-tailored writing class was taught as a critical component of a comprehensive educational program that targets underrepresented racial and ethnic minority undergraduate students who are interested in pursuing scientific graduate studies in fields related to aging. The researchers conducted semi-structured qualitative interviews with students ( n = 4) enrolled in the 24-month fellowship training program, which included participation in the writing course during the summer prior to their senior year of undergraduate education. All participants were young adult college students who identified as Black or African American and female. Using thematic coding, statements about professional writing skills were divided into four primary themes: (1) prior experiences, (2) class experiences, (3) future goals and ambitions, and (4) structural considerations. These themes suggest potential implications for effective interventions aimed to advance the writing skills and academic and career readiness of racially and ethnically diverse students entering fields of science and aging.


According to United States (US) census projections, the US population is both “graying and browning;” that is, rapidly becoming older and more racially and ethnically diverse ( 1 , 2 ). From 2000 to 2030, the number of older adults in the US is expected to increase from 35 million to over 72 million ( 3 ). By 2050, the population of Black older adults is projected to triple, while the population of Latinx older adults is expected to increase 11-fold ( 4 ). With older adults projected to comprise ~20% of the US population in the future, and new advancements in health and technology, there is a growing need for researchers, advanced practitioners and advanced degree-holders specializing in aging. In addition to the need for aging specialists in general, there is a need for more racial and ethnic diversity in aging specialization.

Increasing the number of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) students who pursue scientific graduate studies in programs focusing on science and aging offers an opportunity to increase the number of aging specialists while simultaneously promoting new ideas and new perspectives. However, these opportunities are challenged by a poor fit between undergraduate student writing skills and expectations for graduate school entry. This mismatch is exacerbated by longstanding disparities in the public education system that contribute to racially and ethnically diverse students' underexposure to advanced-level writing curricula and to the undervaluation of different writing styles. Thus, exposure to a curriculum that provides such students with individually-tailored writing skills development can impact their readiness for graduate programs in science and aging and better prepare them for entry into a rapidly developing job market.

This case study aimed to better understand how students within an academic preparatory program experience a writing class building on (1) students' prior writing experiences and (2) students' future ambitions related to science and aging. The personalized writing class was taught as a critical component of a comprehensive educational program that targets racially and ethnically diverse undergraduate students who are interested in pursuing scientific graduate studies in fields related to aging. Study findings suggest potential implications for effective interventions aimed to advance the writing skills and academic and career readiness of racially and ethnically diverse students entering fields of science and aging.

Background and Rationale

Importance of undergraduate writing skills development.

The need for quality writing skills in science-related fields, including aging, is becoming more crucial than ever before. Recently, there has been newfound attention on the importance of early writing skills development for students at the undergraduate level, particularly across science disciplines, as students who can demonstrate strong written communication skills are considered qualified candidates for graduate programs ( 5 ). While STEM candidates on the job market are required to have professional writing skills, science and technology high school and college students have been found to more likely experience difficulties with written communication ( 6 ). A study by Jang ( 6 ) found that 50% of college students in science and technology fields lacked basic levels of reading and writing. Jang ( 6 ) suggests that education programs in STEM fields can better prepare students for the changing job market by creating “a continuous cycle where students practice communicating in learning contexts and get frequent professional feedback from peers and educators using a peer and self-assessment for writing, speaking and collaboration” (p. 297).

For graduate programs in science, the significance of quality writing skills is clear: successful researchers, advanced practitioners and advanced degree-holders must be able to effectively communicate information with other researchers and practitioners as well as the general public ( 7 ). Scientific writing is also essential for scholarly activities such as publishing peer-reviewed journal articles, submitting abstracts for conference presentations, and completing grant proposals. These activities, in turn, prepare students to be competitive on the job market, empowering productive professionals and leaders in their fields. While there is strong expectation and need for students pursuing graduate programs in science and aging to be excellent writers, many students have not acquired sufficient skills to be able to write effectively in their respective fields by the end of their undergraduate studies. Consequently, the lack of writing skills might diminish the likelihood of the candidate's acceptance into their graduate school of choice. Even if accepted, students may feel less prepared for the “writing demands and other requirements of graduate education and professional careers” [( 5 ), p. 1].

Many reasons exist for the lack of writing preparedness among undergraduate students. With pressing demands to cover course content and large grading loads, instructors rarely have time to teach writing skills or provide students with substantial feedback on papers to help improve their writing ( 5 , 7 ). Because it is presumed that students learn basic writing skills during high school including knowledge of punctuation, grammar, sentence structure, and citations, some instructors may neglect to focus class time on writing development ( 8 ). However, for many racially and ethnically diverse students, the lack of writing preparedness is far more salient and complex.

Disparities in Writing Skills Development

An overwhelming number of racially and ethnically diverse students graduate from high school unprepared for the writing demands and rigors of college education ( 9 ). Research suggests that African American students in particular are less likely to be academically prepared for college, with those from economically distressed communities being the least ready for college-level curricula ( 9 , 10 ). The tremendous disparity in preparation for racially and ethnically diverse students, especially African American students, is often “centered on the deficiencies of students, families, and communities,” with little attention to institutional and social factors, including structural racism, exclusion, and poverty that influence college readiness ( 9 ). School factors such as poor access to college preparatory courses, funding, quality teachers, and supportive school counselors also impact students' preparedness for college ( 9 ).

There are discrepancies in the ways in which writing instruction is taught and measured across diverse student populations. According to Green ( 11 ), African American students are taught “to edit out, not edit, their Black English usage rhetorically to inform or enhance their academic writing” (p. 154). Unfortunately, racially and ethnically diverse students who struggle with “editing” out their unique linguistic differences in written assignments may face poor evaluations from teachers who operate from a Westernized perspective of writing that prioritizes dominant ideas about what constitutes “good” academic and professional writing ( 11 ). Despite perceptions of academic and professional writing skills as being racially and culturally biased ( 12 ), these perceptions remain the benchmarks by which many students are evaluated for admission into graduate school ( 13 ) and thereby deemed successful within graduate programs ( 8 ). Thus, there is need to equip racially and ethnically diverse students with the knowledge and skills to meet and exceed these standards, as well as to empower them to recognize unique cultural and linguistic differences in their writing.

Bridging the Gap—The Significance of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs)

HBCUs are unique sites for academic and professional achievement and cultural pride that have been significantly shaped by racism, discrimination, and social exclusion ( 11 ). HBCUs are shown to have welcoming and nurturing campus settings that provide opportunities for racially and ethnically diverse students, especially African American students, to excel academically ( 14 – 16 ). HBCUs already exist to enhance the academic and professional trajectory of racially and ethnically diverse students ( 15 ), while taking into account their cultural and linguistic differences ( 11 ). As such, HBCUs are uniquely positioned to help bridge the gap in writing skills development and preparation for this student population. Importantly, HBCUs can serve as a unique pathway to increase the number of qualified racially and ethnically diverse students who pursue scientific graduate studies in programs focusing on science and aging. Thus, there is need to implement effective programs in collaboration with HBCUs to enhance the writing skills of students and help develop their readiness both for matriculating into graduate programs in science and aging, as well as to achieve success in the growing job market of STEM and aging.


This section provides a brief description of the overall research education training program as well as the writing course component, and how they both aim to prepare students for graduate studies and career readiness in science and aging fields. Beginning in 2015, a flagship research university in a southeastern US state established an NIA-funded undergraduate research training program “to increase the number of qualified racially and ethnically diverse students who pursue scientific graduate studies in programs focusing on science and aging.” Based in a predominately white institution (PWI), this program to advance diversity in aging research collaborates with five HBCUs in the same state. HBCUs are ideal partners because they have a large number of undergraduate students who identify as Black or African American and who are majoring in medical, science, technology, engineering or mathematics (MSTEM) fields, and “who, through exposure to a research education program focusing on aging research, might choose to enter scientific careers committed to addressing complex biological, biomedical, behavior and clinical challenges that accompany aging.” Students who participate in the project gain mentored research experience by working in a research laboratory of a faculty member from the PWI research institution, along with co-mentoring from a faculty member from their HBCU, and attend didactic classes on the biology and social aspects of aging and experiential workshops led by faculty members at HBCUs and at the PWI research institution. Participating students (fellows) live on campus in student housing at the PWI research university for close proximity to their labs and classes during the summer research program. As part of their summer experience, fellows prepare a poster which they present at the end of the summer at the PWI's Annual Summer Research Conference. Fellows are encouraged to further disseminate their research through poster presentations at conferences after the summer workshops, with financial support from the program to attend professional meetings.

In the first few years of the program (2016–2018) the program offered formal coursework related to the biology and social aspects of aging, research in aging, and professional development. A number of our students needed specific writing skills development. Additionally, in 2018 fellows completing their second summer of research training, which takes place prior to their senior year of college, requested additional time and support to prepare personal statements for graduate and medical school applications. In response, program staff introduced the writing skills course in summer 2019 as a core component of the comprehensive institutional research education program. This writing skills course aims to prepare emerging aging researchers to write more effectively for individuals, groups, organizations, communities and colleagues and to improve writing skills needed for graduate program admissions, scholarship applications and other opportunities.

We hoped that students who actively participated in the course would improve their writing skills and be better prepared for advanced studies in STEM fields related to aging. Specific aims of the course are for students to: (1) increase their confidence related to professional writing; (2) organize written documents clearly and effectively; (3) substantiate arguments using appropriate evidence; (4) develop a clear, concise writing style; (5) produce effective academic, research and e-communication documents; and (6) adhere to strong ethical values related to writing and written communication.

The writing skills course is delivered through lectures and discussion. The primary method of instruction is interactive, with hands-on writing activities both in and out of class, coupled with critical feedback and review from classmates and the course instructor. The course instructor is a White female doctoral student who has experience teaching graduate-level writing students at the PWI research institution. At the conclusion of this course students will have completed two five-paragraph essays related to an aging topic of interest and one personal statement. These high-quality products can be adapted for graduate or medical school applications, fellowship or scholarship applications, and many other opportunities for professional advancement.

This qualitative research study analyzed the individual experiences and perceptions of a small number of students participating in a professional writing course contextualized within (1) their participation in a comprehensive advancing diversity in aging research intervention program, (2) their prior educational and professional writing experiences, and (3) their future educational/professional ambitions. This focus is consistent with that promoted by Smith et al. ( 17 ) and Yin ( 18 ). Data were collected through semi-structured phone interviews from senior fellows ( n = 4) who participated in the writing course during the second summer of the 2-year program. Similar to Ory et al. ( 19 ), the authors believe that the case study approach we have taken can contribute importantly to the development of other evidence-based programs and practices ( 17 , 19 , 20 ). Although n = 4 is a small sample size, the number of participants is appropriate for community case studies ( 18 , 21 – 23 ). All study procedures were approved by the University of South Carolina Institutional Review Board.

Researchers developed a codebook using inductive thematic analysis and iteratively analyzed each transcript, revising the codebook until no new themes emerged. Transcript data were coded by the first and second authors using a process of first-cycle, second-cycle axial coding ( 24 ). Analyses were conducted in NVivo-12 and theme prevalence was determined using a conceptual cluster matrix table ( 25 , 26 ). As the experts of their experiences, students can provide valuable information about their educational and professional experiences in an effort to improve their writing skills and academic and career readiness.

All participants were young adult college students who identified as Black or African American and female. Statements about professional writing skills were divided into four primary themes: (1) prior writing preparedness, (2) current writing preparedness, (3) writing goals and ambitions, and (4) structural considerations.

Prior Experiences

Statements under the theme of “prior writing preparedness” describe situations that took place prior to participating in the summer writing class, such as high school and college coursework. Some students felt equipped to engage in graduate-level academic writing because they were well-prepared by high school and college classes. One student described doing well in high school with minimal effort but experienced a more rigorous writing environment with more critical feedback at her undergraduate institution:

“ For me, I feel like high school was super easy. I was in all the hardest classes, you didn't have to study for anything. So I got into college and I'm getting my paper slashed up. I had to study hard. Because now I always study like real hard, so I think I definitely got humbled freshman year, learning that this is like the big leagues now. It's not the same. Going from school to school, I think it's natural.”

Another student also stated that her undergraduate institution prepared her well for college-level writing, but not for doctoral-level writing skills toward which she is working. Although the summer writing class was similar to writing classes she had taken at her undergraduate institution and she experienced some overlap in instruction, she still found the course useful:

“ I'm not one to say that I'm a strong writer. So all writing for me is crucial. So anytime that I can practice my writing skills and actually have someone read it, and actually give me feedback on what I need to work on, is great. So I do not mind the repetitiveness because my writing is not PhD-level, for example. It's like a college-level, which is where I was but I want it to be PhD level, so I didn't mind the repetition.”

Other students felt that their high school and college learning experiences did not prepare them to engage in graduate-level academic writing skills. For example, one student described how her college English composition course was a positive experience but that the class was not completely focused on writing:

“ We wrote papers but it was only like, two and… we also did a lot more presentations, for example we had to create a poster or something like that for my English Comp as a grade instead of actually writing a paper.”

Another student had a similar experience:

“ I learned a lot in [the professional development classes] because honestly even though I took English my first year of college, I think I learned more in my writing class over the summer than in my first year at college… my English class here wasn't a terrible class, I just felt like it wasn't as useful as the writing class I had last summer.”

One student described how her experiences in an underfunded, racially-separated public education system influenced her writing skills training and the opportunities she was exposed to as a high school student:

“ I know particularly in my community… a lot of the Black schools didn't have the same things as the white schools. The white schools were private schools, people would pay to send their white kids to these private schools just so they wouldn't have to intermingle with the Black people in the community. Within the white schools they have a lot of money from the county that they receive, it goes to the white schools first and then it was like the leftovers, even though there was more of us than them…. So our books are old and half the time the computers don't work. It's just really frustrating and I feel like if I would have went to a private school I probably would have had a better chance. Even in high school I didn't have teachers that look like me. They were from different programs because our county couldn't really afford to pay teachers so we would get these mediocre teachers who are usually white or another race…. I feel like if I went to a different school I probably would have had a better chance. More exposure to different opportunities and stuff like that.”

Current Writing Preparedness

Statements under the theme of “current writing preparedness” reflected what happened during the summer writing class, such as the writing projects they completed, their feelings about writing, and their skills related to writing. Students revealed specific skills they learned through the summer writing course including writing clearer, writing stronger, engaging in scholarly debate, seeking and incorporating critical feedback, and improved confidence.

One student described how completing assignments allowed her to craft a scholarly argument, engage meaningfully with feedback and write clearly and concisely using simple language:

“ We had, I believe it was two essays and a personal statement. I believe. Both of them were persuasive variety, trying to prove a point and the personal statement was totally up to us. We had deadlines that we had to meet. Our writing teacher gave us really great feedback. She'd tells what we could have done better, what we done wrong, what we done right, what we need to include as far as content, grammar, punctuation, all of that stuff. We learned different types of writing and how to approach them and how to recognize those different types of writing. We also learned how to breakdown articles… and not to sound where we were trying to sound overly smart, but just enough so that the reader could understand what we're trying to say.”

Every student mentioned the benefit of engaging with feedback from the instructor and/or their peers during the summer writing course. The following is a story about how the course impacted a student's perspective about critical feedback and writing skill confidence:

One student described feeling nervous to send an advisor her paper. This student felt “ a little- not uncomfortable-but just nervous, I just knew that paper was going to get sliced up, which it did. But that's just how it goes. But I wasn't uncomfortable, just nervous that someone was going to read my paper and analyze what I did and if I did it right and stuff like that.” But after the summer writing course she felt more comfortable opening herself up to feedback: “ It made my nerves go away, because now I understand, okay, the paper is not going to come out perfect the first time you write it. So it made me stronger, because now I write what I can, or write what I think is best or whatever, and then I just send it off with no regrets. And if it comes back and it has questions or feedback or if she sliced it up, then I just read the feedback, or even with [the writing course instructor] reading my personal statement, when people give me feedback, it makes me think, ‘Okay, maybe that did sound weird, or that did sound awkward. I should have changed this around.' So now I'm more open to it, and not so afraid. I think before I was like, ‘Oh, I don't want them to think I can't write.' Everybody has a hard time writing, especially when it comes to, like, scientific writing….So I feel like that's the hardest thing for me now, to [receive] criticism, when I'm just like, okay, I'm here, it's for me.”

When asked if she felt comfortable sharing her writing with other people, one student responded:

“ At first, I wasn't. But now I'm more open to share it with other people because I feel like I'm better at receiving feedback and how to incorporate in writing teams now, rather than how I was before.”

Because the class was very small, fellows received individualized writing skills coaching with specific deadlines for submissions and resubmissions. One student described the class size as follows:

“ I think it was because of the class size and how productive it was. I guess when we have deadlines we're adamant about meeting those deadlines over the summer… we were actually writing things that we needed. It had [tips] to make our writing better.”

Writing Goals and Ambitions

Statements under the theme of “writing goals and ambitions” include students' descriptions of writing-related future goals and ambitions and ways in which writing will help them achieve those goals. Because completing a personal statement was one course requirement, this empowered students to meet the short-term goal of applying to graduate school programs. Two different students described the personal statement requirement as follows:

“ I like how they incorporated the writing class because as a rising senior at the time, I know that I needed to complete my graduate school application and just different things that gave an extra push to start off the academic year with.” “ If it wasn't for [the writing class and the professional development class] I wouldn't even have applied early to my programs because by me actually doing my personal statement and taking the GRE when I actually got to school in August I didn't feel overwhelmed like some of my other classmates. So, I was already steps ahead, more steps ahead than the others. So that was really good, I would say my senior year with the program, it was very beneficial.”

Other students described ways in which the skills they learned in the writing skills course would support a variety of academic, research and professional long-term goals:

“ I'm going to need to write personal statements. I'm going to have to do dissertations, I'm going to have to write grants one day. I'm going to have to do all of these different things and [if] I don't know how to do professional writing. I'm not going to be able to do any of those.” “ I'm really trying to help [mentor] with this so I can get a publication before going into grad school,” she described how she used writing skills to write the literature review for the manuscript she is writing with her mentor. She also described how the writing skills will be useful in graduate school : “I have to be able to write a whole dissertation, with [research area]- it's just so big it has a lot of writing.” “ Writing is everything that a [healthcare provider] does. So, in class you learn document, document, document, which means you have to effectively, efficiently and in the most simplest way, write exactly what's wrong with an issue or a problem, something you've seen. You have to write down everything. If you don't know how to write it and get your point across in one or two sentences, then somebody else isn't going to have time to read a paragraph worth of things. So something that I learned in class that actually translates to what I'm doing now is getting your point across quickly, and then later you can elaborate on that point. But don't take seven sentences to say you walked down the street.”

Structural Considerations

Statements under the theme of “structural considerations” describe structural factors that influence their experience in the STEM scholars program both societally (e.g., at systematic levels) and personally. Most of the students mentioned that being an HBCU student at a PWI was a culture shock given their cultural upbringing and previous educational experiences.

The following is a story about how the campus environment and social norms of a PWI impacted a student's experience in the summer program:

“ When I got to [PWI-redacted] it was very different, it was very different. Because in [HBCU-redacted] everyone was really friendly, everybody is speaking even when they don't know each other. And you know [PWI-redacted] it was just very different, the atmosphere, when people walk, they just don't say, “Excuse me.” They just bump into you, they're not friendly. So, that was a shocker to me. I would speak and they would just look at me like I'm crazy.”

The student also discussed feeling conflicted about attending a PWI for graduate school given her previous summer experience.

“ So now that I'm actually going to PWI for grad school, I don't know what to expect. I can code switch but I just feel like it's going to be very different because I'm a very friendly person.”

Another student shared her experience of being an HBCU student at a PWI and feeling the pressure to not appear as a “stereotype” about her racial group while on campus.

“ Well, it was a culture shock for me. Only because I came from an all-black elementary, an all-black middle and high and I came through an HBCU, so everyone that I've ever known has looked like me. Then when I got on [PWI-redacted] campus and I saw all of the Caucasian people, I was a little shocked because it was like I didn't want to seem like a stereotype. Because what I was comfortable with doing, I didn't want to make other people uncomfortable with how I look and that was never a concern for me and over the summer it became one. The second summer it got easier because I already knew what to expect, but walking around on campus, it was a shock.” However, the student felt the summer program and campus experience at a PWI exposed her to the realities of graduate education and the job market as a minority. “ I feel like it's kind of prepared me for it because I know that as you go higher in the rank, unfortunately there's not going to be a lot of people... I'm not going to see a lot of people that look like me and that within itself is intimidating. I feel like this experience that I had over the past two summers at [PWI-redacted] will help me get more comfortable with the idea that it's okay and that I am now part of the minority again, when, my entire life I felt like the majority.”

All of the students mentioned that the underrepresentation of racially and ethnically diverse professionals and leaders in their respective fields influenced their decision to pursue graduate studies and careers in science and aging. One student described how the lack of African American (AA) female doctors in health care settings motivated her to pursue a graduate degree in public health.

“ I guess that it's just not diversity in science and in public health period. And that just makes me go harder with this public health degree because when I actually talked to the people this summer with my research, they feel better if they see people that they look like. And that thought would lead to when I go to doctors, I preferably want to see an African American woman doctor but it's almost where we just lack it.”

All students described the importance of feeling comfortable. One student described how diversity in science and aging related fields can help increase patients' level comfort and the quality of service they receive.

“ And if you're talking to someone that looks like you, then I feel like you'll always feel a little more comfortable. And if there's no diversity, then they're not being given the opportunity or fair chance. Then it's like you're never going to get to see a difference, or even know if that would make a difference.”

Another student described a similar perspective:

“ I feel like it would make people more comfortable to want to go into health care. I feel most comfortable if I actually see someone that looks like me because it's like a connection there; I feel like they will be very relatable.”

For students who felt well-prepared by previous writing education experiences, the writing to advance diversity in aging research course elevated their writing skills to the next level: supporting advancement from competitive undergraduate-level writers, to competitive graduate-level writers. For students who described feeling under-prepared by the writing instruction they received in high school and college, this course provided instruction on basic skills including grammar and sentence structure, as well as more advanced professional writing skills. This case study suggests that the success of the writing course was due to the individualized instruction method, which relied heavily on instructor feedback and iterative coaching to improve student skills.

Through writing classes, students gained experience completing specific assignments and editing those assignments based on feedback and peer review. These assignments allowed students to gain the skills necessary to engage meaningfully with critical feedback, participate in a scholarly debate with peers and mentors, and write more clearly and concisely. Students also gained more confidence in their ability to write. This confidence, coupled with increased writing skills and willingness to engage in critical feedback, will support students as they apply to, and begin graduate school programs.

Students reported that participating in the advancing diversity for aging research writing class supported both their short-term and long-term goals. Because completing a personal statement for graduate school was a core course requirement, students were able to begin their senior year at their undergraduate institution more prepared to begin applying for higher education programs. Gaining writing skills, gaining confidence, and gaining willingness to engage with critical feedback will support a variety of long-term goals including collaborating on publishable academic manuscripts, securing scholarships, fellowships and grants, writing graduate or doctoral level theses, and successfully engaging in a variety of research and professional activities.

Finally, students reported that the lack of racially and ethnically diverse professionals in their fields significantly influenced their decision to pursue graduate studies and careers in science and aging. With demographics in the US shifting rapidly—becoming older and more racially and ethnically diverse (i.e., “graying and browning”) ( 1 , 2 )—students underscore the need for more representation of racially and ethnically diverse professionals in science and aging specializations. Increasing diversity in science and aging related fields yields opportunities to challenge longstanding disparities impacting diverse populations and promote innovative solutions for equitable, culturally responsive services.


Though this study provides important insights into the experiences of Black undergraduate students in a PWI-based academic preparatory program, it does not include the experience of other underrepresented minority groups. Future research is needed to understand and examine how the experiences of the students in the sample compare to students from various racial and ethnic minority groups enrolled in academic preparatory programs.

Conclusions and Implications

Individually tailored professional writing instruction offers a unique opportunity to prepare racially and ethnically diverse students for successful entry into graduate school and a distinguished advanced academic trajectory. For students attending HBCUs who plan to apply to graduate-level programs at PWIs, professional writing instruction may bridge gaps for both students who feel prepared and for students who feel unprepared. For students who already feel prepared for advanced graduate study, this course provides an opportunity to review and sharpen basic skills, reinforcing the idea that anyone can become a stronger, clearer writer. The course also provides an opportunity to prepare for writing experiences in a more rigorous, graduate-level learning environment, such as giving and receiving critical feedback and engaging in a written scholarly debate. For students who feel unprepared for advanced graduate study, the course provides remedial instruction on basic skills and responsive, iterative feedback to improve writing confidence as well as writing skills.

Future studies seeking to implement an PWI-based academic preparatory program in partnership with HBCUs and other minority-serving institutions should take in consideration the historical contexts of these institutions, including the cultural experiences they provide to students. In addition, future research on the impact of a personalized writing course for racially and ethnically diverse students is needed to assess the effectiveness and validity of such preparatory course in increasing students' writing development and readiness for graduate school and professional careers in aging and related fields.

Data Availability Statement

Ethics statement.

The studies involving human participants were reviewed and approved by University of South Carolina Institutional Review Board. Written informed consent for participation was not required for this study in accordance with the national legislation and the institutional requirements.

Author Contributions

All authors listed have made a substantial, direct, and intellectual contribution to the work and approved it for publication.

The research reported in this publication was supported by a grant from the U.S. National Institutes of Health: National Institute on Aging (R25AG050484).

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.

Publisher's Note

All claims expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of their affiliated organizations, or those of the publisher, the editors and the reviewers. Any product that may be evaluated in this article, or claim that may be made by its manufacturer, is not guaranteed or endorsed by the publisher.

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  • 1 Department of Communication, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI, United States
  • 2 Department of Humanities, Massachusetts Maritime Academy, Bourne, MA, United States
  • 3 Department of English, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI, United States
  • 4 Department of Nutrition and Food Sciences, University of Rhode Island, Kingston, RI, United States
  • 5 Department of Natural Resources Science, University of Rhode Island, Kingston, RI, United States
  • 6 College of Arts and Sciences, University of Rhode Island, Kingston, RI, United States
  • 7 Office of the Advancement of Teaching and Learning, University of Rhode Island, Kingston, RI, United States
  • 8 Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL, United States
  • 9 Science in Society, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL, United States

We respond to a surging interest in science communication training for graduate scientists by advocating for a focus on rhetorically informed approaches to STEM writing and its assessment. We argue that STEM communication initiatives would benefit by shifting from a strategic focus on products to a flexible understanding of writing as a practice worthy of attention and study. To do that, we use our experience across two universities and two distinct programmatic contexts to train STEM graduate students in writing and communication. We draw from cross-disciplinary conversations to identify four facets of “good” STEM writing: (1) connecting to the big picture; (2) explaining science; (3) adhering to genre conventions; and (4) choosing context-appropriate language. We then describe our ongoing conversations across contexts to develop and implement flexible rubrics that capture and foster conversations around “good” writing. In doing so, we argue for a notion of writing rubrics as boundary objects, capable of fostering cross-disciplinary, integrative conversations and collaborations that strengthen student writing, shift STEM students toward a rhetorically informed sense of “good” writing, and offer that kinds of assessment data that make for persuasive evidence of the power of writing-centric approaches for STEM administrators and funders.


Scientists and educators increasingly recognize the demand for improved STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) training in communication, including writing, and its importance for facilitating wider dissemination of research results, improved policy outcomes, and richer engagement with public audiences ( Fischhoff, 2013 ; Kuehne and Olden, 2015 ). This paper discusses two separate but complementary programs at Northwestern University and the University of Rhode Island that responded to that call. Each developed focused training programs and related tools, including the rubrics discussed here, to equip STEM graduate students to communicate their science to broad audiences. Central to the philosophy of each program is to situate STEM writing and its assessment as a social, contextual, iterative, and public practice.

This authorship team—faculty and staff collaborating across different institutional, disciplinary, and programmatic contexts—had to grapple with defining a flexible notion of “good” writing applicable across a variety of STEM disciplines, taught to STEM faculty, practiced by STEM students, and ultimately supported by STEM administrators and funding agencies. Because we were in communication throughout that process, we share our experiences in this collaborative piece to build on continued calls for the development of STEM writing and communication skills as part of the education and professionalization of STEM undergraduate and graduate students ( Fuhrmann et al., 2011 ; Denecke et al., 2017 ). We use the terms writing and communication here to encompass all modes of building, sharing, and reinforcing knowledge. We use rhetoric, a term often politically loaded, in reference to the ancient tradition of communication with purpose for an audience within a specific set of circumstances. Rhetorical moves refer to the intentional decisions a writer or speaker makes in order to meet the needs of those circumstances most effectively.

Here we draw from interdisciplinary literatures in science, science communication, and writing studies. We define four facets of effective communication that we argue constitute a flexible and capacious definition of “good” STEM writing across a range of genres and audiences: (1) connecting to the big picture; (2) explaining science; (3) adhering to genre conventions; and (4) choosing context-appropriate language. We then describe our work to capture these facets of “good” STEM writing in the development of two rubrics that support different contextually situated training programs designed to support STEM writers. In doing so, we build from a flexible understanding of writing rubrics ( Henningsen et al., 2010 ; Nolen et al., 2011 ), conceiving of writing rubrics that formalize the expectations and definitions of good STEM writing as boundary objects: “a rhetorical construct that can foster cooperation and communication among the diverse members of heterogeneous working groups” ( Wilson and Herndl, 2007 ). Here, writing rubrics that articulate teaching and learning goals for STEM students are an opportunity to span communities and build bridges between diverse stakeholders interested and invested in science communication outcomes. We argue that the development and implementation of writing rubrics can facilitate conversations across disciplines about good STEM writing. This process can foster collective investment in and understanding of STEM writing practices, while offering a valuable opportunity to generate data on the impacts of programs in increasingly competitive funding environments in higher education.

We deploy rubrics as rhetorical boundary objects ( Wilson and Herndl, 2007 ) to connect knowledge-making in science with good STEM writing practice and pedagogy to develop locally situated thinking at our two institutions. This approach helped us leverage outside perspectives and empirical evidence to create resilient and flexible resources and instruments to meet local needs as part of a recursive assessment loop ( Rutz and Lauer-Glebov, 2005 ). Our focus on writing as a practice not a product and on rubrics as a shared articulation of learning goals and essential rhetorical moves allowed us to accommodate the broader shift from a deficit model to a contextual model ( Gross, 1994 ; Perrault, n.d). It also allowed us to emphasize rhetoric as a critical component in science communication ( Gross, 1994 ; Druschke and McGreavy, 2016 ) and the importance of a user-centered paradigm for designing effective communication artifacts ( Rothwell and Cloud, 2017 ).

We began working together several years ago as cross-institutional collaborators looking for tools to facilitate shared approaches to the training and assessment of STEM writing. While our processes and products have converged and diverged through the years, the shared development of these rubrics enabled nuanced conversations about what defines good STEM writing across our many disciplines, encouraging us to clarify to ourselves and each other which rhetorical approaches and goals were specific to our individual program aims and which were broader, more universal element of good practice. We found that developing these tools was a profoundly helpful opportunity to open cross-disciplinary dialogue on the key ingredients of “good” writing and how those ingredients might be taught, explicated, and assessed. This is especially important in light of recent research highlighting the lack of consensus on what constitutes good science communication and the ability of current training programs to improve students' capacity in these areas ( Rubega et al., 2021 ).

Of course, once a rubric is created, there are next steps to test its reliability and validity in the field, particularly as an instrument to assess skill-gain among students. We acknowledge this process is not yet complete for our tools. However, we are not advocating here for the broad adoption of our specific instruments. Rather, we want to shed light on their development, including discussions about the diverse but often siloed literatures that informed them, and their deployment for assessment as important conceptual steps in developing a shared understanding across faculty and students of good STEM writing, its best practices, and eventually its meaningful assessment. In particular, we hope to contribute to the conversation facilitating a shift toward science communication as a messy, iterative practice, bringing the insights of writing studies and rhetorical studies to bear on broad science communication initiatives and training in ways that can inform guiding principles implemented at the local level.

Our Programmatic Contexts

Northwestern University's program, Skills and Careers in Science Writing , is a partnership between two academic units: Science in Society, a community-engaged research center, and Medill, a world-renowned journalism school. This semester-long graduate-level course is for STEM doctoral students across all disciplines including microbiology, materials science, environmental engineering and developmental psychology. The course is led by journalism faculty and practicing writing professionals to cover best practices in writing, public science communication, and science reporting including principles of structure, narrative, and voice. Students produce an original magazine-style article about their own research. Critically discussing lay audience-friendly science stories also enables students to recognize and grapple with the immense shift of moving from traditional academic writing to an accessible style ( Crossley et al., 2014 ). The course also focuses on science writing career pathways, and provides exposure to science communication and journalism professionals given the likelihood many STEM PhDs will pursue non-academic careers ( Cyranoski et al., 2011 ; Powell, 2012 ).

University of Rhode Island's (URI) program, SciWrite, focuses on equipping science graduate students to move between academic and public-facing writing in two ways: (1) layering rhetorical training into graduate student curricula and (2) training faculty to support writing pedagogy in classrooms and laboratories. SciWrite is a cross-disciplinary training program funded by the National Science Foundation for STEM graduate students and faculty at URI and was collaboratively developed by faculty from Writing and Rhetoric, Nutrition and Food Sciences, and Natural Resources Science. The 2-year program includes internships and workshops alongside a four-course sequence where students gain a rhetorical foundation for writing through a series of academic and public writing projects. Full programmatic and assessment details are offered elsewhere ( Druschke et al., 2018 , n.d; Harrington et al., 2021 ).

Interdisciplinary and Inter-Institutional Collaboration

Our programs initially developed independently. But our joint discussions about assessment helped us realize that rubrics were productive mechanisms for helping us push back against the widespread notion of writing (and communication more broadly) as strategic endpoint and for reframing the idea of writing as an intentional, situated, and messy practice. Particularly when integrated into multi-modal assessment portfolios, we argue that rubrics can serve 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; and (3) communicating with students about important aspects of rhetorically savvy writing. Rather than treating rubrics—and the good writing they are meant to assess—as static, stringent structures, both programs deployed rubrics as unique opportunities for dialogue and collaboration with diverse faculty tasked with teaching (and grading) trainee writing.

During rubric development, we considered interdisciplinary sources such as impact measures in science communication and engagement ( Coppola, 1999 ; Bucchi, 2013 ; Fischhoff, 2013 ; Denecke et al., 2017 ; of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine et al., 2017 ), specialist assessment work being done in engineering undergraduate writing ( Boettger, 2010 ), researcher oral presentations ( Dunbar et al., 2006 ), and public science communication rubrics ( Mercer-Mapstone and Kuchel, 2017 ; Murdock, n.d) as well as best practices in writing assessment ( Rutz and Lauer-Glebov, 2005 ; Huot and O'Neill, 2009 ; Adler-Kassner and O'Neill, 2010 ). This diverse list of sources points to the disjointed and siloed nature of discussions taking place in science writing, science communication, rhetoric, and teaching and learning practices more broadly. Drawing from these various disciplines allowed us to map their commonalities and begin to stitch together a shared framework with four distinct, but overlapping features.

Connecting to the Big Picture

Good writers and communicators position themselves in the wider discourse; draw from existing understandings; make a compelling, structured articulation of their goals, purpose or main point; and vary their deployment of these elements depending on purpose and intended audience. This facet builds from perspectives present in writing studies since at least John Swales' Create a Research Space (CARS) model ( Swales, 1981 , 1984 , 1990 ) with its emphasis on establishing a territory. This contextualizing is picked up in popular scicomm trainings like the Compass message box ( Compass Science Communication Inc., 2017 ), and the SciWrite@URI program relied on it extensively in their training program ( Druschke et al., 2018 , n.d; Harrington et al., 2021 ).

Explaining Science

Good writers and communicators understand the highly academic ways scientists conventionally describe their research to peers, and identify how these are likely to be difficult or unfamiliar for novice readers. This facet includes understanding how the organization and technical detail provided in an explanation are critical components for effective science communication. Understanding these hurdles requires that communicators grapple with the specific challenges for communicating to novices ( Wolfe and Mienko, 2007 ; Rottman et al., 2012 ) and the subject-specific vocabulary, or jargon, which impedes communication between science to non-scientists ( Bullock et al., 2019 ). Bullock et al. found the presence of jargon impairs people's ability to process scientific information, and suggests that the use of jargon undermines efforts to inform and persuade the public ( Bullock et al., 2019 ). At the same time, jargon serves an important function within specific discourse communities discourse communities ( Porter, 1986 ), peer groups accustomed to specific ways of exchanging information. It is essential that good STEM writers recognize jargon as a community-specific vocabulary and make conscious choices about when and how to include it to explain complex scientific concepts to a variety of audiences with accuracy and clarity.

Adhering to Genre Conventions

Good writers and communicators understand and can appropriately navigate genre-specific expectations, which vary community to community and piece to piece. Both programs emphasize the importance of genre, but teach different genres to students, and the two program's rubrics reflect these genre-specific differences.

Choosing Context-Appropriate Language

Good writers and communicators have a solid grasp of the rhetorical moves at their disposal, such as style, tone, and register, as well as grammar, semantic and linguistic complexity, and scientific conventions such as hedging and citations. Importantly, this facet includes but moves well beyond word choice. This facet is most directly aligned with other quantifications of contextually good writing ( Crossley et al., 2014 ) and broader discourse around stylistics and language ( Pinker, 2015 ; Zinsser, 2016 ).

Implementing Rubrics as Contextually Situated Tools

While our collective conversations coalesced around these shared facets of good writing, the rubrics we developed to articulate them were structured to our unique programmatic goals and needs. For example, the “genre conventions” our programs were designed to address were vastly different. So, while our shared goal was to articulate and teach these conventions, the ways in which our rubrics could reflect that would differ substantially.

Northwestern's program focuses specifically on lay-friendly magazine writing and science storytelling approaches ( Leslie et al., 2013 ; Dahlstrom, 2014 ), and therefore this rubric deliberately defines some narrative conventions ( Zinsser, 2016 ; Hart, n.d) which connect with research on recall and processing of narrative elements ( Speer et al., 2009 ; Zak, 2015 ), as well as metaphors and analogies ( Wolff and Gentner, 2011 ).

For example, the Science in Society rubric defined “Relevance (shows how this work is connected to real world experience in meaningful ways and why it matters)” as “Clearly defines the context and/or application of this work”; Reader perspective and real world connections meaningfully articulate the purpose/promise of this work. “Order and Structure (builds scaffolded scientific explanations)” was articulated as, “Effectively connect to reader's context and prior knowledge; Well structured and scaffolded explanations building bridges from existing understanding; Clearly walks through steps of processes and explains phenomena in a logical and coherent order; Consistently and clearly builds bridges from existing knowledge.” (See Supplementary Material for more information).

URI's SciWrite, on the other hand, reinforces the idea of STEM writing as a rhetorical act in and among specific discourse communities ( Penrose and Katz, 2010 ; Kuhn, 2012 ), and encompasses a range of formats including visual representation. Perhaps uniquely, this rubric is intended to span both academic- and public-facing artifacts in order to reinforce the public as a valuable partner in larger conversations about science ( Collins and Evans, 2002 ; Rowe and Frewer, 2005 ) and citizen science ( Druschke and Seltzer, 2012 ; Shirk et al., 2012 ; Bonney et al., 2016 ). This rubric is therefore made up of 12 categories divided into subsections, some of which apply to all artifacts, and some of which are specific to certain modalities and formats. In both cases, the role of genre conventions is central, but how this is articulated is in conversation with broader programmatic goals and models.

In the SciWrite rubric, the category “Is the text appropriate for the target audience?” is articulated as, “The text consistently incorporates appropriate definitions and explanations of all key terms and concepts that makes the research/text fully comprehensible, accessible, and engaging to the primary intended audience.” For the category, “Is there an appropriate depth of content given genre and subject matter?” “The text includes a sufficient depth of content about the subject matter for the genre and primary intended audience.” And the category, “Does the text demonstrate its significance in a wider context, and build on the existing knowledge base by using literary elements appropriate to the genre (e.g., analogies, metaphors, similes, visual examples, case studies, etc.) to support deeper levels of understanding of complex ideas and phenomena?” was defined as, “The text explicitly demonstrates its significance in a wider context, and consistently builds on the existing knowledge base by using highly effective literary elements appropriate to the genre to support deeper levels of understanding of complex ideas and phenomena.” (See Supplementary Material for more information).

As we mentioned above, this paper is not intended to report a validated instrument, but to call out how our processes and ultimate products converge and diverge in important ways. This transparency is intended to contribute to wider conversations about how science communication and writing programs should be developed, delivered and evaluated. We are certainly not done, and hope that sharing our process of developing rubrics as boundary objects within our own programs—and with each other across programs—helps others see how to incorporate rhetoric into STEM communication training conversations going forward.

Moving Forward Toward “Good” STEM Writing

As we well know, assessment is essential to STEM writing training and teaching. Well-structured, meaningful assessment also offers datasets and analyses that can be used to argue for funding and build a sustainable enterprise for this vital professional training. Such metrics are increasingly necessary to support and advocate for sustainable, rhetorically-informed and writing-focused practice within higher education ( Rutz and Lauer-Glebov, 2005 ; Adler-Kassner and O'Neill, 2010 ).

In particular, embedded, rhetorically grounded frameworks provide a unique opportunity to create deeper interdisciplinary conversations about the values and definitions of good writing—and they make disciplinary and genre conventions and practices visible. Including colleagues from a range of fields in this process is one step toward making those nebulous, frustrating guidelines for science writing more explicit.

We believe that conversations about the practice and pedagogy of good STEM writing vitally contribute to conversations about science and scientist training. A meta-analysis of over 700,000 biomedical journal abstracts over the past 150 years clearly demonstrates the readability of scientific abstracts is decreasing over time, and Rubega et al. (2021) recently demonstrated that current science communication training programs provide little evidence of improved practice ( Pontus et al., 2017 ). Even further, the need for scientists to communicate across genres and audiences seems particularly apparent in a cultural moment of political division and policy-making challenges where cynicism and science-skepticism ( Charney, 2003 ) inform highly-motivated interpretations of science and research ( Washburn and Skitka, 2018 ). The need for cross-disciplinary conversations about good and great science writing, dissemination, and public engagement—and how to convey and assess these goals—has never been more obvious or more necessary.

Author Contributions

SG, JM-A, CD, and IL organized the data and results. SG and JM-A wrote the first draft of the manuscript and revised the manuscript after receiving feedback from the rest of the authors. All authors contributed to the conception and design of the study, manuscript revision, read, and approved the submitted version.

The authors gratefully acknowledge the support of funders National Science Foundation (Award #1545275) and the Graduate School and Vice President for Research at University of Rhode Island.

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.

Publisher's Note

All claims expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of their affiliated organizations, or those of the publisher, the editors and the reviewers. Any product that may be evaluated in this article, or claim that may be made by its manufacturer, is not guaranteed or endorsed by the publisher.


This collaborative work in both teaching and assessment has only been possible through intellectual partnerships with both assessment specialists and stellar teaching collaborators, resulting in stimulating discussion with faculty and staff at and across our respective institutions.

Supplementary Material

The Supplementary Material for this article can be found online at: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fcomm.2022.767557/full#supplementary-material

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Keywords: STEM, science communication, rhetoric graduate student training, collaborate

Citation: Grady SM, Morton-Aiken J, Druschke CG, Lofgren IE, Karraker NE, McWilliams SR, Reynolds N, Finan E, Wolter PL, Leff DR and Kennedy M (2022) Defining a Flexible Notion of “Good” STEM Writing Across Contexts: Lessons Learned From a Cross-Institutional Conversation. Front. Commun. 7:767557. doi: 10.3389/fcomm.2022.767557

Received: 31 August 2021; Accepted: 27 January 2022; Published: 07 March 2022.

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Copyright © 2022 Grady, Morton-Aiken, Druschke, Lofgren, Karraker, McWilliams, Reynolds, Finan, Wolter, Leff and Kennedy. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY) . The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

*Correspondence: Ingrid E. Lofgren, ingridlofgren@uri.edu

† These authors share first authorship

This article is part of the Research Topic

Helping Scientists to Communicate Well for All Considered: Strategic Science Communication in an Age of Environmental and Health Crises

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Explore UBC resources specific to the writing situations withinExplore UBC resources for students and instructors specific to writing situations in STEM fields ( S cience, T echnology, E ngineering, M athematics).

STEM Writing Resources for Learning (ScWRL)

Annotated Science Research Articles

The CWSC developed this set of annotated research articles to help students identify some typical features of academic writing in the sciences.

Writing in STEM

Guides to Writing in in Sciences, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics

Online Guides

  • A Guide to Scientific Writing  : a 7-page guided checklist (Lerner & Ogren-Balkama)
  • University of Toronto’s Engineering Communication Program Online Handbook : a practical online guide that walks through genres in technical and scientific writing
  • Stanford University’s Writing in the Sciences:  an open online course that provides a series of videos that walk through how to edit scientific writing at the sentence level.
  • Biological Engineering
  • Chemical Engineering
  • Electrical Engineering & Computer Sciences
  • Mechanical Engineering
  • Biological Sciences .
  • Science research writing for non-native speakers of English  (Glasman-Deal, 2010): an accessible, informative book available online through the Northeastern Library.
  • How to Write and Publish a Scientific Paper  (Gastel & Day, 2016): a classic guide available online through the Northeastern Library

Writing Matters

Stanford University’s Program of Writing and Rhetoric created  a video series on why writing matters . Here are a few of their interviews with scholars in STEM fields.

Professor of Chemistry Richard Zare approaches writing a paper “somewhat visually”:

I start by thinking about what figures–what graphical illustrations–do I want to include in this paper? Then, I make a stab at writing the abstract. . . That tends to focus me on what message I want to include in this paper

(Source: Program of Writing and Rhetoric, Stanford University)

Computer Sciences

Professor of Computer Sciences, Mehran Samani:

I’ve actually seen some methods of extremely powerful computational techniques which, even after they were invented, took years to catch on. Part of the reason why they took that long to catch on was because the people inventing those methods did not do a very good job explaining their methods.


Professor of Mathematics, Ravi Vakil:

In Mathematics, writing is probably even more central than in other fields. And that’s because of the nature of the discipline, which is centered on proof, argumentation, and perspective.

Professor of Statistics, Susan Holmes:

Even if you’re very, very good with numbers, you also have to understand how to tell your audience what results you obtained. . . It’s really important for students to realize that if they want the gift of making the discovery, they have to be the ones who can tell the story.
  • Communicating in STEM Disciplines

Features of Academic STEM Writing

  • STEM Writing Tips
  • Academic Integrity in STEM
  • Strategies for Writing
  • Science Writing Videos – YouTube Channel
  • Educator Resources
  • Lesson Plans, Activities and Assignments
  • Strategies for Teaching Writing
  • Grading Techniques

academic writing article for stem students

Uncertainty in STEM

academic writing article for stem students

Comparisons and Descriptions

academic writing article for stem students

Effective Tables and Figures

Copyright- Creative Commons

Differences in academic writing & publishing between STEM and humanities

academic writing article for stem students

STEM and humanities have distinct research cultures including vastly different writing and publishing conventions. Knowing about these differences is important for successful interdisciplinary collaborations as well as for picking the right writing advice, course or trainer. This article provides a generalized overview based on anecdotal evidence.

It is common to talk about and give advice on “academic writing” as if it was a homogeneous, unified matter. In reality, however, there are huge differences in academic writing and publishing between STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) and humanities, with social sciences falling somewhere in-between.

The differences are so huge that we can safely talk about two different research cultures — or even two different research worlds.

Yet researchers are often not aware of these differences, which leads to misunderstandings and conflicts, alienating these two groups and preventing successful collaborations. Furthermore, young researchers often end up in the wrong writing course or wonder about a piece of writing advice that doesn’t seem to make sense to them.

This article attempts to close the knowledge gap by providing a comparison of academic writing and publishing processes and conventions in STEM and humanities.

Martina from WritingScientist.com , writing trainer for STEM, has talked to Dr. Claudia Macho , writing trainer for humanities, about the differences in academic writing and the nature of writing struggles researchers tend to experience.

The discrepancies in academic publishing were crowdsourced through the Facebook group Reviewer 2 Must Be Stopped . The quotes throughout this article show some of the insightful comments of the group members.

I. Academic writing

Research and role/status of writing.

STEM The actual research work is typically distinct from reading and writing. There is some practical work (experiments/simulations/calculations..) that is the basis for the publications.

As a result, writing is often regarded as secondary . First and foremost, you have to do your practical research. Then you “simply” write up your findings.

Humanities The actual research work is tightly coupled to reading and writing . You generate new knowledge by reading, thinking and writing.

So writing is an integral part of the research. Oftentimes students and academics find that they can only generate ideas, structure and innovative findings through intensive writing and rewriting. This can be very time-consuming and at times frustrating.

(Note: Extended writing and reflecting about research is very useful also in STEM. It can help progress with the research faster and write up the manuscript faster and more easily . Unfortunately, STEM researchers usually don’t do much of this so-called prewriting. If protocols and lab notes are required, they are typically short and skimpy.)

Structure of research articles

STEM There are quite detailed conventions regulating the structure of research articles. Most fields use the IMRAD structure (Introduction-Methods-Results-Discussion) or its variation, and in general there is not much freedom to create your own structure.

On the other hand, the structural templates allow researchers to write up a research article quickly, without the need for substantial restructuring.

Humanities The structure of research articles is quite free , and has to be developed by the author of the article. So it is often hard to decide on a specific structure and stick with it.

As a result, texts often undergo several restructuring phases and the authors are still left with the fear of not getting the structure right.

Article length

Original research articles are rather short in STEM (typically 5-15 pages) but longer in the humanities (20-30 pages or even more is typical in many fields).

This difference reflects the fact that STEM research is quantitative while research in the humanities is qualitative.

Language & writing style

STEM The ideal writing style is clear, concise and precise . The role of language is to make the content easy to follow and understand. So simple language and short sentences are preferable.

Humanities Language is often rich and diverse . Longer compound sentences are common. Some fields still hold the notion that an academic text will appear more intellectual and smart if its language is complex.

Would you like to get an overview of the writing & publishing differences between STEM and humanities?

For yourself or to include in your presentations:

Get an overview table STEM vs humanities

Click here WritingScientist Newsletter gives you access to useful resources and exclusive co-writing sessions.

II. Academic publishing

Publication types.

STEM Research articles are the most valued type of publication. Edited books with chapters contributed by different authors exist, but usually don’t play a major role.

Humanities Both article and book publications are valued. In some fields books are valued more than articles.

Thomas Kuhn once said that at Princeton, when someone in the humanities came up for tenure, the question was always “where’s the book,” while if someone had a book in the sciences they would say “how did he think he had time to write a book.”
[A]s a humanities-leaning sociologist, it took me some time to get used to the prestige afforded to meta-analyses in harder disciplines. We don’t have the same assumption of objectivity, so comparing lots of articles is useful as a lit. review but isn’t expected to create any kind of authoritative insight. As a sociologist dipping into harder material the sheer volume of articles in the sciences is also impressive. They often seem more straightforward but there are a lot. Again, the value of published meta-analyses makes sense in this context.

Role of the PhD thesis

STEM Content of the PhD thesis is divided and published in several articles , before or after graduation.

Humanities PhD thesis is typically the first draft of a book proposal – there can be intensive reworking before the text is actually published.

Number of co-authors

Original research articles in STEM typically have multiple co-authors , while publications in the humanities are predominantly single-authored.

Multiple authorship of an article in STEM occurs because these articles are often based on a long series of experiments which requires input from multiple researchers.

Involvement of PhD supervisors

Supervisors are typically involved in the research and publications of PhD students in STEM, while they are typically not involved in PhD research and publications in the humanities.

Peer-review process

STEM In many fields the time from submission to acceptance in a single journal stays under 1 year . It is considered appropriate to inquire about the manuscript status after 3 months of not hearing anything back from the editor.

Humanities The time from submission to acceptance in a single journal can easily exceed a year . In many fields it’s considered normal to not hear anything back from the editor for 6 or even more months.

This discrepancy is partly because many journals in the humanities publish only one volume per year (in contrast to multiple volumes per year in the STEM) and the articles are longer, taking more time to review.

Fascinating how my field of marketing is smack in the middle: only articles are valued, most are multi-authored but you’re supposed to have 1 single-authored (preferably method focused) and you hear back within 3 months but take over a year to publish.

Journal impact factor

STEM The impact factor is very important for hiring and evaluation of researchers (although there are trends to abandon it ).

Humanities Impact factor does not exist in many fields. Nevertheless, journal reputation still plays a role when deciding where to publish.

III. Writing challenges & needed support

Most common writing challenges.

STEM One of the most common challenges is to get started and generate text . It turns out it’s not so easy to express in words — precisely and concisely — what you have done practically. Also since writing is not an integral part of research, many scientists struggle to find time for writing as there is always something “more important” to do instead…

For beginners, another common challenge is selecting the results to include in the article and creating a storyline as well as writing the Introduction and Discussion section where one needs to integrate their own work with other people’s research and provide a bigger perspective.

Humanities As reading is such an integral part of the research, it can be overwhelming to find countless different aspects of a topic and not know what to focus on in your own work and what to leave out .

So, one of the most common challenges is: “I cannot write 2.000 pages but if I leave anything potentially important out, others will criticize me for not having done my research and work thoroughly enough.”

This constant battle of determining which topics you have to write about and not losing yourself in your own text makes writing difficult.

Most needed support

STEM Support in developing strategies and habits for efficient and productive writing process, integrating writing into the everyday work and creating peer-support structures for motivation and text feedback.

Humanities Support in managing and structuring very broad and complex fields of study, determining what is really relevant for your own research and how you can transform it into a clear and linear text, developing structure both in your ideas and in your text.

So… that’s quite a bunch of substantial differences, right?

There are many more differences between individual fields that can’t be clearly grouped into STEM vs. humanities. For example: single- vs. double-blind peer review, value of conference papers, etc.

What are your experiences with these different conventions? Please, share your story or insights in the comments!

Do you need to revise & polish your manuscript or thesis but don’t know where to begin? Is your text a mess and you don't know how to improve it?

Get your Revision Checklist

Click here for an efficient step-by-step revision of your scientific texts. You will be guided through each step with concrete tips for execution.

4 thoughts on “ Differences in academic writing & publishing between STEM and humanities ”

This was really helpful and informative in general.

I think the point about clear, concise and precise writing may be unfair. Many humanities fields care a great deal about clarity. We insist on short sentences and accessible language. In my own field (philosophy), clarity and brevity of writing takes precedence over just about anything else. Some fields (i.e. English) may place more value on rich language and vocabulary. But even there, I don’t think anyone treats complexity or highfalutin language itself as a sign of sophistication. They just need longer words to express the points they want to make.

Thank you, David! The idea of striving for language complexity and sophistication in humanities comes from (frequent) anecdotal evidence. It would be interesting to conduct a survey study to see the real extent and distribution in the different fields.

Thank you for this overview, which I find helpful and dovetails with my experience (yes, N=1). I’m trained in STEM and have been supporting and collaborating with a humanities-trained friend. I remember my surprise when she said that humanities researchers don’t test their theories or share data—now I get that it’s because writing is their analog to STEM-style lab work. This is why humanities can advance theories based on a survey of ~100 people, which is then built upon by other researchers and become harder to disprove (STEM has its own version of this, I know). My thought is that both cultures can learn and adopt the best practices of the other and shed their worst.

I did have a chuckle in the section about clarity, because STEM articles have their own brand of opaqueness.

Thanks for sharing your experience! I fully agree with you that “both cultures can learn and adopt the best practices of the other and shed their worst”.

Considering the opaqueness in STEM articles: yes, this is indeed an issue.. But at least the ideal is there and I guess everyone tries to write with as much clarity as they can 😉

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academic writing article for stem students

Why STEM students should learn how to write

Why STEM students should learn how to write

Science, engineering and other STEM (science, engineering, technology and math) students often don’t realise the importance of writing well, as they believe writing skills are for the humanities or liberal arts majors.

Many education systems around the world tend to categorise students or place labels on them, based on their interests and talents.

There are even education ‘streams’ in certain countries where high school students are grouped based on these differences, such as ‘arts’ streams that teach accounting, economics and art, while ‘science’ stream students learn physics, chemistry and biology.

This leads to certain misconceptions, such as “students who are good at maths and science are not creative”, or “artistic people can paint well, but they can’t do maths”.

But you can be a painter and still interested in physics or finance. A scientist or engineer could be a brilliant musician. Humans are complex creatures and we have a mixture of talents, interests, tendencies and passions.

When society or schools place students in different boxes, it leads to students believing that they either can’t do something, don’t have to do something, or they won’t be good at something they perceive is different from their area of interest or study.

What matters to them most is the field of science they’re pursuing, the experiments, the research, the technical know-how, etc, often placing writing skills low on their list of priorities.

However, Anna Sajina, Associate Professor of Atrophysics at Tufts University, and Sergei Sazhin, Professor of Thermal Physics at the University of Brighton, emphasised the importance of writing skills for scientists and engineers in an article published on  Times Higher Education.

Scientists need to express their studies and reports in a clear, sometimes concise, and interesting manner, and it takes good writing skills to do this.

After all, how will readers be able to read a report, find it engaging, and grasp the material if its not written well?

academic writing article for stem students

Writing skills in science are more important than students realise. Source: Shutterstock

Sajina and Sazhin wrote that “teachers must guide science students in how to ‘tell a story’ in their reports”.

While some STEM programmes do incorporate subjects like Technical Writing, most science students tend to think that the writing involved in their chosen path consists only of writing up the results.

In reality, writing is a way to organise thoughts and is an integral part of the whole project, according to the article. A scientific or technical report is much more than simply a collection of figures with accompanying statements about how “I or we did this and this”.

Max Born, German-Jewish Physicist and Mathematician expressed this school of thought in 1968 when he wrote in his book, My Life & My Views :

“To present a scientific subject in an attractive and stimulating manner is an artistic task, similar to that of a novelist or even a dramatic writer. The same holds for writing textbooks.”

The report tells a story

Sajina and Sazhin have produced a paper in which they share with fellow lecturers and academics their experience of teaching science and engineering students basic writing skills, providing easy-to-follow guidelines for learners.

Firstly, teachers must emphasise that a report must tell a story, and students must first work out what that story is.

Although it can be overwhelming and challenging at first, teachers can help students by asking them to come up with some tentative answers to the following questions:

  • What are the questions the report is trying to answer?
  • What are the implications of this work compared to prior work?
  • What is the evidence for the anticipated conclusions?

While students might know these answers, when they are asked to articulate them, they find that they may not understand them as well as they believed. The process of writing forces them to go back and carry out more analysis if they find they are unable to address these questions.

Sajina and Sazhin advise that students should repeat this process until they are able to better address these questions, as they may also find that their results lead to new questions or phenomena they were not aware of at the start of the project.

academic writing article for stem students

Good scientific writing takes plenty of practice, but it will pay off in the end. Source: PHDcomics.com

When students have a reasonable (though not final) answer to the questions, they should come up with a project outline which includes the names of expected sections and subsections, along with notes on what exactly they will try to convey in each section.

This is similar to an essay or story outline where the author sketches the story they expect to tell the reader, although the details of the story will likely evolve over time, during the process of re-writing, editing and re-editing. After the outline, students can prepare their first draft.

Sajina and Sazhin stress that these steps are just the beginning, and students should know that they are expected to make several revisions to their draft, no matter how experienced they are.

In fact, the more seasoned a writer they become, the more editing will be required as experienced writers think about every single sentence in order to precisely convey their meaning.

A communicative skill

In an article by  The Atlantic , Kristin Sainani, a Health Policy Professor at Stanford University who teaches both undergraduate and online courses about writing in the sciences said, “Scientists need to know how to write to get their work published and get grants — it’s an important skill that people assume they already have [once they reach a certain level].”

However, she said that no one ever teaches them how to write well in these specific formats. “In science, research is king, and it’s important, but over the past decade universities have started to pay more attention to the “soft skills” that scientists also need.”

Sometimes (most of the time) science is actually reading and writing. #WomenInScience #WomenInScienceDay #WomenInSTEM pic.twitter.com/MiHl4Bgw36 — Luella Allen-Waller (@symbioecology) February 11, 2019

An article by Forbes published last year also highlighted the importance of good writing in science, as for scientists, the story is one that usually only a few people in the world understand as fully and completely as them.

It stated,  “Even within their own sub-field, they have an expertise and a perspective that pushes the frontiers of human knowledge. For those of us who are curious about the Universe, that cutting edge between the known and the unknown is the most exciting place to be. But getting that information out to the general public is where the trouble often arises.”

Often, the stories that scientists tell are either too complex or technical that only a few other experts can understand, or so oversimplified that they lead to new misunderstandings..

The article also argued that even though scientists can use a secondary source to make sense of the research and write the story, it’s like playing a game of scientific telephone.

It said, “The cumulative errors, going from the scientist to the press officer to the press release, mean that even the best science writers start out at a tremendous disadvantage, and that’s even discounting the knowledge gap. You’re likely to lose a whole lot of nuance, detail, and information if that’s where you get your information from.”

So science students should not tell themselves they aren’t good writers, but strive to improve and hone their writing skills so they can better articulate and express their research to a mass audience.

Teachers also play an important role to ensure they understand the importance of it and guide them to become better writers.

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Effectiveness of digital educational game and game design in STEM learning: a meta-analytic review

Digital educational games exhibit substantial promise in advancing STEM education. Nevertheless, the empirical evidence on both the efficacy of digital game-based learning and its designs in STEM education is ...

Face negotiation in graduate school: the decision to conceal or reveal depression among life sciences Ph.D. students in the United States

Depression is one of the top mental health concerns among biology graduate students and has contributed to the “graduate student mental health crisis” declared in 2018. Several prominent science outlets have c...

Mixed methods study of student participation and self-efficacy in remote asynchronous undergraduate physics laboratories: contributors, lurkers, and outsiders

While laboratory practices have traditionally been conducted in-person, online asynchronous laboratory learning has been growing in popularity due to increased enrollments and the recent pandemic, creating opp...

Evaluating a complex and sustained STEM engagement programme through the lens of science capital: insights from Northeast England

STEM education providers increasingly use complex intervention models to redress persistent under-representation in STEM sectors. These intervention models require robust evaluation to determine their effectiv...

Analyzing the associations between motivation and academic performance via the mediator variables of specific mathematic cognitive learning strategies in different subject domains of higher education

There are different teaching methods and learning content in the academic field of mathematics between school and university. Many students fail in their studies when the proportion of mathematics is high. Add...

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Michael Sandel (clockwise from top left), Moshe Halbertal, and Sari Nusseibeh

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Employment in STEM occupations has grown 79 percent in the past three decades, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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Experts cite online learning, digital tools as ways to build inclusive and equitable STEM workforce

The evolution and impact of STEM education and its accompanying career opportunities reflect a positive in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. But as the need grows for a specialized STEM-focused workforce, it’s becoming clear that not everyone has an equal opportunity.

During the Harvard-sponsored talk, “New Pathways to STEM,” panelists cited a large subset of students who are not being fully prepared for STEM careers. They then discussed ways the gap could be closed, pointing to online learning and the rapid advancement of new digital tools as ways to make STEM education more readily available. These new ways of learning, they said, can ultimately expand access to STEM education and create a more inclusive and equitable STEM workforce.

The need for a vast, talented workforce in STEM-related fields has never been more necessary, said Bridget Long, dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Long cited the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, which shows employment in STEM occupations has grown 79 percent in the past three decades. In addition, STEM jobs are projected to grow an additional 11 percent from 2020 to 2030. In Massachusetts alone, “40 percent of all employment revolves around innovation industries, such as clean energy, information technology, defense and advanced manufacturing,” said Long.

But, she added, “the importance of STEM education is about so much more than just jobs. STEM fields demand curious individuals eager to solve the world’s most pressing problems.”

“We need to have a new vision of how we prepare students to think critically about the world … as well as educating a society such that it has scientific literacy,” said Joseph L. Graves Jr., (upper left). Joining Graves were Brigid Long, Mike Edmonson, Amanda Dillingham, and Martin West.

The study of STEM subjects, she continued, teaches critical-thinking skills, and instills a mindset that will help students find success across numerous areas and disciplines. However, Long said, “too often the opportunity to learn and to be inspired by STEM is not available.

“Only 20 percent of high school graduates are prepared for college-level coursework in STEM majors,” she cited, adding, “fewer than half of high schools in the United States even offer computer science classes. So that begs the question — are kids going to be ready to meet the evolving and growing landscape of STEM professions?”

While STEM education opportunities are often scarce for high school students across the board, it’s even more pervasive when you consider how inequitably access is distributed by income, race, ethnicity, or gender. For example, Long said, “Native American, Black and Latinx students are the least likely to attend schools that teach computer science, as are students from rural areas, and [those with] economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

“It’s not surprising that these differences in educational opportunities lead to very large differences in what we see in the labor force. We are shutting students out of opportunity,” she said.

So what can be done to ensure more students from all backgrounds are exposed to a wide variety of opportunities? According to Graduate School of Education Academic Dean Martin West, who is also a member of the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, a concerted effort is being made at the state level to work with — and through — teachers to convey to students the breadth of STEM opportunities and to assure them that “it’s not all sitting in front of a computer, or being in a science lab, but showing them that there are STEM opportunities in a wide range of fields.”

The relatively recent emergence of digital platforms, such as LabXchange, are helping to bridge the gap. LabXchange is a free online learning tool for science education that allows students, educators, scientists, and researchers to collaborate in a virtual community. The initiative was developed by  Harvard University’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences and the  Amgen Foundation . It offers a library of diverse content, includes a  biotechnology learning resource available in 13 languages, and applies science to real-world issues. Teachers and students from across the country and around the world can access the free content and learn from wherever they are.

Many of the panelists also pointed to the need for steady funding in helping to address the inequities.

“Bottom line, if this nation wants to be a competitive leader in STEM, it has to revitalize its vision of what it needs to do, particularly in the public schools where most Black and brown people are, with regard to producing the human and physical infrastructure to teach STEM,” said Joseph L. Graves Jr., professor of biological sciences, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. Graves is also a member of the Faculty Steering Committee, LabXchange’s Racial Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Science Education Initiative.

The panel noted how LabXchange is partnering  with scholars from several historically Black colleges and universities to develop new digital learning resources on antiracism in education, science, and public health. The content, which will be freely available and translated into Spanish, is being funded by a $1.2 million grant from the Amgen Foundation. Aside from the highly successful LabXchange program, Mike Edmondson, vice president, Global Field Excellence and Commercial, Diversity Inclusion & Belonging at Amgen, noted the Amgen Biotech Experience and the Amgen Scholars program — both of which help to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to engage in science and to see themselves in a STEM career.

We also have to do a better job at helping people understand that that we cannot afford to fall behind in STEM education, Graves argued. “That means it’s going to cost us some money. So, America needs to be willing to pay … to build out STEM education infrastructure, so that we can produce the number of STEM professionals we need going forward,” he said. “We need to have a new vision of how we prepare students to think critically about the world … as well as educating a society such that it has scientific literacy.”

Amanda Dillingham, the program director of science and biology at East Boston High School, is on the front lines of this challenge, and says she believes that supporting teachers is one of the most critical steps that can be taken to address the issue in the immediate future.

When more funding is brought to the table, teachers “are able to coordinate networks … and build biotech labs in our classrooms and build robotics labs in our classrooms …. and are actually able to introduce students to [these fields and these careers] at a very early age,” said Dillingham.

Long and the panel also paid tribute to Rob Lue, the brainchild behind LabXchange, who passed away a year ago.

“Rob challenged science learners, scientists and educators to commit to ending racial inequity,” Long said. “Access was at the core of all of Rob’s many contributions to education at Harvard and beyond. He envisioned a world without barriers and where opportunity was available to anyone, especially in science. In everything that he did, he created an environment in which learners of all ages of diverse backgrounds could come together to imagine, learn, and achieve live exchange. Rob’s free online learning platform for science was his most expansive vision, and one that continues to inspire educators and learners around the world.”

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Classroom Q&A

With larry ferlazzo.

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to [email protected]. Read more from this blog.

How to Help Students With Their Writing. 4 Educators Share Their Secrets

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Teaching students to write is no easy feat, and it’s a topic that has often been discussed on this blog.

It’s also a challenge that can’t have too much discussion!

Today, four educators share their most effective writing lessons.

‘Three Practices That Create Confident Writers’

Penny Kittle teaches first-year writers at Plymouth State University in New Hampshire. She was a teacher and literacy coach in public schools for 34 years and is the author of nine books, including Micro Mentor Texts (Scholastic). She is the founder and president of the Book Love Foundation, which annually grants classroom libraries to teachers throughout North America:

I write almost every day. Like anything I want to do well, I practice. Today, I wrote about the wild dancing, joyful energy, and precious time I spent with my daughter at a Taylor Swift concert. Then I circled back to notes on Larry’s question about teaching writers. I wrote badly, trying to find a through line. I followed detours and crossed out bad ideas. I stopped to think. I tried again. I lost faith in my words. I will get there , I told myself. I trust my process.

I haven’t always written this easily or this much. I wouldn’t say I’m a “natural” writer because I don’t believe they exist. Writing is work. When I entered college, I received a C-minus on my first paper. I was stunned. I had never worked at writing: I was a “first drafter,” an “only drafter.” And truthfully, I didn’t know how or what to practice. I was assigned writing in high school and I completed it. I rarely received feedback. I didn’t get better. I didn’t learn to think like a writer; I thought like a student.

I’ve now spent 40 years studying writing and teaching writers in kindergarten, elementary school, middle school, and high school, as well as teachers earning graduate degrees. Despite their age, writers in school share one remarkably similar trait: a lack of confidence. Confidence is a brilliant and fiery light; it draws your eyes, your heart, and your mind. But in fact, it is as rare as the Northern Lights. I feel its absence every fall in my composition courses.

We can change that.

Confidence blooms in classrooms focused on the growth of writers.

This happens in classrooms where the teacher relies less on lessons and more on a handful of practices. Unfortunately, though, in most classrooms, a heap of time is spent directing students to practice “writing-like” activities: restrictive templates for assignments, with detailed criteria focused on rules. Those activities handcuff writers. If you tell me what to do and how to do it, I will focus on either completing the task or avoiding it. That kind of writing work doesn’t require much thinking; it is merely labor.

Practice creating, on the other hand, is harder, but it is how we develop the important ability to let our ideas come and then shaping them into cohesive arguments, stories, poems, and observations. We have misunderstood the power of writing to create thinking. Likewise, we have misunderstood the limitations of narrow tasks. So, here are my best instructional practices that lead to confidence and growth in writers.

1. Writing Notebooks and Daily Revision. Writers need time to write. Think of it as a habit we begin to engage in with little effort, like serving a tennis ball from the baseline or dribbling a basketball or sewing buttonholes. Writers need daily time to whirl words, to spin ideas, to follow images that blink inside them as they move their pen across the page. In my classroom, writing time most often follows engagement with a poem.

Likewise, writers need guidance in rereading their first drafts of messy thinking. I’ve seen teachers open their notebooks and invite students to watch them shape sentences. They demonstrate how small revisions increase clarity and rhythm. Their students watch them find a focus and maintain it. Teachers show the effort and the joy of writing well.

Here’s an example: We listen to a beautiful poem such as “Montauk” by Sarah Kay, her tribute to growing up. Students write freely from lines or images that spring to them as they listen. I write in my notebook as students write in theirs for 4-5 minutes. Then I read my entry aloud, circling subjects and detours ( I don’t know why I wrote so much about my dog, but maybe I have more to say about this … ). I model how to find a focus. I invite students to do the same.

2. Writers Study Writing . Writers imitate structures, approaches, and ways of reaching readers. They read like writers to find possibilities: Look what the writer did here and here . A template essay can be an effective tool to write for a test, but thankfully, that is a very small and insignificant part of the whole of writing for any of us. Real writing grows from studying the work of other writers. We study sentences, passages, essays, and articles to understand how they work, as we create our own.

3. Writers Have Conversations as They Work . When writers practice the skills and embrace the challenges of writing in community, it expands possibilities. Every line read from a notebook carries the mark of a particular writer: the passion, the voice, the experiences, and the vulnerability of each individual. That kind of sharing drives process talk ( How did you think to write about that? Who do you imagine you are speaking to? ), which showcases the endless variation in writers and leads to “writerly thinking.” It shifts conversations from “right and wrong” to “how and why.”

Long ago, at a local elementary school, in a workshop for teachers, I watched Don Graves list on the chalkboard subjects he was considering writing about. He read over his list and chose one. From there, he wrote several sentences, talking aloud about the decisions he was making as a writer. Then he turned to accept and answer questions.

“Why do this?” someone asked.

“Because you are the most important writer in the room,” Don said. “You are showing students why anyone would write when they don’t have to.” He paused, then added, “If not you, who?”


Developing ‘Student Voice’

A former independent school English teacher and administrator, Stephanie Farley is a writer and educational consultant working with teachers and schools on issues of curriculum, assessment, instruction, SEL, and building relationships. Her book, Joyful Learning: Tools to Infuse Your 6-12 Classroom with Meaning, Relevance, and Fun is available from Routledge Eye on Education:

Teaching writing is my favorite part of being a teacher. It’s incredibly fun to talk about books with kids, but for me, it’s even more fun to witness students’ skills and confidence grow as they figure out how to use written language to communicate what they mean.

A lesson I used to like doing was in “voice.” My 8th graders had a hard time understanding what I meant when I asked them to consider “voice” in their writing. The best illustration I came up with was playing Taylor Swift’s song “Blank Space” for students. Some students groaned while others clapped. (Doesn’t this always happen when we play music for students? There’s no song that makes everyone happy!) But when they settled down, I encouraged them to listen to the style: the arrangement, her voice as she sang, the dominant instruments.

Then, I played a cover of “Blank Space” by Ryan Adams. Eyes rolled as the song unfurled through the speakers, but again I reminded students to listen to the arrangement, voice, and instruments. After about 60 seconds of the Adams version, heads nodded in understanding. When the music ended and I asked students to explain voice to me, they said it’s “making something your own … like your own style.” Yes!

The next step was applying this new understanding to their own writing. Students selected a favorite sentence from the books they were reading, then tried to write it in their own voice. We did this a few times, until everyone had competently translated Kwame Alexander into “Rosa-style” or Kelly Link into “Michael-style.” Finally, when it was time for students to write their own longer works—stories, personal essays, or narratives—they intentionally used the words and sentence patterns they had identified as their own voice.

I’m happy to report this method worked! In fact, it was highly effective. Students’ papers were more idiosyncratic, nuanced, and creative. The only change to this lesson I’d make now is trying to find a more zeitgeist-y song with the hope that the groans at the beginning die down a little faster.


Teaching ELLs

Irina McGrath, Ph.D., is an assistant principal at Newcomer Academy in the Jefferson County school district in Kentucky and the president of KYTESOL. She is also an adjunct professor at the University of Louisville, Indiana University Southeast, and Bellarmine University. She is a co-creator of the ELL2.0 site that offers free resources for teachers of English learners:

Reflecting on my experience of teaching writing to English learners, I have come to realize that writing can be daunting, especially when students are asked to write in English, a language they are learning to master. The most successful writing lessons I have taught were those that transformed the process into an enjoyable experience, fostering a sense of accomplishment and pride in my students.

To achieve this, I prioritized the establishment of a supportive learning environment. At the beginning of each school year, I set norms that emphasized the importance of writing for everyone, including myself as their teacher. I encouraged students to write in English and their native language and I wrote alongside my English learners to demonstrate that writing is a journey that requires hard work and dedication, regardless of age or previous writing experiences. By witnessing my own struggles, my students felt encouraged to persevere.

My English learners understood that errors were expected and that they were valuable opportunities for growth and improvement. This created a comfortable atmosphere where students felt more confident taking risks and experimenting with their writing. Rather than being discouraged by mistakes, they viewed them as steppingstones toward progress.

In my most effective writing lessons, I provided scaffolds such as sentence stems, sentence frames, and word banks. I also encouraged my students to use translation tools to help generate ideas on paper. These scaffolds empowered English learners to independently tackle more challenging writing assignments and nurtured their confidence in completing writing tasks. During writers’ circles, we discussed the hard work invested in each writing piece, shared our work, and celebrated each other’s success.

Furthermore, my most successful writing lessons integrated reading and writing. I taught my students to read like writers and utilized mentor texts to emulate the craft of established authors, which they could later apply to their own writing. Mentor texts, such as picture books, short stories, or articles, helped my students observe how professional writers use dialogue, sentence structure, and descriptive language to enhance their pieces.

Instead of overwhelming students with information, I broke down writing into meaningful segments and taught through mini lessons. For example, we analyzed the beginnings of various stories to examine story leads. Then, collaboratively, my students and I created several leads together. When they were ready, I encouraged them to craft their own leads and select the most appropriate one for their writing piece.

Ultimately, my most effective lessons were those in which I witnessed the joyful smiles on my English learners’ faces as they engaged with pages filled with written or typed words. It is during those moments that I knew my writers were creating and genuinely enjoying their work.

To access a self-checklist that students and EL teachers can use when teaching or creating a writing piece in English, you can visit the infographic at bit.ly/ABC_of_Writing .


‘Model Texts’

Anastasia M. Martinez is an English-language-development and AVID Excel teacher in Pittsburg, Calif.:

As a second-language learner, writing in English had not always been my suit. It was not until graduate school that I immersed myself in a vast array of journals, articles, and other academic works, which ultimately helped me find my academic voice and develop my writing style. Now, working as an ESL teacher with a diverse group of middle school multilingual learners, I always provide a model text relevant to a topic or prompt we are exploring.

When students have a model text, it gives them a starting point for their own writing and presents writing as less scary, where they get stuck on the first sentence and do not know how to start.

At the start of the lesson, prior to using a model text, I create a “do now” activity that guides my students’ attention to the topic and creates a relevant context for the text. After students share their ideas with a partner and then the class, we transition to our lesson objectives, and I introduce the model text. We first use prereading strategies to analyze the text, and students share what they notice based on the title, images, and a number of paragraphs. Then, depending on the students’ proficiency level, I read the text to the class, or students read the text as partners, thinking about what the text was mostly about.

After students read and share their ideas with partners and then the whole class, we transition to deconstructing the text. These multiple reengagements with the text help students become more familiar with it, as well as help students build reading fluency.

When deconstructing the model text, I guide my students through each paragraph and sentence. During that time, students orally share their ideas determining the meaning of specific paragraphs or sentences, which we later annotate in the model text using different colored highlighters or pens. Color coding helps visually guide students through similar parts of the model text. For instance, if we highlight evidence in paragraph 2 in one color, we also highlight evidence in the same color in the following paragraph. It helps students see the similarities between the paragraphs and discover the skeleton of the writing. Additionally, color coding helps students during their writing process and revision. Students can check if they used all parts of the writing based on the colors.

Furthermore, one of the essential pieces during deconstructing model texts that I draw my students’ attention to is transition words and “big words,” or academic vocabulary. We usually box them in the text, and I question students about why the author used a particular word in the text. Later, when students do their own writing, they can integrate new vocabulary and transition words, which enhances their vocabulary and language skills.

As the next step, I invite students to co-create a similar piece of writing with a partner or independently using our model text as their guide. Later, our model text serves as a checklist for individual and partner revisions, which students could use to give each other feedback.

Model texts are an essential part of the writing process in any content-area class. As educators, we should embrace the importance of model texts, as they provide a solid foundation upon which students can develop their unique writing skills, tone, and voice.


Thanks to Penny, Stephanie, Irina, and Anastasia for contributing their thoughts!

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at [email protected] . When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo .

Just a reminder; you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email . And if you missed any of the highlights from the first 12 years of this blog, you can see a categorized list here .

The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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Writers grapple with the reality of AI in ExCollege course

With the onset of ai, soon-to-be graduates worry about the future of academic and professional writing..


The Experimental College is pictured on May 10, 2023.

This semester, the Experimental College is hosting a class focused on helping aspiring writers enter the tech industry called “Careers for Writers in the Tech Sector.” Visiting Lecturer Rita Reznikova ( LA’08 ), the course’s instructor, seeks to introduce students to the variety of professional opportunities for writers, even amid the rise of generative artificial intelligence models like ChatGPT that threaten traditional career paths.

Along with speakers from various sectors of the tech industry, the course is structured around a final portfolio assignment that students can present while job searching.

Reznikova credits her liberal arts education as having laid the groundwork for her journey as a professional writer. Yet even with the tools she garnered at university — in addition to being a part of the Daily — she was uncertain about what her career would look like coming out of her education.

“I didn’t  know what [post-grad] paths for writers in technology really entailed, or what the work was like, or what the path to seniority was or how writers participated in different parts of technology companies. … I had to figure that out on my own throughout my career, which has been now  over 15 years in different roles,” Reznikova said. “And so I ha ve the opportunity now to come back to Tufts, and I honestly thought: ‘What class would I have found helpful when I was graduating … and knew I wanted to write?’ That’s what inspired me to teach this class.”

To students, the career-oriented syllabus is one of the course’s main attractions. For  Maddie Cortesi,  a junior  who is double-majoring in sociology and Science, Technology, and Society,  she hopes conversations with Reznikova and the rest of the class can broaden her horizons.

“Along with getting a sense of what different parts of this industry look like, it’s been really wonderful [to have] more general guidance about navigating finding a job … tackling interviews and marketing yourself,” Cortesi said. “It’s great that if something magically works out and I get to go into this field, I would feel like I know what to expect because I had this experience with a professional.”

The model of the class involves hosting a variety of speakers with experience working in technology fields, many of whom are a part of Reznikova’s professional network. The first speaker, Ryan Looney, is currently one of the lead content designers at Instagram . Cortesi recounted his talk with the class as  “inspiring ” and said that hearing from a speaker with an “ eclectic journey” and background  helped teach her the ways that her own degrees and passions can help her stand out.

Underpinning Reznikova’s teachings is a constant analysis of the changing technology sector. A core tenet of the class is getting writers to be comfortable with AI technologies,  and to understand the ways in which it might impact the job market.

“I do think  that for certain careers in writing, [AI] is going to be pretty transformational, and there might be fewer traditional paths. But that doesn’t mean that as a writer, you are at a disadvantage when it comes to technology,” Reznikova said. “It’s a very, very interesting time to pursue careers in writing, and I think AI is something that we need to understand.”

This structure is salient for students, some of whom remain anxious about AI’s impacts on both the academic and professional spheres.

Salomé Albright , a senior majoring in International Literary and Visual Studies, highlighted the apprehension faced by herself and her peers.

“I am mainly worried about the threat AI language models pose on the development/future of writing in and outside of academic contexts. I fear it will halt movements for creativity or expansion of boundaries within academic writing,” she wrote in an electronic message to the Daily. “I am grateful I was able to develop as a collegiate writer years before ChatGPT became available to me.”

Albright’s disquiet is one that is matched by other academics. In the past year, Tufts’ Center for the Enhancement of Learning and Teaching, a division of the provost’s office, published a  resource   for faculty members looking for guidance on how to develop syllabus statements on AI.

Reznikova’s approach to AI is one that acknowledges both its pitfalls and benefits.   She wants students to understand how their deeper critical thinking skills elevate AI in order to create content that is ethical and truly centered around audience needs.

“The way I think about it is, in any kind of professional writing, the writing is not the actual content you provide. For example, if you are a marketer, writing is a tool, but your actual product is storytelling,” Reznikova said.  “And  so when we think of writing as something we do, but not the actual product of our work, we can start to understand that there are times when AI is useful in that process and then there are times where it’s not.”

Reznikova also believes it important for students to understand the realities of professional life following graduation.

“It’s  really important for students to think about the transition from college to work. And based on my own personal experience, it’s not always a smooth transition, because it’s a very different world that we’re stepping into. There [are] different expectations and also different tools like AI that are going to be changing our work,” she said. “I would encourage students to just stay open-minded, both about writing and about the industries that [they] go into.”

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Writing for Academic Journals

To which journal should i submit.

The short answer is: the best journal for your topic. 

If you need to identify a journal, the easiest way to determine that is to search a library database for your topic and find what journals are most often publishing on your topic. Here are some steps to doing this:

  • Scopus or Web of Science are good for most topics, but may miss some niche and some society journals.
  • Subject-specific databases, such as MathSciNet (mathematics and statistics) and GeoRef (earth sciences) will get more titles in a discipline. Not every database has its own subject area.  See our subject guides to find other options.
  • If you're writing on education topics within any discipline , look at ERIC. Be sure to select your targeted education level below the search boxes since ERIC covers education at all levels.
  • If you're after journals, consider applying a journal article limit before or after search. Most databases also cover conference papers and books. Also consider language limits. 
  • After completing your search, most databases will list the source titles. You can then see what titles publish most heavily on your topic. You can either look closer at those items in that database or go to explore your journal further at the publisher site. Here are some examples of what these lists look like from some of the databases we mentioned - these are found on the left side of the screen after searching:

academic writing article for stem students

These are journals that may be good fits for your planned publication. Your next step is to find the homepage for the journal and learn more about its requirements, scope, etc. You can choose to do a simple web search (Google, Bing) or you can look at our  Online Journals List . Note that there may be journals with similar or in some cases, the same name.

Look for a section such as "About," "Scope," "Submit," or "For Authors" to find out info about the journal and requirements.

If you have a specific journal in mind, look for an author template and citation style requirements so you can begin your writing with the correct format and style and not have to make changes later.

What is an impact factor?

Many people want to target journals with high impact factors for their submission. Impact factor is a proprietary number calculated and available via Journal Citation Reports . This tool allows you to see data about how well a journal is cited and see titles ranked by discipline. Some caveats about this information:

  • If a journal is not in this tool, it does not have an impact factor as this number is proprietary.
  • If a journal does not have an impact factor, that does not mean it is not a good journal. It may be from a niche publisher, a new journal, or there may be other reasons for this.
  • There are other places to get impact information for journals, such as Scopus and MathSciNet collect their own data and impact values, for example, in addition to some free online options, like Eigenfactor.org .
  • These numbers vary by discipline. For example, a high impact factor in one discipline may be a middle or even low one in another.
  • Don't submit to a journal just because it has great metrics. It may not be the best fit for your topic. Many high impact factor titles are also very selective about publishing content that is "ground breaking."  

What are predatory journals?

Predatory journals are journals that are really after money and do not care about quality. They will often send out mass (but not necessarily targeted to a specific audience) emails to solicit submissions. Beall's List is one of the most popular sites to find out more information about specific titles and publishers. However, this list is not perfect as new titles are appearing all of the time. When in doubt, feel free to contact me or an appropriate subject librarian .

A few things to consider when looking at a journal:

  • Who is on the editorial board? Are these respected researchers in the field? Are they from appropriate institutions (universities, research labs, etc.). It can be helpful to see who is publishing in the journal as well.
  • Is the publisher fairly known (a major commercial publisher, a college/university, or society)? Don't discount small publishers.
  • Does something look "off" to you? For example, is content missing, are there large fees, is peer review not mentioned, etc.?

Can I get help to pay to make my article open access?

Yes! The University Libraries has options to help with getting journal articles open access.  See information about transformative agreements for details, applicable journal titles for each publisher, and the latest information.

We have options for specific publishers, including:

  • Cambridge University Press
  • Elsevier (Hybrid)
  • Institute of Physics (IOP) 
  • Royal Society of Chemistry FAQ
  • Springer (Hybrid)
  • Taylor & Francis

Journal Lists by Discipline for Major Publishers

Below you will see links to journal lists for select major general and subject-specific publishers. From there, you can search and/or browse options are available.​​​​​​ There are many more small publishers and independent journals to choose from. 

Large Multi-Subject Publishers

  • Oxford University Press
  • Science (AAAS)

Select Discipline-Specific Publishers

  • AGU (published by Wiley)
  • ASM International
  • ASA  (published by Taylor & Francis)

Interested in open access only journals? Visit DOAJ and search the titles or filter by subject on the list. Be sure to evaluate the journals on this list as they are from many different sources.

Recommended Videos

These YouTube videos from journal publishers are on writing and submitting journal articles. 

  • How to Get Published in an Academic Journal  (Sage)
  • What to think about before you start to write a journal article  (Taylor & Francis)
  • Top Ten Tips for writing and submitting a journal article  (IOP)
  • Which APS journal is right for your research?  (APS)
  • Publishing Open Access with Cambridge University Press
  • How to Get Published: Submitting Your Paper  (Sage)
  • ACS Publishing Panel: Publishing advice, tips, and tricks  (ACS)
  • Publishing in SIAM Journals: What and How  (SIAM)
  • Using ACM Word Template: Video Tutorial  (ACM)
  • From the Editor of IEEE Access: How to Get Published in an Open Access Journal  (IEEE)
  • The Journey of an Article at Springer  (Springer)
  • << Previous: Getting Started
  • Next: Conferences >>

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