How to Become a Smarter Writer by Solving Word Puzzles

In the first chapter of Writing Science in Plain English, published by the University of Chicago Press, author Anne Greene uses two words to address questions about why most of the scientific literature is so difficult to read: “poorly written.”

She goes on to quote Harold Heatwole, editor of Integrative and Comparative Biology, who offers a sterner view: “The standard of writing in current scientific journals has reached an all-time low, in terms of both poor grammar and imprecise communication.” The solution, according to another prominent editor, Anthony Wilson (Handbook of Science Communication) is for scientists to learn how to express their ideas in “plain, simple English.”

This problem has been around for a long time. Back in 1997, an article in Science magazine strongly criticized the sometimes mind-numbing writing of physicists: “In the past, physicists have fretted over their inability to communicate with the lay public. Now, the flood of unexplained acronyms, cryptic symbols, endless sentences, and nightmarish graphs has risen so high, say some leaders in the field, that physicists can no longer understand each other… No one is claiming the problem is unique to physics.”

To be sure, similar concerns have been raised about the writing of engineers, chemists, computer programmers, architects, and professionals working in other STEM-related disciplines. To resolve the problem, the article suggested that colleges and universities could institute more rigorous writing programs “for undergraduates, before poor writing habits have become irreversible.”

But that hasn’t happened. In annual surveys conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers since 2000, employers have consistently ranked clear writing and speaking as skills that most college graduates lack. In the 2005 survey, for example, a major conclusion was that “college graduates lack good grammar and writing skills …”

It’s true that over the last 25 years or so, remedial writing programs for undergraduates have popped up on campuses across the country, but serious questions remain about the effectiveness of those programs.

In the free, 90-minute online class, the focus is on translating complex information into language that is easy to follow.  We will begin by taking a close look at the Architecture of English, based on the plain English patterns that skilled professional writers and editors rely on to communicate clearly and persuasively with their readers. Participants will learn how to treat sentences as word puzzles – and how to solve writing problems by putting the pieces together.

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