Writing in the Discipline

Download the official Departmental Writing Guide

Most of us are driven into the world of science by intrinsic curiosity, asking “why” and wanting to engage in activities to find the answers. We learn about “the scientific method” (see below) of tackling a research problem and, in formal laboratory and lecture courses, are taught the mechanics to carry out the required experiments. Learning these skills is an important aspect of becoming a successful scientist. Of equal, if not greater importance, is developing the skills to build on the knowledge of others and share your findings with the scientific community. No discovery can be great if it is not accurately and concisely disseminated to the world. In this context, it is crucial to develop technical writing skills that conform to the standards put forth by the scientific community being addressed. Just as you expect to see certain standard formats when you open everyday resource books as simple as a telephone book, the scientific community expects to see your findings reported in a standard way.  Acquiring scientific writing skills goes well beyond a grammatically correct document. The most difficult task faced by students is developing the correct scientific style, specific to a given writing task. In addition, to do scientific research, one must (i) learn how to use data gathering resources to search the literature and make sure the work or interpretation of the work is unique (it’s never good to report something as unique that was done years ago and it sure can save you a lot of time if you don’t “reinvent the wheel!”); (ii) develop thorough and accurate note-taking skills, as you are responsible to prove anything you claim you have done; and (iii) report your findings in technical reports, peer-reviewed manuscripts, or as a presentation at a scientific conference. While there are, admittedly, variations in how each of these tasks are carried out, depending upon your sub-discipline, there are accepted standards and recommended formats that are used.  The purpose of this Guide is to itemize many of the writing tasks that you will be faced with during your undergraduate and graduate education as well as beyond. You will encounter one or more of these tasks in the courses you take, as well as in independent research that you may be involved in. For each task, a recommended format will be presented, along with tips and guidance on do’s and don’ts. It is important to note that each professor may require some deviations from the recommended formats given in this guide. Such instruction should always be followed in submitting your assignments.  In summary, it is crucial to use your time at UMBC to develop your technical writing skills in all aspects of your education. Regardless of the career path you choose, you will be expected to communicate science, both in a written and oral fashion, to your peers, as well as less scientifically trained individuals! This is a skill that is acquired by reading examples, creating your own works, and obtaining feedback from your peers and instructors.