10 Writing Tips for Science and Math College Students

College students majoring in science or math often say they can’t write. These writing tips will help math or science majors who struggle to write term papers, essays, and tests.

These tips will help you explain formulas and theories in actual words and sentences.

Before the tips, a quip:

“One of the endlessly alluring aspects of mathematics is that its thorniest paradoxes have a way of blooming into beautiful theories.” ~ Philip J. Davis.

And one of the endlessly frustrating aspects of being a math or science college student is explaining those theories in writing! For help, read The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing.

And, here are a few tips to help you write better…

10 Writing Tips for Science and Math College Students

Guest Post by Justin Birch

Science and mathematics majors tend to be curious, analytical, critical-thinkers who understand the importance of building a strong, persuasive argument to support their theorems. Unfortunately, these college students also have a tendency to ignore their writing skills. They become preoccupied with formulas and theories, developing enormous sophistication in these arenas, while allowing their writing abilities to stagnate.

What science and math majors don’t realize is that such a deficiency can harm their opportunities to obtain grants, publicize their efforts, or successfully communicate with peers and the public. Science and math college students need to become polished writers.

These tips will help…

Go beyond “showing your work”

Whether you’re going to school every day or are getting an online education, completing a mathematics assignment will require you to show your work. But math and science writing should include more than just computations. In fact, you don’t necessarily need to show every step of a formula in order to write well. What really makes a difference in writing for science and mathematics is the theory or idea behind the work – and that’s what needs to be highlighted in the paper.

Know your audience (a writing tip for all genres of writers!)

Your writing should have different content for different audiences. You would not write the same content for a professor that you would for a board of professionals considering giving you a research grant. Before starting to write, ask yourself if your audience knows more or less about math and science than you do. If they know less (such as less advanced college students), you will need to write in laymen’s terms and offer more explanation and background information than you would if you were writing for a science or math college professor.

Write formulas as complete sentences

This writing tip is the one that often mystifies science and math majors, who are accustomed to simply writing numbers and symbols to show their work. In a paper that is mainly text, however, a bit more effort is required. As Paul Zorn mentions in his paper “Tips on Writing in Mathematics,” any formulas included in a science or mathematics paper should be included within a sentence that begins with a capital letter and ends with a period. This makes your writing more readable and leads to greater understanding for readers not familiar with technical jargon.

For more math writing tips, read Mathematical Writing: A Brief Guide by Mark Tomforde.

Use the first person plural when writing science or math papers

If you’ve written a scholarly paper for an English literature class, you may have learned to always write in the third person. However, writing for science and mathematics as a college student has different rules. It is common practice to utilize “we” within the confines of both science and math classrooms and in written work. This eliminates the need to wrestle with the unwieldy “one,” much as it does away with the self-important “I.”

Never start a sentence with a formula

This writing tip goes hand in hand with placing a formula within a sentence. In his paper “A Guide to Writing Mathematics,” Dr. Kevin P. Lee explains that the key here is that the formula is “within” the sentence and does not begin it. Starting a sentence with a formula, whether a number or a symbol, often leads to confusion for the reader (even if he or she is a science or math college professor!). Simply writing “if” before presenting the formula can bring enormous clarity to the meaning behind the formula.

Use graphs and tables to bring your words alive

A picture is worth a thousand words, and this is especially true when you’re writing in the math and science world. Lee states being able to illustrate your theory not just with words but also with a graph is a great way to make a point. However, you must make certain that your graphs and tables are clear, accurate and easy to read.

Enjoy the simple beauty of the word “let”

Mathematicians and scientists will often write the word “let” to format formulas within sentences. As in the phrase, “Let X=4,” the word “let” is a simple, flexible way to express a multitude of meanings. Use it liberally in your college papers and tests, because even people not well versed in the language of science and math can easily define your meaning.

Use the appropriate source for writing science or math essays

Each scholarly discipline has its own holy text of structure and style. For English majors, it may be Strunk’s The Elements of Style (4th Edition). For science and math college students, however, it is typically Alley’s The Craft of Scientific Writing.

Although some grammar and writing rules will be similar, some will be quite different. It’s important to know what it considered correct and acceptable for your discipline.

Use and notate scientific terms correctly

Certain rules govern the use of scientific terms in papers and other texts. For instance, the genus and species of an organism should always be either underlined or italicized. Writers should also be clear about how to designate the singular and plural of a scientific name and be able utilize appropriate abbreviations.

Never underestimate the importance of clear written communication

How important is writing for science and math majors? So important that distinguished technical colleges like MIT dedicate entire major courses of study to the discipline. Scientists and mathematicians need to be able to communicate clearly in text, whether for e-mails, correspondence, grant proposals, papers or articles for publication, or text books. It’s not a subject to be taken lightly, since acquiring funding for your research project just might depend on your ability to communicate successfully in writing.

Writing clearly and concisely shouldn’t be an afterthought for math or science college students – it’ s a necessary component of a strong education.

For more college writing help, read Tips for Editing and Revising Articles, Essays, and Research Papers.

If you have any questions or thoughts about these writing tips for math and science majors, please comment below…

Written by guest author Justin Birch.

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