The Chronicle of Higher Education has a great article on the importance of writing skills for graduate students. (Thanks to Jitu Padhye for the pointer.) Though nothing in the article surprises me, the article highlights a widespread concern about the lack of formal writing training for grad students. Learning to write effectively is one of the most important skills you need as a grad student, and, of course, as a researcher or faculty member later in life. But we don't actually teach this skill. Most faculty (myself included) seem to expect students know how to write, or will somehow pick it up in the course of their research -- and, presumably, having enough conference papers rejected. Even worse, most students don't realize how bad their writing is. This becomes a real problem if you're a new faculty member trying to get funding, and people can't follow your papers or are unconvinced by your grant proposals. Good writing is everything.
I'm not sure how to solve this problem. Putting my grad students through dry technical writing classes doesn't seem to be the answer. Good scientific writing involves a great deal of subtlety. It is not just about being grammatically correct, but conveying ideas in a convincing manner. This is especially true in computer science, where the goal of most conference papers is to persuade -- to seduce the reader with a Big New Idea, not just to report on the results of a study or new finding. Many courses on scientific writing fail to meet the needs of CS, focusing instead on the dry presentation of methods and data. That is important in CS, of course, but if you compare the structure of your typical Nature or Science article to, say, an SOSP paper, the differences are stark. (On the flip side, I often find CS papers tend to fluff up a fairly simple idea with a lot of marketing to make the ideas seem more earth-shattering than they really are. Seriously, how is a minor tweak to the 802.11 MAC protocol going to change the way we think about the nature of human communication?)
Any suggestions on better ways to teach our grad students how to become great writers?
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