WRITING IT RIGHT
By Thomas K. Grose
Every year, engineering academics from around the country
submit, on average, around 1,700 academic papers for presentation at
American Society for Engineering Education's annual conference. Engineering
professors realize that a necessary step on the road to tenure is getting
scholarly papers published by peer associations. Historically, the ASEE
annual conference accepts about 1,200 of those submissions, or about 70
percent. That's a good-size window of opportunity, but it still means
that hundreds of authors are rebuffed, and no one wants his or her paper
to land in the reject pile. So, to help improve your chances, here are
some tipsculled from a quartet of engineering educators who are
widely regarded as writing whizzesfor composing a successful
ASEE conference paper.
Know thy readers. That's a cardinal rule that Lester
Gerhardt, associate dean of engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute,
says can't be emphasized enough. The most scintillating finding in
the world will cause a giant yawn if it's presented to the wrong
audience. So when it comes to writing for an ASEE conference, that
means (writing about) something to do with engineering education,
says John W. Prados, professor emeritus of chemical engineering at the
University of Tennessee- Knoxville and a past editor of the Journal of
Engineering Education. And consider, too, the demographics of the society.
Because ASEE is an interdisciplinary group, its membership comprises not
only academics from engineering's various disciplines but from different
types of schools. Notes Gerhardt: You're really dealing with
a very diverse audience . . . a very special kind of audience. And
writing for such a mixed lot is a harder task than writing for a specialized
group because you can't fall back on the vernacular and implied
references that everyone else in your field knows.
Ensure your subject has not been written about before. Do
a search of the literature, Prados advises. If your topic is unique,
then go ahead. If it's been covered before, make sure that you are
updating or expanding the dialogue. For example, suppose an original paper
discussed a teaching method that worked well at a small, private engineering
school. You might expand on that by writing about how well it worked at
a large, land-grant university. As Richard Felder, a professor emeritus
of chemical engineering at North Carolina State University, says, ask
yourself if your topic is interesting to anyone outside your school, and
whether your findings have application elsewhere. There must be
an element of interest for people at other institutions. Once you're
sure that your topic is right for ASEE, then indulge in tunnel vision.
Focus on one, and only one, message in your paper and stick to it,
suggests Jack Lohmann, editor of the Journal of Engineering Education,
and associate provost at Georgia Tech. Avoid the temptation to detail
serendipitous events, he says. They are not nearly as
interesting and informative to the readers as you think. They can
also mask your message and confuse readers. Basically, he
adds, keep to the point, and make sure your scholarship is sound.
Prados says when it comes to writing about engineering
education, too many academics become fairly sloppy, presenting conclusions
they would eschew in a technical paper. There is a tendency to state opinion,
not fact. Phrases akin to it felt good or the students
seemed to like it act as signposts warning of weak scholarship ahead.
A reliance on opinion unsupported by verifiable data is the main reason
papers are rejected, Prados says. It's not enough to say a teaching
method worked because it appeared popular with students. You need objective,
measurable evidence of its success.
Before setting pen to paper or fingertips to keyboard,
give a few thoughts to organizing your paper. Prados suggests this
An introduction that states your topic and why it is important to the
audience. Next, offer background material to put it into context, citing
the literature and what's already been tried. Then list your objectives
and how or if they were met. Tell what you discovered, how it helped students
learn, and the value it will add to the education process, including its
significance beyond your own classroom. And don't forget: Failure
is often fodder for illumination. Papers based on programs that didn't
pan out or experiments that didn't meet objectives can be useful,
especially if they're based on reasonable assumptions others seem
likely to try, Felder says. But you must be able to clearly state and
prove why there was a failure, and the lessons that can be drawn from
GETTING DOWN TO BUSINESS
Next comes the part that some authors dread and others enjoy: the
actual writing. When it comes to writing, there are many ways of doing
like driving a car, the basic mechanics vary little, but the methods
you choose to implement them offer plenty of room for individual preference.
Some people like to write in one sitting, using a stream-of-consciousness
approach. Others work in short bursts of activity, punctuated by long
breaks. Notes Felder: Different people have different strategies.
It's a matter of figuring out which works best for you. That
said, our team of experts agree that writers shouldn't get too hung
up on trying to make the first draft sing. Paragraphs can be moved, sentences
chopped, words replaced, syntax unscrambled, grammar fixed, and spelling
corrected during the revision process. Just write without censoring
yourself, Felder says.
If the mantra of real-estate agents is, location, location, location,
the mantra of writers is, revision, revision, revision. Says
Lohmann: Edit drafts ruthlessly. Prados calls revising writing's
most critical step. And its aim, he says, is conciseness (see
sidebar). Omit needless words. Papers often use a lot of verbiage
and meaningless terms like, the fact that.' The result,
he says, is too many academic papers that are boring to read. They're
a good anti-insomnia device. Your strategy should be to keep your
readers awake, not to prove how erudite you are. And a good way to ensure
their wakefulness is a text that's precise and concise. Lohmann says,
Make every word count. Your message will become more muddled the
more words you use imprecisely or unnecessarily. Adds Prados: Each
sentence should say something significant.
Lohmann suggests at least two reviews for every draft. First, read
for overall comprehension. Next, read for scholarly clarity and precision. Read each sentence word by word, with the goal of eliminating unnecessary
words, clarifying imprecise language, reigning in statements that go beyond
the facts...and maintaining consistent usage of terminology. It's
also a good idea to put your paper away for a time between drafts so that
each time you read it, it's with fresh eyes. And just because ASEE
does not set a limit on length, that's not an invitation to go
long. Prados says the best papers are usually five to seven pages of
are, of course, exceptions. But usually, he adds, brevity is a useful
And avoid jargon as you would clichés. Jargon's a useful
shorthand when communicating with colleagues within your discipline, but
most of your ASEE readers toil in different fields. Concepts in engineering
education are not highly technical, Prados says, so there is nothing
you need to say that can't be put into plain English. Write
as if you were addressing a lay audience.
Finally, Felder says, Don't let the reviewer be the first
to critique your paper. Beg, bribe, or threaten colleagues to critique
it for you. And tell them to be nitpicky and tough, he adds.
Then revise accordingly. Chances are, most of their critiques will
If there are contradictory suggestions, use common sense to sort them
Common sense should also motivate you to write a clear, concise, precise
paper with a quality reflecting a command of the English language,
says. All the time and effort you put into a project, program, or experiment deserves all the time it takes to communicate it effectively.
Yes, he understands why busy academics may feel that it's more important
to put all their effort into research. They're busy people; so when
it comes to writing, if the English isn't quite right, some may say,
So what? The work's important, so the readers will figure it
out. But the trouble is, they might not. Or they won't bother
to try. And if that's the case, Gerhardt argues, what then
becomes the purpose of the paper?
Thomas K. Grose is a freelance writer based in Washington,
He can be reached at email@example.com.
Lester Gerhardt, associate dean of engineering at Rensselaer
Polytechnic Institute, John W. Prados, past editor of the Journal of Engineering
Education, and Jack Lohmann, the current editor, will be offering a workshop
on how to write, review,and present a paper at ASEE's annual conference
in Salt Lake City in June.