Professor Wang’s Tips for Writing in Environmental Science

The tips for writing papers in Environmental Sciences courses were graciously provided by Dr. Deane Wang, Associate Professor of Natural Resources/ Director of Environmental Sciences Program

What is one thing students should not forget when writing in environmental science?

  • There are many different types of writing assignments in environmental science. Since environmental science is a major in three different colleges here at UVM, the classes tend to be very large. Rather than having lots of longer papers, there are often short reflections. In general, my advice to students on all written assignments is to read the assignment twice. Do whatever it is you are supposed to be doing, and then read the assignment over again! I often find that students hand in assignments and in their writing, they start to go off and do their own thing. If the student had just gone back and reread the assignment, it would have been clear what to write about. Reflections are tougher because sometimes you almost have to read the mind of the professor. Clarifying questions are really helpful, and most professors don’t mind giving specific feedback.

What can turn a good paper into a great paper?

  • First and foremost, critical thinking, and then synthesis. Asking yourself, what does this really mean and how does it tie in to what I have been learning about? In the later environmental science courses, it is important, in some cases, to move towards scientific writing in the context of published papers. You really want to frame your papers and synthesize your lab results in a way that is modeled after scientific journals and papers. Obviously your paper isn’t going to look or sound like a paper written by a scientist who has been in the field for many years, but using that model, and making an effort to follow that model, will really push your paper over the top.

What databases would you recommend for online research?

  • Life is just so fantastic for the researcher these days. JSTOR is a very helpful database, but I actually find Google scholar to be quite useful. You can search for a topic, and more often than not, there is an option to find the pdf at UVM, which makes it very easy. The other piece that I think is really helpful for creating good research habits, is EndNote. EndNote is a bibliographic research database that helps you create your own database of research papers. So when it’s time to look at your research and create citations, it is all organized and consolidated for you. I think it is really important for students to get used to using research databases as undergraduates, especially if they plan to pursue a career in the sciences.

What have you learned from writing in environmental science that you think would be helpful for students to know?

  • Maybe the most helpful thing for students to understand is that it can be hard. One of the things that I think is very important is peer editing. As a writer, it is crucial to get critical feedback. The more questions they ask, the more they mark up your paper, the better. I think it is important for students to realize that it is desirable to have someone ask tough questions and really critique your writing, rather than just having someone fix grammatical or spelling mistakes. Having someone, in a sense, ‘rip and tear’ your paper apart, and alert you to sentences or sections that don’t really make sense or where they cannot follow your train of thought, is extremely beneficial and constructive.

How important is writing in the field of environmental science?

  • It is really important. Obviously environmental science is a science, so doing good science is key, but it is also important to communicate what you find in a clear and understandable way. Sitting down and putting a lot of thought and care into writing and editing a paper goes a long way in achieving clarity, and also a good grade. As a professor and researcher, I see it as my societal responsibility to write about what I find and inform students and other people so that they can advance their knowledge and make good management decisions. So I would say writing is just about the most important thing for both scientists and students of science.

What advice would you give to a student studying environmental science here at UVM?

  • Often, as faculty, we may not emphasize writing enough, because it is hard and we are not writing teachers by trade, but writing is well worth the effort and practice. Since our emphasis is on science, and we do not consider ourselves writing teachers, even though we spend a lot of time on our own writing, the writing center is a great resource for students to get help with the written aspects of their assignments. So make sure to utilize it!