5 Tips for Technical Writing

October 28, 2013

There are few career paths in which technical writing skills are unimportant. For those who pursue a science track, it is even more important. Whether it’s a resume, a grant proposal, a project summary, or a monthly report, technical writing plays an important role in finding a job, succeeding in that job, and being chosen for promotions. Simple grammar mistakes or rambling descriptions can distract from the focus of the document and diminish the impact of your work.

Here are five tips for improving technical writing.

Proofread

It may seem obvious, but the first tip is proofread, proofread, proofread. Spell check cannot be relied on to catch all typos. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve seen “insure” when it should have been “ensure”, I could retire early. This is a simple mistake that will not be caught by spell check. However, don’t proofread immediately after you’ve finished writing; the work is too fresh in your mind, and you are likely to overlook mistakes. If possible, wait until at least the next day. For an important document, such as a resume, it is helpful to have someone else proofread it also.

Check your grammar

For some people, grammar may be the distant memory of a required class they took long ago. It is also an important component of technical writing. If you can’t remember the difference between an adverb and an adjective, don’t assume that others won’t – take time to brush up on basic grammar rules. If you’re in the middle of a sentence and don’t know whether to use “lay” or “lie”, do a quick Google search. There are many websites that provide quick answers to get you back to writing. Double check any word or punctuation that you are unsure about.

Declutter

As you proofread your work, ask yourself if each word is really necessary to make your point. Often, descriptive words like “very” or “really” can tend to clutter technical writing without providing any real value. For example, consider the following sentence: The final solution had a very high concentration of 2 mM. Note that the word “very” does not add substantial value. To make the point more effectively, the word “very” could be replaced with something more specific, such as “a high concentration of 2 mM, which was five times the expected value”. Try to use only words or phrases that contribute significantly to each sentence, and be quantitative rather than qualitative when possible.

Keep it short

While decluttering should focus on words and sentences, the overall length of the document should be considered as well. This means determining whether paragraphs or entire sections are really relevant. Consider who your audience is and what level of detail they are interested in. If you’re writing a research paper, a detailed experimental section is highly relevant and expected.  However, if you’re presenting the same results to upper management in a two-page summary, they probably don’t care to know how long you stirred the suspension or what size your volumetric flask was. In general, get to the point and stick to the point with technical writing.

Keep it technical

Technical writing should not read like poetry or a riveting fictional novel, because it is typically not something that people like to read in their free time. It is work related and should be highly focused. If you have successfully decluttered and kept it short, it should already be technical. Keep an eye out for rambling sentences. Look for places where quantitative values could improve the impact of the writing. Ask yourself, what is the main point (or points) that I want my audience to walk away with? Make each point as briefly and quantitatively as possible. Then proofread, proofread, proofread.

This article was written by Sherrie Elzey, Ph.D., a chemical engineer and freelance technical writer/editor. Sherrie has a background in nanoscience and nanotechnology research, with experience in academia, government, and industry positions.

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Dealing with Work Stress

October 21, 2013

Lay-offs, increased workloads, and 24 hour 7 days a week access to work email- there are lots of reasons to feel work stress. When feeling stressed at work, you have a few options to help yourself: There are things you can change about yourself and there are changes you can make at work.

First, figure out how you are feeling and why. Often projects become busier and more stressful over time. As deadlines move up and tasks add up over time, we don’t always realize how hard we are working and how much work is taking out of us. Make sure to lift your head up from work now and then and assess how you are feeling and how much of your time and energy is going into work. Recognize what about work is stressful. It may be constantly responding to work emails at home, a new busy project, increased work hours, or changes in your department.

Making lifestyle changes can help when dealing with stress. Taking care of yourself is important and can let you calmly deal with what’s going on at work. Taking the time to exercise or take a walk can clear your head and help relieve tension.

It’s too easy to eat junk food when you are busy like hitting the vending machines or ordering greasy food which will not make you feel better in the long run. Trying to order healthy meals when you’re out or making big batches of good for you dinners to eat throughout the week are a couple of ways to treat yourself well.

Setting aside time to see family and friends allows you to keep in contact with the people who matter to you. Signing up for a Saturday morning swim class with your child or early morning yoga class with a friend ensures you make the time and not letting relationships fall through the cracks.

At work, you can make changes, too. If your project has temporarily become all-consuming, see if some of your regular tasks can be reassigned for a little while. While finishing a report, someone else from your department may be able to attend the safety committee meeting or take over purchase orders for the next week or two.

If your department is taking on more and more work, find out the long term plans for your division. If your manager is receptive, discuss work-loads and determine if more personnel should be hired if the work flow continues to increase. Adding equipment could increase efficiency and your manager might be receptive to that idea. Even simply setting up calendars to schedule instrument use could lessen the stress and workload in the lab.

If lay-offs or big changes are happening, try to set up channels of communication with your manager but avoid becoming too involved in office gossip. Be proactive and network with associates on sites like LinkedIn or on the ACS Network.

Remember to be aware of how you are feeling, and even small steps can make a big difference in alleviating some of the stress you are feeling.

 

This article was written by Sara Stellfox. After working in contract and pharmaceutical laboratories, Sara changed her career path and is now a free lance writer and chemistry instructor at the City Colleges of Chicago.


Customizing Your Resume

October 14, 2013

Reading a job description, you realize you meet all the requirements and your experience matches what the company is looking for-the ad could have been written for you. You attach your saved resume and cover letter-updated with the company’s name-to your application and wait to hear about an interview. You are disappointed to receive a form email saying you do not meet their needs right now.

What happened? Companies often use computer searches or have a human resources person to make a first pass over applications. If an application is missing key words from the job description, it may get sent to the reject pile.

Your resume may list experience with chromatographic method development for a pharmaceutical company and the job description may require GLP GC-MS method development and validation. You know that you developed GC-MS methods in a GLP environment and think your resume reflects that, however, your resume does not say that exactly and those facts should be stated plainly. Your resume should be updated to reflect how well you match the job description.

Make sure to keep a master resume that lists all the details from all of your positions, education, honors, publications, and so on. Five years from now it may be difficult to remember the details of everything you are doing in your current job. It’s easy to then copy this resume and edit it.

Some simple ways to customize your resume:

  • Keep a master resume saved with all your experience, education, skills, publications, etc…
  • Save a copy of your resume, the job ad, and relevant materials together.
  • Scan the job position for the experience or skills that you possess.
  • Update the copy of your resume to reflect key words in the job description that describe you.
  • Consider editing sections of your resume that are not relevant-keep your resume visually clean and uncluttered so that a reviewer can easily scan it and see important information. You may not need a lengthy description of your first job anymore. One brief bullet point could be sufficient.
  • Update your cover letter beyond the company’s name. Include descriptions of relevant experience or education.

When I went from working in the lab to teaching, I shortened the descriptions of my lab experience to leave room to emphasize my experience in education. I made sure to discuss my experience teaching during graduate school in my cover letter. I kept copies of the resume, the cover letter, and pdf’s of my unofficial transcripts in a folder along with a copy of the ad for each position. I also kept a master resume separately so I do not lose any information over time. If I need to highlight my experience with chromatography later on, I can use the information saved in my master resume.

Customizing your resume for each position will make it easy for whoever or whatever is reading your resume to see how qualified you are for this particular job.

 

This article was written by Sara Stellfox. After working in contract and pharmaceutical laboratories, Sara changed her career path and is now a free lance writer and chemistry instructor at the City Colleges of Chicago.


Updates on Online Career Tools

October 7, 2013

The Internet is continually evolving, and it can be hard to keep up with all the new tools.  This month we make you aware of several new tools you can use to enhance your own professional development.

 

Tweeting

The Oxford English Dictionary has now added “tweet” as both a noun and a verb (in the social networking sense (http://www.ragan.com/Main/Articles/46877.aspx).  Normally, a word must be in current usage for 10 years before being considered, but the fact they made an exception in this case just proves how important this tool is becoming. Posting on twitter (also called tweeting) can help solidify your professional reputation, build your network, and even lead to job offers.  It is also a useful tool in “the development and distribution of scientific knowledge” (http://arxiv.org/abs/1305.0435), by providing a rapid forum for sharing and discussing new ideas.

 

Online Interviews

The application process moved online a long time ago, and now the interview process is moving in the same direction.  In addition to asking for your resume and basic information, online applications are starting to ask essay questions.  Some questions found on recent online applications include:

 

  • Please summarize your past experience with (specific job requirement).
  • What are your hobbies/interests?
  • What would others consider your greatest strength?
  • What would others consider to be areas where you need improvement?
  • What do you see yourself doing two years from now?

 

While this process means you have as much time as you want to contemplate and compose your answer, it also means that you will be expected to have a polished response.

 

Infographics

 

Not only is there all kinds of information available online, but it is in many different formats.  Increasingly, information is appearing in infographics – visual representations of complex data.  When done well, this is a great way to summarize a lot of information in a small space.  Is there a way you can show off your expertise, by creating and posting an infographic?

 

LinkUp.com

This job search engine has become the first choice of many recruiters and hiring managers.  LinkUp indexes jobs listed on corporate web sites – currently over 1.5 million jobs from 37,000+ employers.  There are no postings from temporary agencies, recruiters, or duplicate postings.  This means you won’t waste time tracking a job through multiple sources to find the actual hiring company (reminiscent of the recursion that happens when you look up a reference in a paper, to find it doesn’t include the actual info but instead references another paper…).  The listings on the site are updated automatically when the source company’s website is updated, so all search results are as accurate as the company’s own web site.

 

LinkUp.com also allows you to set up alerts for new jobs matching your specific requirements.  This is a great way to stay aware of opportunities in your field, and watch for hiring trends that may impact your future career plans (for example a new skill that many employers are requesting).

 

If you want to stay ahead of the competition, you need to take advantage of the latest tools and techniques, so invest a few minutes in your professional future.

 

Get involved in the discussion

The ACS Career Tips column is published the first week of every month in C&EN. Post your comments, follow the discussion, and suggest topics for future columns in the Career Development section of the ACS Network (www.acs.org/network-careers)._—brought to you by ACS Careers.