Course Meeting Times

Seminar: 2 sessions / week; 1.5 hours / session



Course Description

This class is an introduction to writing about science—including nature, medicine, and technology—for general readers. In our reading and writing we explore the craft of making scientific concepts, and the work of scientists, accessible to the public through articles and essays. The chief work of the class is students’ writing; assignments include a brief essay on science in everyday life, an interview-based essay, and a longer (2,400–3,000-word) researched essay, all of which will be revised. In addition, there will be two brief graded assignments with optional revision. Students also give a talk introducing a book of their choice from a list provided. Revision and workshopping are both an important part of the class’s work. As part of our exploration of the craft of science writing, we will read essays and articles by writers such as Atul Gawande, Malcolm Gladwell, Katherine Schulz, and Elizabeth Kolbert.

This class fulfills the CI-HW requirement. It is open to all students and is normally required for majors in science writing.


Buy at Amazon Hancock, Elise. Ideas Into Words: Mastering the Craft of Science Writing. John Hopkins University Press, 2003. ISBN: 9180801873300. 

This class also requires students to have access to a dictionary. Mac computers have a decent dictionary on board (via “Tools”), which you can access by highlighting words in texts you’re reading or writing. Even better is the Dictionary app: on my Mac it’s the New Oxford American Dictionary, and by keeping it on your dashboard, you’ll be able to use it seamlessly. For those of you interested in learning more about words, or for whom English is a second language, I strongly encourage you to have, and use, a good hardcover dictionary.

Course Objectives

The primary work of this class is to:

  • Develop your skills in writing and speaking clearly and effectively;
  • Help you become aware of your own purposes as writers;
  • Help you become aware of the audience(s) you are writing for.

You’ll compose three major writing assignments, revise all of them, and re-revise 1 of them; in addition, there will be a few short non-revised writing assignments. Each student will also make a brief oral presentation. Readings will serve to get you thinking and provide models of good writing; they’ll provide inspiration for your essays and articles.

At MIT, the goals of Communication Intensive-HW subjects are to teach students to:

  • Create and shape their texts in relation to different purposes, audiences, and rhetorical situations, and—a related point—to understand the concept of genre;
  • Develop strategies for reading analytically, managing and structuring information, drafting, and revising;
  • Evaluate sources of information, integrate sources effectively for specific rhetorical purposes, and understand reasons for and systems of source citation in academic writing;
  • Understand how to critique other writers’ texts constructively and to use the peer review process to develop their own texts;
  • Develop the flexibility in word-choice and sentence construction necessary for conveying complex ideas coherently.


Assignment Percentage
Science in Everyday Life 15%
News Story 5%
Summary 5%
Profile Article 25%
Investigative Essay 35%
Book Talk5%
Class Participation10%


Revision is the heart and soul of this class. On first drafts, you’ll receive ample comments from me as well as comments from classmates. Each essay will be revised, and second drafts will receive more concise comments.

  • On first drafts, I’ll give you a mark of minus—doesn’t satisfy requirements for the assignment; check—may be rough, but meets assignment requirements; or plus, in excellent shape—needs only fine-tuning.
  • Second drafts will receive a letter grade and more concise comments.
  • For the Investigative Essay and any other essay or article that is graded twice, the grade for each revision will count for 50% of the grade for that assignment.

Class Participation

Class participation includes attendance, class discussions, and workshopping. Discussion is part of the oral work of a communications-intensive class: all students are expected to participate in class discussions.

  • Discussion should demonstrate not just familiarity with assigned readings, but also critical thinking and clear expression of ideas.
  • For good discussions, aim to build on each others’ points, not just jump in with random points.
  • All students are also expected to respond to classmates’ drafts thoughtfully.


At our last class meeting I'll collect a portfolio of written work for our class—so don't throw any of your drafts or homework away!

What “A” work looks like

A work is excellent: the content goes beyond the simple and commonplace—it may give readers some news, surprise them, or help them see something familiar in a new way. The writing is confident, energetic, essentially free of error, with the sound of an individual writer’s voice. It is clear—lucidity, lucidity, lucidity! (Hancock)—and, if the topic demands it, well researched. It is well focused and organized, and does not settle for the surface layer of the topic. It cites sources consistently and appropriately. It takes the reader into account throughout.

What “B” writing looks like

B work is solid, competent, on the right track. It may be not quite up to “A” level in most aspects, or it may excel in some aspects but fall short in others.

What “C” writing looks like

“C” work satisfies the assignment but is unclear in some places, is unfocused and/or weakly organized, contains some inaccuracies, cites inconsistently, stays on the surface of the topic, settles for clichés rather than fresh and vivid language, and/or contains a significant number of grammar errors. It does not successfully or consistently take readers into account. It lacks a central idea, or the idea is hard for readers to discern.