Woolly writing is a symptom of woolly thinking

People who think well, write well. Woolly minded people write woolly memos, woolly letters and woolly speeches. David Ogilvy.

There’s nothing like reading through and marking students’ exam scripts. Mostly it is terribly boring, but sometimes it is enlightening. 

One of the questions I asked on an exam this semester involved getting the students to describe and explain what happens in a particular situation. The exact question is immaterial – but what the students had to do was to write sentences. It was clear that this task is very difficult for a good many of our students. Their responses are a reminder to me that we don’t specifically teach writing in our science degrees. 

Well, we do, to some extent, in some papers. Students have to write things. But we don’t have a specific course on how to write scientifically. Student answers were plagued by bad grammar and spelling, but, more worryingly, were vague and woolly*. There are a lot of physics words with very specific meanings, that can be used to describe the movement of something unambiguously. Force, centre-of-mass, momentum, angular acceleration, etc, all have well-defined meanings. Instead of containing such words, used correctly, many answers were couched in vague, ill-defined language, or (maybe worse still) used good-sounding physics words but incorrectly. 

There are two issues I see here:

1. Is it time we  taught students explicitly how to write? (In particular, how to write technically). 

2. Woolly writing is a sign of woolly thinking. A badly phrased response is indicative that the student hasn’t really got their head around what is going on. And that’s suggesting that there is learning still to do. It is easy to hide behind mathematical calculations if you don’t know what’s going on. But having to abandon the calculator and resort to descriptions may really show up how a student is really thinking.

I’ve come across the  ten tips for good writing from David Ogilvy (of Ogilvy and Mather advertising agency) on the BrainPickings website. Have a read. They seem obvious, and they’re not difficult steps to follow. But it’s clear that following them doesn’t come naturally.

*I’m not sure where the term ‘woolly’ comes from, but it evokes the image of something ill-defined like the surface of a sheep: where does the fleece stop and the air start? It’s hard to pin down anything definite. 

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