Ay 31
Writing in Astronomy
(Spring 2016)

Instructor: Lynne Hillenbrand

Meeting Time: Wednesdays @11am (Cahill 219)

Course Description ...... Policies ...... Schedule ...... Advice ...... Resources

Course Description

This undergraduate course is intended to provide practical experience in the types of writing expected of professional astronomers. Example styles include research proposals, topical reviews, professional journal manuscripts, critiques, and articles for popular magazines such as Astronomy or Sky and Telescope. Each student will adopt one of these formats in consultation with the course instructor and write an original piece. An outline and several drafts reviewed by both a mentor familiar with the topic and the course instructor, are required. This course has limited enrollment and is open only to those students who have taken upper level astronomy courses (i.e. it is intended for Ay juniors and seniors). Ay 31 satisfies the written component of the Science Communication Requirement.


There are no problem sets or exams for this course! However, there are other requirements including:
  • attendance at and participation in class meetings
  • interaction with your chosen science mentor
  • individual meetings with the course instructor
  • progress towards and completion of your writing assignment, including outline, first draft, second draft, final copy.

    Grading will be based on all of the bulletized items above. A useful set of evaluation criteria for the written document is listed here. And yes, spelling, grammar, syntax, and document structure all count. Extra credit may be given to those who point out (politely and tactfully) errors of grammar or spelling in communications emanating from the course instructor.

    The course text is Hofmann, Scientific Writing and Communication, 2009. This book comprehensively covers paper and grant proposal writing, and also discusses oral and poster presentations. It is geared towards writing about research so is probably less useful for those of you planning "popular level" papers. Nevertheless, if you plan to continue on the academic route into graduate school and perhaps beyond, I think it will be a well-worn resource for you.

    The following are also relevant and useful resources.

    Previously in Ay31 we used Alley, The Craft of Scientific Writing, 1996 (3rd edition). This book has a website with some excerpts but if you buy the book you will learn that it is a completely digestable short text that covers the relevant points. I have enjoyed skimming it once per year when I teach this course; the information is good to keep in mind regardless of one's technical field or career level. Alley has written other similarly useful books entitled The Craft of Editing and The Craft of Scientific Presentations that are also worthwhile reads.

    Texts that are specific to academic writing and of good quality include:

  • Porush, Short Guide to Writing About Science, 1994
  • Lindsay, Scientific Writing = Thinking in Words, 2011

    For a broader range of material covered at a basic level, see Gurak and Lannon, Strategies for Technical Communication in the Workplace, 2010.

    You may consult the Caltech course reserves list for this term for availability of the materials above. These books are located in either the Cahill Library or SFL.

    The following schedule outlines a path of steady progress from topic choice to final paper. Much of your progress will be at your own initiative. Try not to fall behind as the end of the term has a tendancy to sneak up and several interim checks on progress are necessary.


    Week #
    In Class On your Own
    Week 1
    28 March
    Introductory All-Class Meeting

  • discuss course logistics
  • the why and the how of science writing
  • discuss possible writing formats
  • decide on your audience
  • learn about the rules of the chosen writing format
  • if you are interested in writing a technical paper, read Writing a Scientific Research Article and Writing a Paper
  • if you are considering writing a proposal, read Chapter 13 in Alley along with How to Craft a Well-Argued Proposal to see how it's done in practice.
  • if you are interested in writing a popular paper, read The End of Science Writing
  • start thinking about the astronomical topic that will be the focus of your paper

  • Week 2
    4 April

    All-Class Meeting

  • structure of scientific papers (technical and popular-level)
  • beginning considerations

  • the astronomical literature
  • introduction to on-line resources
  • astronomical databases

  • read Chapter 1 in Alley or Chapter 1 in Hofmann
  • narrow down topic
  • find a local mentor for the scientific content of your paper
  • ask mentor for references to review or introductory articles on your topic
  • let me know by email your topic and your format, and with whom you are working if you have chosen a scientific mentor
  • start to outline paper
  • Week 3
    11 April


    Outline due
    -- is the choice of topic well-reasoned?
    -- is the material logically presented?
    -- what is being conveyed in each section?

  • read Chapter 2 in Alley or Chapter 7 and Chapter 17 in Hofmann
  • read reviews suggested by scientific mentor
  • conduct additional research on topic
  • take notes which may serve as a basis for your outline and/or introduction
  • complete outline of paper
  • Week 4
    18 April


  • meet with instructor to review outline
  • further develop outline based on feedback
  • continue to research topic
  • turn in reference list assembled to date
  • start work on introduction or middle of paper, whichever is most straightforward
  • read Chapter 17 in Alley
  • Week 5
    25 April

    All-Class Meeting
  • plans for revision of outlines
  • beginning the document
  • style and language
  • theme and variation

  • read What is an Academic Paper?
  • work on first draft
  • skim Chapter 3 in Alley or Chapters 10-13 in Hofmann as you start to write
  • work some more on your first draft
  • consider the consequences of not working on your first draft
  • Week 6
    2 May
    First Draft due
    -- is the draft complete?
    -- is the draft logically organized?
    -- does the draft interest the reader and make the case?

    All-Class Meeting

  • discussion of first drafts: structure, scope, plan for second drafts
  • example reading
  • habits of good academic writing
  • writing exercises on style and on ambiguity

  • turn in COMPLETE first draft (rough is okay, but please have an entire paper)
  • continue to research topic
  • skim Chapters 4-9 in Alley or (if a technical paper) Chapters 2-6 in Hofmann
  • Week 7
    9 May

    No All-Class Meeting ==> Individual Meeting with Instructor

  • critique of good and poor writing
  • writing exercises on grammar, punctuation, usage
  • set up and attend individual meeting with scientific mentor
  • read The Science of Scientific Writing for suggestions on reader-centered strategies
  • think about how technical material is best presented (text vs. figures vs. tables, etc.)
  • skim Chapters 10 and 11 in Alley or Chapter 9 in Hofmann
  • Week 8
    16 May
    Second Draft due
    -- is the draft improved over the first draft?
    -- does the paper ``flow"?

    All-Class Meeting

  • revision, emphasis, editing
  • obtain comments from instructor on your piece
  • discussion with Allison Strom on "astrobites"

  • read Chapter 16 in Hofmann
  • continue to develop paper
  • increase attention to grammar and style
  • check your mastery of writing mechanics
  • turn in second draft
  • skim Appendices A and B in Alley
  • Week 9
    23 May
    All-Class Meeting

  • peer review of second drafts using these guidelines, review sheets handed out in class, and perhaps even some quantitative criteria.
  • precision, clarity, conciseness, fluidity
  • titles and abstracts
  • obtain further comments from instructor on individual basis

  • read Chapters 14 and 15 in Hofmann
  • set up and attend individual meeting with scientific mentor
  • set up and attend individual meeting with course instructor
  • incorporate advice from above along with that from in-class peer review
  • with audience in mind, work on refining title and abstract
  • Week 10
    30 May
    Final Copy due


  • read Chapter 17 in Hofmann
  • polish draft
  • turn in final copy

  • Advice

    "Why is writing important if I'm a science student?" is a complaint of the weary problem-set-laden Caltech student. Contrary to common perception, good communication skills, both written and oral, are the most important ones to develop. This is true for practicing scientists in both academic and industrial/corporate environments. In academia, your ability to succeed in graduate school, as a post-doc, or as a professor depends on your ability to write and to speak with both clarity and authority. Scientific skill is a given at these later stages; what sets you apart from your peers is both a nose for a good problem and competency in selling the idea to funding agencies, telescope allocation committees, journal referees, etc. And most of us could not do what we do without the support of the U.S. taxpayers to whom we are occasionally asked to explain ourselves.

    In this course we are concerned with writing skills. A good writer will:

  • know his/her audience
  • know his/her topic
  • use precise language
  • give sufficient, but not too much, background material
  • motivate the present discussion
  • describe techniques/methods/assumptions and results
  • identify conclusions and evaluate their rigorousness
  • place implications into a broader context

    Scientific writing is a process. This process involves at least two stages: first thinking and planning, and second writing and packaging. The goal is to tell a convincing and well-woven story, not just transmit facts, and not just entertain. One perspective setting piece of advice to keep in mind is that your paper is of much more import to you, the invested author, than to most of its readers. It is therefore incumbent upon you to place as much effort as you can into effective communication; otherwise the average, generally lazy, potential reader is likely to go elsewhere for the information. This is not the desired outcome. You should, therefore, not only know and appreciate, but respect and engage your reader. Another piece of advice is to pick a topic in which you are truly interested. The process will be much easier on all of us if this is the case.

    "Okay, I'm paying attention now, but what should I write about"? Possible topics include a summer research project, an interest from the classroom, something you read about in Astronomy or Sky and Telescope, a question your friends expect you to be able to answer as an Astro major, and so on. I do not have a comprehensive list, but some contemplation on your part, discussions with your mentor, and limited web surfing (see links below) may help you find -- and then narrow down -- your topic. Understanding of and passion for your topic is critical for being able to write well about it. The next thing to decide is the format of your paper. Possibilities here include a journal level article, a telescope/theory/computation proposal, a piece for the lay-scientific press, and others we can discuss.

    If you plan to write a journal article: Read the relevant resources below, especially the ApJ author instructions. Here is a checklist for the structure of your document including pages in the text to which you should pay particular attention.

    If you plan to write a telescope proposal: Chapter 13 in Alley is a useful starting point for understanding how proposal writing differs from other formats. Read the relevant resources below, especially the NOAO proposal template and other example proposals. Don't worry so much about the exact realization of your proposed project; it is okay to pretend, for example, that a certain telescope has an instrument or detector like one that exists on another telescope. Hypotheticals are okay as long as they are among the feasible. Here is a checklist for the structure of your document including pages in the text to which you should pay particular attention.

    If you plan to write a popular article: Read the relevant resources below. You have more latitude in the structure of your document than those writing proposals or research articles. Find a style you might want to emulate by reading published pieces.


    [do please alert me regarding broken links]

    Astronomy topics:
    Encyclodpedia of Astronomy and Astrophysics
    Sky & Telescope Magazine - News
    Astronomy Magazine (click on news)
    Scientific American - Astrophysics

    Astronomy research resources:
    Caltech Astrophysics Library (lots of useful links)
    Astrophysics Data System (astro literature search)
    Google-Scholar (literature search)
    Astro-Web (information on professional activities and resources)

    General scientific writing:
    Hixon Writing Center - activities and resources at Caltech including more links to resources elsewhere
    Communicating Science - from AAAS
    Handouts and Videos, from the Writing Center at UNC (a very nice set of material)
    Writing Guidelines for Engineering and Science Students , from Penn State (by the author of our main text)
    MIT Graduate Program in Scientific Writing
    Tips on Word Usage in Scientific Writing, from Iowa State
    Grammar, Punctuation, and Capitalization, by NASA of all entities!
    Tips for Scientific Writing, by NOAA, not to be outdone by that other gov't agency

    For technical papers:
    Principles of Science Writing
    The Science of Scientific Writing
    Scientific Reports from the University of Wisconsin Writing Center
    Guidelines for Writing a Scientific Paper from a University of Illinois course probably like this one
    Style Guide from the American Chemical Society
    Style Manual from the American Institute of Physics (an oldie but a goodie)

    ApJ author instructions
    NOAO Proposal Template and content advice
    HST amateur proposal instructions
    Example Keck Proposal
    Example Galex Proposal
    Example Spitzer Proposal

    For popular papers:
    The End of Science Writing
    Planning and Writing a Science Story
    Communicating Science News from the National Association of Science Writers
    Communicating Astronomy with the Public from the IAU (see the links )

    Last Revised: 23 January 2016 by LAH