Kamisha Escoto, a lecturer in Rice University’s Activate Engineering Communication Program, understands how to put her audience at ease and inform them using techniques that match their interests and backgrounds.
“If you’d like to work on improving your scientific, technical, or engineering papers, I’m happy to meet and talk with you,” she says. She encourages Rice engineering students and postdoctoral researchers to stop by for a conversation or to email her about their publication goals and timelines.
“The two biggest factors that helped me develop my skills in paper and grant writing were reading across different genres and spending a lot of time thinking through and organizing my thoughts on a topic and jotting them down. Practice really will begin to build up your confidence,” said Escoto.
“I also had to grow into being brave enough to use my own voice. For a while, I felt like everything I wrote had to have a reference. But I had my own ideas and perspectives in my work. It took time to grow that confidence; in the end, it makes my writing stronger.”
Escoto said she showed up at graduate school having read very few scientific papers. Her undergraduate training in mechanical engineering focused on practice-related assignments, then she and most of her peers went straight to work in the oil and gas industry after graduation.
“When I arrived at grad school nearly three years later, I didn’t know anything about the culture, how to approach research in ways that would lead to publication, or the language norms my colleagues and advisors would use when we co-authored papers. I had to spend a lot of time reading,” she said.
“Having a multidisciplinary background had me reading across disciplines. I read papers from public health journals, human factors journals, quality improvement, occupational health, health disparities, and in social science. That really exposed me to different types of scientific writing.”
She continued reading many scientific papers as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Minnesota and in her roles at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. Whether diving into grad school, researching as a postdoc, or writing for MD Anderson, Escoto had to build her knowledge base quickly –so it did not take long for her to lose patience with dense texts that were written in overly complex styles.
“That helped me determine how I did NOT want to write,” she said. “I became a big proponent of clear and approachable writing. After fifteen years in intense writing roles, I can still say I love to write. And the only thing better than clearly communicating important information is helping others learn how to communicate their own complex ideas.
“Consistent practice strengthens your writing skills over time. The more you write, the more you develop your own voice. Like learning martial arts, how to cook, or other types of training, improvement in your writing occurs over time as you continue working on your craft. Luckily for me, I had to write a lot in my different roles and there was a great deal of variety including research proposals for national grants and fellowships, philanthropic funding applications, business reports and proposals, and writing for the public.”
Escoto said those years of pitching the value of her organization’s programs, centers, research, and a wide variety of proposals helped her become very persuasive, even in email. Writers must appeal to a particular person or audience to influence them and prompt the response that is necessary to complete work or achieve funding or business goals. She believes influencing a reader begins with understanding their perspective. Writing a paper or presentation is prefaced by defining her audience and establishing clear goals for the piece.
“If I am not clear on what the ask is, I can’t convince the audience. Writing notes to flesh out a concept or clarify a goal sometimes works, but if you are unsure of the overall point, your writing usually reflects that.
“Once your ask is clear, consider what will motivate the audience. What do they need or what are they interested in? Thinking about their motivation and incorporating that into my writing always helps get my point across.”
When she mentors writers, Escoto urges them to try imagining what the reader wants to achieve. If the reader is an investor, what outcomes do they expect for their funds? If the reader is a student –already exhausted by their level of work– what do they need from an article found through an Internet search?
“Bearing your reader’s perspective and goals in mind will help you better communicate your point. Doing your own search can also help you determine what points to add to your piece or consider how to approach a point differently than in the existing body of work,” said Escoto.
“Sometimes, you just ask your audience for their perspective. Engineers work on specified problems, so they are used to gathering data and creating solutions that address their client’s needs. I utilized some of the same approaches in my writing that I learned working as a mechanical engineer.
“If I can talk with students or members of a prospective audience before I begin writing, I can better shape my content to meet their needs or expectations. If those conversations are not possible, then I try to put myself in my audience’s shoes as much as I can and take extra care to create something that is clear and understandable.”
Escoto is attuned to the challenges international and under-represented students face in scientific writing – both as undergraduates and as graduate students. Before joining the Activate team, she created and led workshops designed to support first-generation and minority students in their scientific and technical writing efforts. Students who speak English as a second language can also benefit from these types of workshops.
She said, “I am happy to be in a position where I can try to give students some of the opportunities and exposure I missed. The right resources, support services, and experiences for students and postdocs are vital to their overall development as engineers and researchers. Students who have not previously written for a journal or given a conference presentation may feel uncertain about how to ask for assistance, but our team can provide support at almost any stage of the process — from initial brainstorming an approach to editing a paper or observing a practice presentation.
“Whether they arrive thinking they are a terrible speaker or if they are more experienced and just need a bit of polish, I always begin with the positive and offer small suggestions on how to tighten their writing. It is important to help them remain true to their own style.”
Escoto jokes that she’s never achieved a perfect draft the first time so she would never have such expectations when consulting with a Rice student or postdoc. Most of the writers she meets just need reminding to remain intentional in their efforts and to keep going.
“Expertise develops over time. Get in there, get started, and be committed to it. Your confidence WILL grow, and moving in small steps WILL get you there. The more you write and refine your drafts the more comfortable and proficient you become,” she said.
This story is part of a series for our Activate Engineering Communication program.