Why does it matter?
“Because writing is how you present yourself to other professionals in your field,” says Kirsten Herold, who works with students and others at U-M SPH to improve their writing skills. “Just as errors in your data don’t inspire confidence, errors in writing don’t inspire confidence.”
Writing skills are especially important in public health, where experts need to convey complicated ideas in clear language—often to people who don’t work in the field. Herold, who holds a PhD in English and has taught writing at the university level for nearly three decades, says public health professionals need to write without grammatical mistakes and with mastery—meaning they need to develop a credible professional voice. She often advises students to “slow it down. Make it clear. Show the steps. Think of your reader and build a bridge. You have Idea A and Idea B—but the reader has no way of knowing how you got from one to the other. You need to construct a verbal bridge there. That’s a lot of what we do.”
5 Tips to Improve Your Writing:
- Keep subjects and verb as close together as possible. There’s nothing more confusing than having to look for the verb three lines down. Start sentences with what’s known and end with what’s not known. Instead of “We conducted this study because of this problem …,” try: “Because of this problem [already established], we conducted this study. And here’s what we did.”
- Put the action in the verb. Don’t “make a comparison,” for example. Just “compare.”
- Avoid needless repetition. See example below.
- Put the meaning into your nouns and verbs. Use adjectives and adverbs sparingly. Strunk and White (The Elements of Style) say there’s no adverb that can prop up a weak verb. International students, in particular, need to concentrate on finding the right verb. If you can find the precise verb, the rest of the sentence more or less falls into place. You don’t need all the prepositional phrases and whatnot that get in the way.
Example, with in-text edits:
“Due to limited resources and funding, the NRDC has been unable to perform further studies in order to characterize the MDR cases and isolates. However, the NRDC with a visionary approach, the NRDC has been collecting and storing resistant isolates found during years in which of national evaluations of resistant tuberculosis have been performed. Their overarching purpose was to perform a molecular epidemiology analysis in the near future to understand the genetic basis of resistant Mtb in the area.
George Gopen and Judith Swan, “The Science of Scientific Writing,” American Scientist (November-December 1990). americanscientist.org/issues/pub/the-science-of-scientific-writing.
Biostatistics, one of the key requirements of the SPH curriculum, is also one of the courses SPH students most dread. But when well-taught, with a “focus on applications, the subject can be more interesting and rewarding than you might expect,” says Rod Little, the Richard D. Remington Distinguished University Professor of Biostatistics.
The discipline of statistics—and its broad application to public health—is a critical underlying component of more visible discoveries and newsworthy policy developments. Little notes that without the hard, meticulous work of biostatisticians, none of these groundbreaking findings would be possible—nor would they stand the test of time.
In his work as a biostatistician, Little helps researchers differentiate fact from belief or opinion—and thus maintain the highest standard of scientific excellence. He stresses that for progress to continue in public health, rigorous statistical design and analysis are essential. Every facet of public health—from behavior change to environmental impact, epidemiological analysis, and policy development—relies on the strength of causal relationships that can only be safely inferred through a sound application of statistics. —Rachel Ruderman
4 Things to Know About Statistics:
- Math isn’t the same as statistics. According to Rod Little, a mathematics theorem essentially boils down to “if A, then A,” but statistics says, “if A, then maybe A!”
- Statistics is critical to the public health community. Without it, new developments are rendered meaningless—and potentially harmful—in the face of scrutiny. Consider, for example, the supposed relationship between vaccines and autism, largely based on a statistically weak and now discredited study.
- You can find statistics wherever you look—the good, the bad, and the ugly. Apply your basic statistics knowledge and critical-thinking skills to scrutinize news reports and recent developments in the public health world.
- Not everyone is a statistical mastermind. Nevertheless, Little recommends that all public health professionals understand the importance of measuring uncertainty, summarizing data, and designing studies that avoid hidden biases and lead to real knowledge.
Michigan Statistics Resources
According to a recent National Research Council study, the biostatistics department at U-M SPH is the country’s top-rated biostatistics program.
U-M also has other resources for sharpening your statistical edge. The Center for Statistical Consulting and Research provides pro bono statistical consulting to U-M students.
You can also re-explore the no-cost introductory statistics course at Open.Michigan, U-M’s effort to maximize the impact and reach of faculty research and teaching.