Having the ‘Write’ Stuff Essential for Geologists

AAPG member Matt Hall is inspiring geologists and geophysicists to write about what makes them tick: earth sciences.

Whether it’s discussing the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the eruption of the Grimsvotn volcano in Iceland or innovative presentations at oil and gas conferences, Hall wants to “democratize” earth science writing, expanding it beyond the formal realm of academic and peer reviewed journals and into the public domain.

Matt Hall, geologist and writer.
Matt Hall, geologist and writer.

“I can’t stand the fact that writing should be left to the so-called ‘experts’,” said 40-something Hall, a Ph.d geologist, geophysicist and former copy editor of math texts for the Reed Elsevier Scientific Group.

“We’ve all got something to contribute, and there are almost no boundaries,” he said. "Writing is a way to reflect one's own work as a geoscientist."

Further encouraging his peers to get creative, Hall says, "Dive in. Be bold. That's what the Wikipedia editors say."

Hall, a principal consultant with Agile Geoscience Ltd., is at the forefront of a current paradigm shift that's re-evaluating how the general public (and geoscientists) views the act of writing itself.

Most readers, according to Hall, view themselves as passive consumers of information, and not as writers.

"The audience is important," Hall said, "but it's also about the writer being engaged – the process of writing and publishing (blogs, magazine articles or conference papers) engages the individual.

"Engagement is going to drive excellence in what we do," he continued. "And it will inspire kids to get involved in earth sciences."

Write, Right?

Hall has designed a writer's tool kit and short course for geoscientists, laying the foundation for his peers to contribute – write, email, blog or tweet – their ideas and opinions on geoscience issues, taking advantage of all available platforms, including the new social media.

It is, for him, a new career opportunity.

In May Hall taught his inaugural course, "Writing for Earth Scientists," at the CSPG-CSEG-CWLS joint annual convention in Calgary, Canada, attracting nine students.

His one-day course focuses on the principles of clear, accurate writing, and provides students with practical, down-to-earth writing skills.

The course acknowledges how geoscientists view the world, and capitalizes the power of combining written text with various types of figures – maps, cross-sections, tables, bar graphs, mathematics, units of measurement, signs and symbols – to produce maximum impact.

Students are encouraged to bring samples of their past or present work for classroom discussions and feedback, and at the end of the course they depart with homework.

To Hall's surprise, many of his Calgary students – all geologists and geophysicists – weren't just interested in technical writing; they were also curious about writing fiction, blogs and "fun-to-read" articles.

"A couple of years ago, this course would have been about writing for technical journals," he said. "Writing doesn't have to be that big a deal; it can actually be fun. People generally read for fun or for entertainment."

An 'Invaluable Tool'

But are writing skills becoming obsolete in the age of the new social media?

Just the opposite is true, according to AAPG member Mark Dahl, a geologist with ConocoPhillips Canada in Calgary who attended Hall's course.

"Writing skills have become more important, especially with the advent of tweeting and blogging," Dahl said. "And I want to be part of that community."

Dahl regularly contributes to ConocoPhillips' in-house Wikipedia site, which is extensively peer reviewed throughout the company, from its upstream and downstream divisions. In the course of performing his daily job, Dahl regularly posts informal reports, posters and dynamic maps, soliciting peer reviews within the ConocoPhillips' global family of experts.

"There is a shift going on in the company toward rewarding people for their sharing of knowledge and not just for their technical knowledge," Dahl said. "And there's no better way to show your performance than to write about it.

"Some managers who don't want to participate in this new form of communication become isolated within their own teams and companies," he added.

Dahl's comments are echoed by Evan Bianco, another course participant.

"A lot of oil and gas geoscientists may think that writing is not important, because in a meeting the loudest voice wins," said Bianco, a geophysicist and Hall's colleague at Agile Geosciences. "But writing creates a level playing field; it's a more thoughtful way to communicate."

Cory Bass, a course participant and senior geologist with Calgary-based Freemont Resources, takes this theme one step further: "When you write, you end up with a product that contains a cogent argument or explanation – and that doesn't happen a lot in our business because ideas are rarely documented.

"Often times," he added, "there's a lot of maps, but the fabric of the idea (that generated the maps) can be lost."

Writing, admittedly, was never Bass' strong point.

"I was one of those kids who refused to read as a kid," he said.

But Bass got switched on to reading as an adult, realizing that writing was indeed an invaluable tool.

"As your career progresses, that tool becomes important to senior leaders, your company and to outside investors," he said.

Bass estimates that he spends 15 to 20 percent of his work day making presentations in montage or PowerPoint formats.

"I can't tell you how many terrible presentations I've seen by senior business leaders seeking capital," he said.

"I won't be the guy who geologically educates the community," he said, "but what works for me is sharing knowledge in the geoscience community."

Writing: The Definer

Amanda Knowles, a geophysicist with Calgary based RPS Boyd PetroSearch, took the course to hone her report writing skills and to avoid pitfalls like grammatical mistakes and scientific errors.

"I do a lot of report writing, and I feel like I've never been able to put a part of myself into the reports," Knowles said. "I wonder sometimes if the client even reads the reports. Are they too boring?"

Knowles conducts volunteer education and outreach activities – reaching school children of all ages – for the Canadian Society of Exploration Geophysicists, and writing is cornerstone of her stakeholder communications.

"Writing defines our reputations, in a sense," she said. "People may judge our entire company or geoscience community by how and what we write."

Bill Orr is an evaluation geologist who works for a financial regulator in Canada. Orr's world revolves around reviewing documents generated by publicly traded oil and gas companies: disclosures, press releases, financial reports, reserve reports, annual filings and offering memoranda for initial public offerings (IPOs).

"In the regulatory business," Orr said, "words and figures are legal documents. The meanings and contexts of words are very important.

"In the new world of unconventional resources versus conventional resources – although it sounds very arcane – we still discuss the meanings of contingent resources," he said.

Taking off his financial hat, Orr sees many opportunities for geoscientists to get involved, to be relevant to Society.

"Everyday issues – climate change, peak oil or geohazards – affect our lives, and yet we don't see geologists' voices weighing in.

"There's no barrier to entry for the Internet," Orr said of aspiring writers. "A well-worded Tweet can have a profound effect. The words will never lose their power, and the blogger can find his audience in (perhaps) the next hour."

He cautioned, however:

"The quality of the writing – even in a 140-character Tweet – speaks to the trust or belief in the writing. Poorly written 'stuff' reflects poorly on the author."

Blogging to the World

Hall is based in Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia, a sleepy town in Nova Scotia where the steeples of its three waterfront churches used to serve as beacons to sailors. Yet, Hall's geoscience blog (www.agilegeoscience.com) – which is gaining quite a global following – connects him to the oil and gas industry.

One of Agile's pet projects is open software, providing free source code and applications ("apps") to geologists and geophysicists, complete with videos on how to use the apps.

"You have to have a tough skin to blog," Bianco said. Traditional publishing of articles, he explained, typically go through a peer review process of up to six peers.

"With blog publishing, you go through hundreds of peer reviews," he said, "and it happens after you publish."

"I like the fact that we have a huge diversity of channels today," Hall said. "Thirty years ago, there was one channel, the editor of a learned journal.

"The signal to noise ratio may be going down," he said, "but that's an entirely different problem."

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AAPG member Matt Hall’s one-day clinic on writing is designed to help geoscientists better communicate their ideas.

The course includes:

GOALS

♦Improve the technical skills of those writing in print or online.

♦Offer tips for actually getting things written and submitted.

♦Encourage participation in the written history of our science.

THEMES

♦The whys, hows and whens of writing.

♦Venues for your writing.

♦What to write about.

♦Not being boring.

♦Introductions, methods, results, discussion, conclusions, abstracts.

♦Figures, tables, mathematics, references, acknowledgments.

♦Copyright, copy left, permissions, trademarks.

♦Manuscripts, copyediting, giving feedback, getting feedback, fact-checking.

Hall’s will offer his course in September in San Antonio as part of the annual SEG convention.

He's also available to run in-house courses for oil and gas companies. Students will also receive a copy of Hart’s Rules, an indispensable guide for writers.