Carnegie Mellon University

Rhetorical Moves in Scientific Proposal Writing: A Case Study from Biochemical Engineering

Author: Brad Mehlenbacher
Degree: Ph.D. in Rhetoric, Carnegie Mellon University, 1992

Proposal writing in the sciences and engineering has only recently received attention by researchers interested in rhetoric and writing. In this dissertation, two pilot studies are introduced. The first is based on fifteen talk-aloud protocols of professional writing students and, the second, on fifteen open-ended interviews with academic researchers from various fields. Both studies, while offering insights into the nature of proposal writing, raise important issues that require further investigation. In particular, the studies reveal the need for research that describes the following: (1) how goals, intentions, and plans interact with contextual constraints and opportunities; (2) how writing processes and written products are produced over time, and; (3) how descriptions of the proposal-writing process can be used to inform current scientific and technical writing pedagogy.

A third study aimed at addressing these issues is then described. This study, of a biochemical engineer writing research proposals, extends over two years. Based on multiple data-collection techniques, the study expands our current understanding of the proposal-writing process. It reveals that proposal writing, journal writing, and laboratory activities are interdependent. Proposal writing in biochemical engineering is a dynamic process in which academic researchers negotiate numerous constraints--between their characterizations of the proposal's perceived audience and that audience's reaction to their text, between the proposal format and discourse conventions of the field, and between their texts, research goals, and the goals of their collaborators. Proposal writing is not, as some researchers have suggested, an activity that takes place prior to scientific research and publication. Instead, in writing a proposal, scientists must make numerous rhetorical choices regarding the presentation of existing data, of their research experience, and of their research intentions.

Importantly, applying different methodological approaches to the study of writing in biochemical engineering presents different "windows" on the proposal-writing process. Finally, I argue that rhetoricians and sociologists are guilty of "objectifying" scientific and technical writers--that is, of treating them as non-reflexive and arhetorical--when, in fact, we may gain a better understanding of their sensitivity to rhetorical issues by studying their writing processes in collaboration with them.