University of Vermont


Professional Writing in the Natural Resources (PBIO/NR 333)

A forceful expresion of our writing program is Field Notes, the annual publication from UVM's Field Naturalist Program. Conceived, written, edited and produced by students during the second section of Professional Writing, Field Notes offers perspectives on nature and human nature.

Students choose a theme for the issue, write most of the articles, solicit others from faculty, design the magazine, budget for its printing and mailing, and oversee prodution and distribution to completion. Field Notes is distributed to alumni of our two programs, to faculty, to UVM leaders and to members of the general public. Archived editions are also available here online.

Professional Writing (PBIO/NR 333) is a four-semester journey through the essentials of descriptive, intelligent and persuasive non-fiction writing. These include: exuberance for the subject, strategy and organization, effective language, proper grammar and the courage to break rules now and then. In brief assignments, students read, write and edit great and lousy prose. Designed to bring ideas from the field to the page, this course is by no means writing for writing's sake; it is writing with purpose — practical writing for the natural resources professional.

Field Naturalist students enroll in PBIO/NR 333, one credit per semester, for all four semesters of their graduate tenure:

  • Section 1 – Essentials (fall) begins with the basics of good writing: thinking and outlining, active verbs and voice, effective sentences and paragraphs, and proper grammar. Discussions and assignments progress toward writing in the commons: analyzing audience, creating compelling leads, developing logical arguments, sustaining momentum in prose, avoiding jargon and clutter, getting to the point, and closing. This first semester of PBIO/NR 333 is the only one of the four open to graduate students in the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources.

  • During Section 2 – Perspective and Publication (spring), students refine their writing skills during the production of a magazine, Field Notes, the annual publication of UVM's Field Naturalist Program. Working as a team, the class takes on all the responsibilities of publishing: planning, budgeting, setting and enforcing deadlines, writing, editing, design, printing and distribution. Essay writing — with perspective and point of view — is a focus this semester.

  • Section 3 – Academic and Professional Writing (second fall) features writing in large part related to second-year FN student master's project work. Having completed research and a field season on their projects, students write about their work and related topics in various venues: professional memo, news release, position paper or opinion essay.

  • Section 4 – Reflective and Popular Non-Fiction Writing (second spring) helps students complete the FN curriculum. In addition to their master's project "deliverables," FN students write a literature review and a treatise (the "academic reflection") related to their studies. Students also research, plan and write an essay, opinion piece or some other form of expository non-fiction suitable for either a peer-reviewed journal or a general publication such as a newspaper, a trade or professional magazine or a web site of substance. This semester also includes seminars on strategies in public relations: cultivating and working with news reporters, blogging, social media and self-publishing.

Requirements and Objectives

Students will read about writing, lead, and participate in classroom discussions about writing, write nearly every week and edit each other's work. Collaboration and classroom discussion are essential in this course, which means students share their writing for critique by others in class. No writer likes criticism, yet no writer succeeds without it. By editing the work of others, students often discover writing problems they cannot recognize in our own work. In this class students practice humility, benefit from criticism, and even defend what they write from abuse by misguided editors (or professors). Readings and writing assignments will be short and, when possible, relevant to other FN or RSENR coursework. More than anything, students will write and revise what they write, and then revise it some more. Whether they tend to bury the lead, employ the passive voice or dangle participles, students embrace and confront "writing issues" together. Each student will make a brief presentation to the class on a particular writing vulnerability. In teaching, students also learn. Finally, in this class your instructor would rather see students being wrong yet imaginative than being correct and conventional.

The Instructor: Bryan Pfeiffer

Bryan Pfeiffer is a writer and consulting field naturalist. His articles and essays have appeared in Orion, Aeon Magazine, The New York Times, Field & Stream, The Progressive, Eating Well, Northern Woodlands and lots of other places. Bryan co-authored Birdwatching in Vermont, a guide to finding and enjoying the state's birds, and is now at work on two books: a collection of essays called FLIGHT: A Year With Airborne Animals, and another titled PANTALA: What a Dragonfly Tells Us About Sex, Evolution and the Human Condition. Find Bryan online at Contact him about the course at

The Instructor's Role (A Note from Bryan)

More than teaching grammar, punctuation and style, I promise to establish an adaptive and supportive environment for learning what is arguably one of the most personal and difficult subjects in any curriculum. I will edit your writing with care and a certain ruthlessness; you are in turn free — encouraged — to challenge anything I do or say. I will also subject my own writing to your editing and ridicule in class. I will spend more time reading what you write and suggesting improvements than I will spend in the classroom. The best opportunity for you to learn in this course comes from working with others and meeting with me to improve writing skills. So I will make every effort to be available during office hours and beyond. Please take advantage of this time outside of class.


Engagement and determination count in this course. Unlike some other subjects in the FN or RSENR curriculums, assessing the extent to which a students learns writing is somewhat subjective and tough to grade. Yet a writer's effort is invariably apparent in words on the page. So anyone who shows genuine interest in writing, which basically means writing with diligence and openness to revision, will do well in this course. In terms of a grade, the extent to which students improve their writing will be more important than what they actually write. After assigning grades, Bryan will meet with each willing student in private to explain the grade, how it compares to those of others (anonymously) and how the students can improve in future sections of the course. Here's how Bryan scores your grade:

  • Writing proficiency — 25%
  • Improvement in writing proficiency — 35%
  • Meeting deadlines — 10%
  • Joining the discussion in class — 10%
  • Grammar and Style presentations — 10%
  • Originality and iconoclasm — 10%

Suggested Books

Good writers are readers. But good writers don't necessarily learn writing from reading books about writing. Good writers write — a lot. There is no particular textbook for this course; Bryan will issue many handouts and web links, but he may also assign additional readings to anyone who expresses an interest or shows need. Here are a few titles worthy of any writer's reading list:

  • On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction (30th Anniversary Edition) by William Zinsser
  • Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer by Roy Peter Clark
  • The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century by Steven Pinker
  • Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
  • Stylish Academic Writing by Helen Sword
  • The Norton Field Guide to Writing (3rd Edition) by Richard Bullock, Maureen Daly Goggin and Francine Weinberg

Last modified November 20 2017 11:17 AM