Writing scientifically

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If you are studing science, medicine or engineering, most of your assignments and reports will require you to 'write scientifically' using a clear, objective style.

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10. Writing about science

Effective writing about science is clear and interesting. Here are seven tips to help you achieve this:

a. Quality scientific writing
b. Abbreviations
c. Objective language
d. Active or passive
e. Past or present
f. Sentences
g. Paragraphs

a. Quality scientific writing

Try to make your writing:

Clear

Avoid unnecessary detail.

Simple

Use direct language. Avoid vague and complicated sentences.

Unbiased

State where and how you collected your data.

Support your conclusions with evidence.

Avoid assumptions and unproven statements such as "Everybody knows that..."

Logical

Present the information in a logical sequence.

Divide the text into sections with clear headings.

Precise

Avoid vague and ambiguous statements.

b. Abbreviations

Use standard abbreviations when you can. Define other abbreviations the first time you use them.

c. Objective language

Use objective language rather than subjective:

Objective

the experiment took two hours...

Subjective

the experiment was such fun that time just flew by and we couldn't believe it had taken two hours...

d. Active or passive

Scientific language often uses verbs in the passive voice rather than the active voice:

Passive

10ml of acetone was added to the flask

Active

I added 10ml of acetone to the flask.

The passive voice is useful:

  • when it's not important who performed the action
  • when you don't know who performed it
  • when you want to be formal.

But there are many cases when an active verb is much clearer than a passive one. Which of these do you prefer?

Difficulty was experienced in persuading people to take part in the experiment...

We had difficulty persuading people to take part in the experiment...

Or even:

We found it hard to persuade people to take part in the experiment...

e. Past or present

Write in the past tense when you're describing the procedures which you carried out, or the observations you made:

The temperature was recorded at 10-minute intervals.

Write in the present tense when you're writing about general principles, or your own conclusions:

Increases in temperature generally occur when this reagent is added.

f. Sentences

Help your readers by varying the length of your sentences.

Sentences which are more than 25 words are cruel to your readers; split them up into smaller sentences.

g. Paragraphs

Break your text up into paragraphs.

To have less than two new paragraphs on a page of double-spaced A4 paper is cruel to your readers.

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11. Writing scientific reports

Scientific reports often follow this 12-part format:

Title page

Containing:

  • the title
  • your name
  • the date
  • who the report was written for
  • terms of reference (a brief note of who will read the report, with how and why it was written)

Abstract

About half a page which gives a clear and concise overview of the report.

Table of contents

A simple list of sections with the pages on which they begin.

Introduction

  • explain the aims and objectives in detail
  • give background history
  • outline problems or limitations in the report.

Methods

  • what you used: the equipment, materials and procedures
  • problems you encountered
  • changes you had to make.

Results

Summary of results with tables and graphs (save your comments until the next section).

Discussion

In which you analyse and discuss the facts and evidence.

Conclusion

Summarise and re-state the most important points you have made and the significance of your findings.

Appendices

All the supporting material you have used which have not appeared so far:

  • tables
  • graphs
  • questionnaires
  • transcripts, etc.

Bibliography

A list of the published sources you have referred to, in alphabetical order by author.

Acknowledgements

People or organisations who helped.

Glossary of terms

Definitions of technical terms, if needed.

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last updated on October 16, 2008
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