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Reading & Writing: Scientific Writing

Scientific writing in general

Writing for the sciences calls for a special emphasis on the following:

Use simplicity in your writing: avoid the use of metaphors and images, or very complex sentences. Express yourself clearly in as direct a way as possible,

Write in the passive voice when possible - e.g. 'the following method was selected' - not 'we decided to use this method'

Build your sentences logically and clearly. Be clear how one point builds on another.

Make your paragraphs fairly short. Try and have one main idea per paragraph. 

Be objective in your descriptions, especially when discussing findings of experiements. 

Be impartial as you assess the work and ideas of others - don't jump to conclusions, argue a point step by step.

Good Books on Scientific Writing in General

Writing for Geography and ecology students

This excellent book has a chapter (18) on writing reports and field notebooks, and is followed by chapters on writing reviews, abstracts, dissertations and exams

Writing Lab Reports - the IMRaD model

To write your lab report, you should first focus on the purpose of what you have been asked to do - is to gain some new knowledge, or apply a particular technique, or to test your understanding of the scientific method. Write your report with this is mind.

The usual model for lab report writing is IMRaD

Introduction: Before describing your experiement start with the wider theoretical background, the theory you are testing. Be clear about your aims.

Materials and Method: Remember you do not need to describe every detail, just enough detail to clearly outline what you did, and what you used.

Results: Don't interpret the data, just present the findings. Keep things in chronological order according to when they occurred in the experiment; show the steps you took. 

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Discussion: Here you should broaden out your writing to return to the initial theory you began with. How does your experiment fit with that? Finish with a conclusion which doesn't state anything new, but summarises what you've said and brings your report to a close. 

for more detail, see Boyle & Ramsay, 2017 Writing for Science Students. London. Palgrave Macmillan Education.

The link above is for a useful tool offered by North Carolina State University which acts as a guide to the lab report writing process tep by step. 

Writing Scientific Essays

Check out the advice on essay writing on this guide and the online course on the study skills page on your VLE.

For writing science essays you need to pay particular attention to the 'command' words in your essay title (Boyle and Ramsay 2017) - these are the words which indicate what you are being asked to do, such as 'compare and contrast', 'critically analyse', 'justify' or illustrate'. 

If you are asked to compare and contrast, you will be expected to make a lot of comparisons between different sorts of data; if you are being asked to 'justify', you need to be making an argument for a particular theory or hypothesis. 

In your Introduction, begin with a clear general overview of the subject, the particular issue you are looking at, how you are going to answer the question (very briefly), and what your main findings are. 

In your writing, try and keep your sentences and paragraphs concise and well focused. Have a main point per paragraph if you can. 

In your conclusion make sure you refer back to what you have demonstrated and how you did it. 

Short course in scientific writing

The link below is to a 30 minute course by the University of Birmingham in scientific writing skills.

Writing for Biologists

There are two excellent resources to help you with the particular demand of writing about biology. 

Online help with science writing

Writing about data is a challenge. The data needs to be presented well and clearly, using both image and text.

Presenting numerical data well is a necessary skill for any scientist. 

  • This guide produced by the University of Leicester gives good examples of how to present numbers in your text, and when it is advisable to use tables. 
  • The UN Guide to Making Data Meaningful has lots of examples of good and bad presentation of data to help when you are considering how to present data alongside your writing.