Writing, page 1
Writing a Paper or Lab Report in Scientific Format
Think about your readers’ needs
Scientific papers are divided into sections:
Title, Abstract, Introduction, Materials and
Methods, Results (or Observations), Discussion, Literature Cited (or References)
Common stylistic problems
There are many books devoted to writing and to scientific writing in particular. This is to give you
ideas about what scientific writing is, and a simple plan for how to do it.
Early on, you may be
writing a lab report or a term paper for a course. Later, you may want to submit a manuscript to a
journal for publication, or apply for a scholarship or a job. Remember, there are many books on
style and composition - here we are discussing the form and function of a scientific report.
The most important rule for any writing - think about your readers’ needs.
What does this mean? Imagine for a moment, now, and then as you write and revise your report,
are reading it for the first time. Is your information in a logical order? Are your sentences
understandable and your paragraphs well organized? Have you described your ideas and results and
analyses fully enough, or is there needless detail? Your goal is to teach your reader something,
perhaps even to surprise or delight, but never at the end to puzzle, mystify or frustrate.
Who is your reader?
For now, your reader is probably your professor or your lab demonstrator.
These readers will know a lot about what you are trying to say, but they need to see if you do. The
easier your paper is to read and the more complete it is, the better your grade. Later, your reader
may be a colleague, or another student, or maybe an editor or a potential employer. These readers
might not know much about what you are trying to say, but you can assume that they are bright
enough to keep up with you, if you give them understandable information in a sensible sequence.
Here, ease of reading can translate into a higher grade, better acceptance of your ideas, publication
of your paper, or getting a scholarship or a job.
Regardless of your audience, a beautifully typed paper whose content lacks clarity or intellectual
merit will not help you. A useful strategy, unless your paper is for academic credit where you are
supposed to be working alone
, is to have a friend (preferably more than one!) read a draft and make
written comments on it.
If they are puzzled or unsure of your meaning, then assume you have not
been completely clear. Rewrite that section(s), even if you think your draft-reader was just being
obtuse. Your object is to make your thoughts generally understandable, and it is more likely that
you could not see your writing objectively. A friend, who takes the time to read your draft, and
criticize it rigorously, is doing you a great service. So, be thankful when they point out your errors
and inconsistencies. Another strategy, if working alone
, is to leave yourself time between drafts
(ideally 1-2 days) so that your errors will be easier for you to detect by yourself. This is not always