This study guide offers you some strategies for making your scientific writing more effective, helping you to write with accuracy and clarity. PLEASE NOTE: if you have specific queries about the style and format of reports for your subject, you should ask your department.
Other useful guides: Writing essays.
Writing is a very important part of science; it is used to document and communicate ideas, activities and findings to others. Scientific writing can take many forms from a lab notebook to a project report, or from a paper in an academic journal to an article in a scientific magazine. This guide focuses on scientific writing for academic course work, much of which is devoted to describing and explaining.
Characteristics of good scientific writing
Good scientific writing is:
- clear - it avoids unnecessary detail;
- simple - it uses direct language, avoiding vague or complicated sentences. Technical terms and jargon are used only when they are necessary for accuracy;
- impartial - it avoids making assumptions (Everyone knows that ...) and unproven statements (It can never be proved that ...). It presents how and where data were collected and supports its conclusions with evidence;
- structured logically - ideas and processes are expressed in a logical order. The text is divided into sections with clear headings;
- accurate - it avoids vague and ambiguous language such as about, approximately, almost;
- objective - statements and ideas are supported by appropriate evidence that demonstrates how conclusions have been drawn as well as acknowledging the work of others.
Developing good scientific writing
To reflect the characteristics of good scientific writing in your own work, you need to think about the way that you write and the language that you use. A good scientific author will have given consideration to the following choices in writing, making decisions that improve the effectiveness of the writing.
Choosing the words
To make your writing clear, accurate and concise you should consider carefully the words that you use, and the ways in which you use them.
In most scientific writing you will need to use some scientific or technical terms in order to be clear and unambiguous. However, use such terms only when you need to do so and do not try to impress the reader by using unnecessary technical jargon or lengthy words.
Abbreviations can be a very useful way of saving time and avoiding repetition, but they can be confusing and might not be understood by everyone. Use standard abbreviations where these exist, and reduce your use of abbreviations to an absolute minimum; they are rarely essential.
Use objective rather than subjective language
Objective language is language that is impartial and states a fact or process; subjective language is open to question or interpretation as it implies personal thought or belief. For example:
objective The car travelled at 38 kilometres per hour
is a clear, objective statement of fact. However:
subjective The contents of the test tube turned a beautiful blue colour
uses beautiful in a way that is subjective because it cannot be measured or accurately explained to the reader. Always use language that is concrete and specific rather than vague and personal.
Choosing a 'voice'
Scientific writers have a tendency to use passive rather than active expressions; stating that a was affected by b uses the passive voice while stating that b did something to a uses the active voice. The following example shows a sentence written in both the passive and active voices.
passive The experiment was designed by the research officer
active The research officer designed the experiment
The passive voice is particularly useful when:
- you wish your writing to be formal and depersonalised:
passive It was agreed that the experiment should be...
active We agreed that the experiment should be...
- information about the agent is obvious or unimportant:
passive Extra solvent was added to the flask
active The technician added extra solvent to the flask;
- you do not know the identity of the agent:
passive The water pipe was broken in three places
active Something/someone had broken the water pipe in three places
However, the use of the passive voice can lead to clumsy and overcomplicated sentences.
passive Difficulty was experienced in obtaining the product in a high state of purity
is rather convoluted way of saying
active The product was difficult to purify
which is a much clearer and more straightforward statement.
In general, the active voice is clearer, more direct and easier to read, but the passive voice can be more appropriate in particular circumstances. What is most important is for you to be aware of how you are writing, and how the voice that you choose affects the tone and the meaning of your words.
Personal or impersonal?
Scientific writers often try to avoid the use of personal expressions or statements in order to make their writing seem more impartial and formal. The following sentence has been written with both personal and impersonal expressions to highlight the contrast between the two writing styles.
impersonal The explanation for this phenomenon may be found in…
personal We/I believe that the explanation for this phenomenon may be found in...
However, used indiscriminately, writing impersonally can result in clumsy statements through an excessive use of the passive voice. This can lead to ambiguity or inaccuracy in your written work, for example:
impersonal & passive
It was decided that the temperature should be raised gives no information about the identity of the people who made the decision.
personal & active
We decided that the temperature should be raised avoids ambiguity and makes the sentence sound more direct, but uses the personal and rather informal we.
impersonal & active
The research team decided that the temperature should be raised is clear and direct.
Think carefully about your use of impersonal and personal expressions, taking care to ensure that your writing is always clear and unambiguous.
Scientific writing frequently uses the past tense, particularly when the main focus of the writing is to describe experiments or observations that took place prior to the time of writing, for example:
The data were analysed.
The solution was decanted.
The temperature was recorded.
However, the past tense may not be appropriate for everything that you write and sometimes you will need to combine different tenses in the same piece of writing. For example, the use of different tenses can help to clarify what happened or what you did in the past (past tense), what you conclude (present tense) and what will be an issue for the future (future tense). The following sentences show how different tenses can be used to achieve clarity in your written work.
The experiment was carried out in a sterile environment (past tense for a statement of what happened). It is particularly important to avoid contamination (present tense for a statement that is a general 'truth'). It will be necessary to ensure that the same conditions are replicated in future experiments (future tense for a recommendation for the future).
An appropriate use of past, present and future tenses can contribute to a clear and unambiguous writing style.
Sentences that are too short and poorly connected can be irritating to read. Conversely, sentences that are too long and rambling are difficult to follow and are likely to be confusing. Use a sentence length that allows your thoughts to flow clearly. As a general rule there should be no more than 20-25 words in any one sentence. You may be able to reduce your sentence length by:
- cutting out unnecessary words
like might replace along the lines of
now may be just as appropriate as at the present time
we can now turn our attention to could perhaps be cut out entirely;
- dividing complex sentences into separate phrases or sentences.
If a breakdown occurs it is important that alternative supplies are available and the way that this is done is for the power stations to be linked through the high voltage transmission lines so that all of them contribute to the total supply of energy and an unexpectedly large demand can be handled.
can be re-written thus:
If a breakdown occurs it is important that alternative supplies are available; this is done by linking power stations through the high voltage transmission lines. All of them thus contribute to the total supply of energy and an unexpectedly large demand can be handled.
Writing well requires as much care and thought as the experiments or research that are written about. This study guide has defined a number of characteristics of good writing, and has highlighted some of the key choices that scientific authors must make if they are to write with accuracy and clarity. If you require further help in the development of your writing, please contact Learning Development in the David Wilson Library.
WASHINGTON —This week, 30 middle-school students and high-school freshmen met in Washington, D.C. for the 2014 competition known as Broadcom MASTERS (for Math, Applied Science, Technology and Engineering for Rising Stars). The finalists completed team challenges, presented their middle school science fair projects and learned about science careers. They even got a chance to meet President Barack Obama.
Broadcom MASTERS was created by Society for Science & the Public (which publishes this blog and Science News for Students). It is sponsored by Broadcom (a company that builds devices to connect to the Internet). It is an annual competition where middle and early high school students share their winning middle school science fair projects and inventions with the public.
These students love science, technology, engineering and math. Here, in their own words, they tell us why science is both challenging and amazing.
What I love about science is that you never run out of options for what to do. - Chythanya Murali, 13
I love that science is like a neverending puzzle that you can continue to solve. And it gets more exciting over time. - Holly Jackson, 14
My favorite part about science is learning or discovering things that people have never known before. – Caroline Edmunds, 13
My favorite thing about science is that satisfying feeling when you discover something new. – Jonathan Okasinski, 12
My favorite thing about science would probably be biomimicry and how it has helped us invent new things. - Annie Ostojic, 12
I love science because it allowed me to answer my questions that I see in nature in a rational and logical fashion. - Rajiv Movva, 14
The hardest part of science is coming up with the answers. – Talar Victoria-Grace Terzian, 13
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biomimicry The creation of new devices or techniques based on those seen in nature.