Lab Reports and Scientific Papers: A Practical Reason for Understanding Rhetorical Situations, Part 2

The second area to look at when understanding how writing in the sciences might differ from other classes you’ve written paper for would be writing conventions which tend to vary among disciplines. The following list covers general criteria for scientific writing.

  • Be sure the title is concise and that it adequately describes the contents. It should be short, straight to the point, and very literal.
  • Be sure you have used headings to label each section of your report or paper.
  • Make sure the sections follow the order listed above.
  • Make sure the tone and style follow the general conventions for scientific writing.  As a rule, writing in the hard sciences is intended to be factual rather than entertaining.  Writers tend to avoid rhetorical devices that are used in the liberal arts and humanities such as descriptive language (not to be confused with  factual descriptions or observations), anecdotes, personal opinion, humor or dialogue.
  • Another contrast to the general conventions of writing for liberal arts and humanities is the use of passive voice in scientific writing.  Passive voice is the preferred construction over active voice.  In a sentence where active voice is being used, the subject performs the action indicated by the verb. For example, in the sentence, “I put solution X onto the lab slide, ” the subject (I) is performing the action (put) indicated by the verb. Sometimes, when students don’t really understand the problem, they try to correct it by using third person rather than first which leads to a sentence like this: “The student put solution X onto the lab slide.” However, the subject (the student) is still performing the action indicated by the verb (put).  In passive voice, the subject does not perform the action.  Our sample sentence, when switched to passive voice, would then be written as follows:  “Solution X was put onto the lab slide.” In this case, the subject of the sentence (solution x) isn’t actually doing anything. Instead, the action is being performed on it.  Another clue that this is written in passive voice is the past tense linking verb “was” which is used with the action verb (put).
  • Past tense should be used in the methods and materials section.
  • Present tense is used when describing results and conclusions.
  • The procedure should be written in narrative format, in chronological order.
  • Sentences should be short and to the point. Facts should be expressed clearly and concisely.
  • Conventional scientific symbols and abbreviations should be used.
  • Any figures and tables should be correctly numbered and should be accompanied with an explanatory caption.  They should also be introduced in the text before they appear.

Of course these are general expectations.  If you have received instructions from your teacher which state something different, you should defer to his or her expectations.

More detailed information about best practices for writing in the sciences can be found here: Writing the Scientific Paper.

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