Improve Your Writing

The writing you will be required to do in science subjects can be very diverse. In one semester you may have to tackle an essay, a field or lab report, a poster presentation or a scientific report. There are general rules that will be appropriate to any of these:

  • Doing well will require practice, preparation and organisation
  • Different briefs will require different, often very specific formats, structures and styles
  • Writing must always be referenced and acknowledge all of your sources
  • Writing should use technical vocabulary specific to your subject field.

1. Figures, Tables, Graphs

Commonly, writing for science subjects will require you to present data through figures, tables and graphs. Wherever you do so, consult this checklist to see if you have done so correctly:

  • Tables and diagrams should be numbered sequentially, clearly labelled and positioned close to the relevant text (unless in an Appendix).
  • The labels for tables should be above and those for figures below.
  • Within your label, prioritise the source of the information.
  • Keep titles short and informative.
  • If you use an abbreviation you should write it in full on its first use. "The vomeronasal organ (VNO)..." After this, simply use VNO.
  • Has your written text made reference to each one? Don’t assume the reader will make the connection.
  • Have you given your interpretation of the information and explained how it supports your main point?

In your writing, refer to figures, tables and graphs by the number you have labelled them with.

“As shown in Table 1 below”
“The mean weights for samples are shown in Table 1”
“Plant growth did not differ across irrigation treatments (Figure 1)”
“X and Y remained constant, as shown in Table 1”

2. Academic Style

Often, students find it difficult to write with an appropriate academic style. This is largely a matter of practice (and you should pay attention to the way books and articles you read are written). However, here are some key areas to fous on:

1. Choosing to use a personal or impersonal voice:

Traditionally, academic writing uses an impersonal style that is passive, uses the third person and focusses on things, rather than people.

You should be presenting information another scientist could use. Your feelings and opinions are rarely relevant. Presenting evidence or stating your own perspective is more useful than sharing what you ‘believe’.

Pay close attention to your brief and any guidance given by your teachers. For some kinds of writing (especially those where you are required to explain a process you were involved in), it may be more appropriate to write with a personal voice. When used well, this can make writing more precise and natural.

Active: I observed the angle to be…

Passive: The angle was observed to be…

For more information see: Active and Passive (OWL at Purdue)

2. Check your verb tenses:

Use the past tense to describe events that have happened.
e.g. “If you mix the compounds they react” would be better written as “When mixed, the compounds reacted”.

The results of others are typically discussed in the past tense.

3. Make tentative rather than absolute statements:

Science is developing and dynamic, and ‘evidence’ or ‘proof’ are not often actually attainable. The best outcome is that your data supports or is consistent with your hypothesis. When ideas repeatedly stand up to experimental scrutiny, they acquire the status of a theory, such as the Theory of Evolution. Do not over-state what your own work achieves.

e.g. “this experiment proves” could be rephrased in a number of ways: “tends/ appears to suggest”, “indicates that”

Limiting words:
- Possible/ possibly
- Probable
- Likely

Modal Verbs (indicating there may be doubt):
- May be
- Might
- Could
- Would

Softening or hedging words:
- Appears
- Suggests
- Indicates

4. The tone of your writing:

Avoid using jargon or cliché, or extensive repetition of certain words. In avoiding repeition be careful to choose alternatives carefully - the meaning quickly gets lost if you use words inaccuarately. If you are not sure what a word means - double check!

5. Keep it simple and clear:

Someone will be marking it, so help them out! Keep sentences and paragraphs short concise and purposeful. Academic writing doesn't mean you should waffle.

- Make sure your key ideas are not lost in the middle of long sections of writing. The opening line of a paragraph is a strong place to put important information.
- Only include detail where they make a point or help you to interpret result. Anecdotal information is typically superfluous.
- Avoid superlatives. These are adjectives like ‘huge’, ‘incredible’ and ‘exciting’ that don’t actually tell us anything specific.

For more detail on writing see: Academic Phrasebank (Manchester University)