Tips for Writing Your First Science Paper

Writing in the sciences may seem foreign and unrelated to essays written in the humanities and social sciences, but for those new to the discipline: don’t fret!  Here’s some helpful tips that remind you it’s not so different after all.

Always ask the professor about his/her expectations. Professors in the different branches of science may have very different expectations for the style and structure of your paper. Ask, for example, about specific forms or citation style, whether passive or active voice should be used, or how the professor wants you to answer specific questions. Every lab report—whether for Biology, Physics, or Astronomy—will ask for a specific style. In most cases, the professor will provide a procedure, which makes up the Methods section, and questions that should be answered in the Discussion section. The Discussion section is your opportunity to analyze the results in detail and is always written in paragraph form. Yet, for example, many Biology professors expect this to be written in passive voice. Don’t be afraid to ask!

Develop a thesis. Just like other professors, science professors expect a well-developed argument. Whether it comes in the form of a hypothesis, guiding question, or thesis statement, make sure you have solid and well-supported argument. For lab reports, the overarching hypothesis or guiding question should be included in the Introduction. This section should relate the primary motivation for doing the experiment and summarize background knowledge necessary to understand the experiment.

Structure! Ask yourself questions like: Why did I write this paragraph? Why is this point necessary? Should it go here? Be careful about structuring your paper to be clear and concise. The five-paragraph essay form may not be applicable, but that doesn’t mean you should reject all structurethe lab report conveniently provides you with a built-in one. Make sure you follow the conventions of lab reports and delineate the sections. A general lab report will include the following: Abstract, Introduction, Methods, Materials, Results, Discussion Section, Conclusion. The Conclusion section may require additional information that English essayists wouldn’t expect, such as suggestions for future studies in addition to the summary of the larger analysis. A science essay should follow a similar general structure: start with the Introduction, expand the Discussion section, and finish with the Conclusion.

Consider your tone. An important distinction from other disciplines, albeit a generalization, is to consider the tone and style of your science essay. Consider in a lab report how you would discuss statistics or data in a table. Keep this objective and straightforward tone in mind when writing longer essays. Don’t try to awe the professor with flowery language, irrelevant but interesting information, or witty repartee. It’s (usually) not appropriate!

Edit. Edit. and more Editing. You might think that you can hide behind statistics, technical language, and results lingo, but science writing requires the same amount of editing and review as an English paper. Cut out redundant words, repetitive phrasing, and extra data. Be clear, precise, and attentive to detail. If it’s not absolutely essential for the reader to know, cut it out!

Those annoying things called citations. They’re painstaking and always take far longer than you expect, but science papers also require these infuriating little buggers. Keep in mind that scientific footnotes also have varied formats and styles for the different departments. Here’s a helpful guide to some of the science citation styles: www.swarthmore.edu/documents/library/reftip_citesci.pdf

-By Grace Ross ’12

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One Response to Tips for Writing Your First Science Paper

  1. Sam says:

    This post reminded me of my school days… I would have done much better in class, had I come across such tips at that time. Anyway, good work.

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