The Writing Tutor: How to Make Scientific Writing Intelligible

Posted by Michael Schreiber on 8/18/14 1:06 PM

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Many students struggle with scientific or technical writing, unsure of how to present such complicated and number-heavy information in readable prose. Commonly, students fall into the trap of vomiting data onto the page without very much connecting prose to help the reader understand the material. This forces the reader to shoulder the burden of figuring out what the writer's point is, which tends to numb and annoy the reader.

Alternatively, students will eloquently describe what was done in an experiment but leave out the crucial data, which arguably is the whole point of the scientific endeavor to begin with. How does the diligent student of science avoid these pitfalls? The simplest answer is to know and deeply understand what it is your reader is looking for in the work you are handing in, whether it be a lab report, a grant application, or a scientific article.

So, what is your reader looking for, anyway? The reader--even though this is science, not fiction--is looking for a story, a story that connects previous findings to the new and unique findings in your work, and presents the reader with some interesting conclusions as a take-home message.

Ideally, the figures and tables you present should tell a story all by themselves. As a longtime science and writing tutor, I've found that students don't always understand that whether it's advanced physics, biology, or applied math, someone with a working knowledge of the field who picks up your work should be able to understand the gist of what you’ve done and be able to develop a take-home message for herself without reading much if any of what you’ve actually written. Of course, the reverse is also true; someone who reads your work and skips over the figures and tables should have a full picture of what you’ve done and its significance. This means that you have to incorporate enough technical detail in your text to fully support any claims you make in your conclusions or discussion section.

How might this work in practice? Take a look at the following two examples and think about which one is clearer and more useful to the reader:

  1. “The data presented in Table 4 show that hydrochloric acid is more acidic than acetic acid.”

  2. “Hydrochloric acid at a concentration of 1 M was found to have a pH of 0, whereas acetic acid at the same concentration was found to have a pH of 2.4, indicating that hydrochloric acid is a stronger acid (Table 4).”

In (1), the reader has nothing to go on based on the text, and will be forced to hunt through the paper for Table 4 to get any truly useful information. In (2), the reader gets all the information he or she needs right in the text, and can refer to Table 4 for additional or clarifying information. I don’t know about you, but as a grader I’d rather be reading the paper that has (2) in it. It takes me less time, I don’t have to interrupt the flow of the paper to hunt down Table 4 right away, and I can stay engaged in your text, hopefully through to the end. I’ll also let you in on a secret — the paper with (2) in it is getting the higher grade.

As you write technical or scientific papers, think of your writing as building a case for the conclusions you are going to draw in the results and discussion sections. The case should be strong whether or not your reader has access to the tables and figures, so don’t leave gaps in your logic or argument that can only be filled in by the figures and tables. Never lose sight of the real goal of your work, which is to communicate information. If you take the time to think about how a reader is going to perceive what you have written and what he or she will be able to learn from it, you are guaranteed to communicate more clearly and to receive a higher grade that reflects the increased clarity of your work.


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Tags: expository writing