Success in Academic Writing - Trevor Day 2018
Two popular types of assignment
Undergraduate degree programmes in science and engineering normally include practical investigations such as laboratory experiments or experimental or observational fieldwork. Such investigations carried out in the first or second year of a degree programme are usually educational exercises designed to improve students’ practical and report-writing skills, and to reinforce their understanding of the more theoretical parts of the course. The practical investigation and its associated report requires the student to gather, collate and analyse research data, discuss findings and
draw conclusions. The practical report is typically written up formally, following scientific convention. It is modelled on a peer-reviewed research paper, the high-status channel by which researchers report their findings to a wide audience.
As in the case of a scientific research paper, a practical report is organised logically into sections that follow strict conventions. The sections allow the reader to swiftly locate the information they are seeking. A full report has most or all of the sections below. At the other extreme, a routine practical where the method has been standardised by a staff member may require only a short report with a title, results, discussion and conclusion. In a full report, the name of a given section, and its coverage, may vary slightly depending on the discipline:
✵Abstract or Summary (sometimes)
✵Method, Materials and Methods, or Procedure
✵Conclusion (sometimes Discussion and Conclusion are combined)
A practical report title is short - customarily no more than 15 words. It precisely and concisely refers to the investigation’s topic and its scope. For example:
Applying transtheoretical models of behaviour change to increase physical activity in males aged 3555
Raised atmospheric sulphur dioxide concentrations and their effect on photosynthesis in Geranium leaves
Effective practical report titles
(a)Based on the criteria of being clear, precise and concise, which of these four is the best title for a practical report?
(i)Finding out which warm-down regime works best for hockey players after a match
(ii)Establishing an effective post-match, ’warm-down’ protocol for hockey players
(iii)Finding which warm-down method works best for hockey players
(iv)Which is the best way for hockey players to warm down after a match?
(b)Make this practical report title clearer and more concise: An investigation into the effects of drought on the growth rate of the English oak as evidenced from tree rings
Check your answers against those at the end of the chapter.
An abstract summarises the investigation’s context, aim, method, results and conclusion for the investigation. As in a published research paper, an abstract captures the important features. It gives the reader sufficient information to decide whether the report is of interest and should be read. An abstract is normally between 150 and 300 words (check the precise requirements for your assignment). Typically, the abstract summarises:
✵the context for the investigation
✵the aim(s) of the investigation
✵what was carried out (method)
✵what was discovered (results) and
✵what was concluded (conclusion)
A well-written abstract has a balance of the above features. Being brief, the abstract does not include a discussion. Traditionally, it does not cite references.
The introduction provides the context for the rest of the practical report. Typically, it contains some or all of the following elements:
✵Why the investigation is important or useful.
✵The theoretical and/or practical context for the investigation, citing relevant literature.
✵Key definitions and abbreviations.
✵The aim(s) of the investigation, questions it seeks to answer or hypotheses it seeks to test.
Use of tenses in practical reports
A practical report is written largely in the past tense. As a general rule, use the past tense when describing what was done and then reporting the results. Exceptions to the ’past tense’ rule include:
- Using the present tense if you are making a general statement about something that applies through time. For example, ’Standard practice is to allow the calorimeter to cool overnight to equilibrate to ambient conditions.’
- Employing the present tense in the Method or Results section if you refer to a table or graph. For example, ’The table shows ...’.
- Adopting the present tense in the Discussion or Conclusion if commenting on some aspect of your results or making suggestions for improvement. For example, ’Taken overall, the results show ..’ or ’It is suggested that .. ’.
- Using the future tense in the Discussion if referring to something that will take place in the future. For example, ’In the next growing season the procedure will be repeated but with modifications, taking into account ..’.
Conventionally, a Method section (sometimes called Materials and Methods, or Procedure) gives enough detail so that a reader can repeat the investigation using the information provided. In your studies, your tutor may not wish you to write up a full method for each and every practical investigation you undertake, particularly if the instructions for the method have been given to you in detail. However, you will be expected to write up a full method account on occasion, and particularly as you progress through your degree and devise your own investigations.
A full Method section typically contains:
✵Experimental subjects. Microbes, plants, animals or people that are the subjects of the investigation. Where appropriate, give precise information about their characteristics and how samples were obtained.
✵Materials. Chemicals (including detail of amounts, concentrations, physical form, and so on) and other media (such as a particular growth medium for microbes or plants).
✵Conditions. Physical factors, such as temperature and pressure, and any other factors that are likely to influence the outcome of the investigation.
✵Apparatus. Equipment of all kinds, including measuring and recording devices, used in carrying out the investigation.
✵Procedure. What was done, how and, where appropriate, why.
Sometimes the various elements of the section are listed separately under subsection headings. Check the precise guidelines for your assignment.
Unless specifically requested by your assessor, a results section does not normally contain raw data. Rather, it contains data that are presented and analysed in ways that respond to the investigation’s aim (s). It is usual to guide the reader through the presented data, highlighting the points you wish to bring to the reader’s attention, which will be referred to in the discussion and conclusion. The data are typically presented in numbered tables, graphs, or both, which are referred to in the text. A table is a means of arranging summaries of data (often in the form of numbers) in columns and rows to enable ready comparison. A graph or chart - such as line graphs, scatter plots, bar charts and histograms - reveals relationships between variables in a visual form. Data presented in tables or graphs may be accompanied by statistical analyses, together with their interpretation. See Chapter 8 for information about creating tables, graphs and charts of various kinds.
The discussion of a practical report is typically a distinct section after the data have been presented. It includes some or all of the following items (with slight variations according to the discipline):
✵It discusses the results in response to the aim and in relation to other people’s findings from the research literature.
✵It critiques the investigation, revealing any limitations or errors, where possible with suggestions as to how they might be overcome.
✵It might give implications for practice within the discipline.
✵It may give recommendations for further investigations.
A conclusion in a short practical report is typically a single paragraph or even a single sentence. It may come at the end of the discussion or in a separate section with its own heading, just after the discussion. The conclusion makes closing statements that draw together findings from the results and discussion.
Traditionally, practical reports in science are written in an impersonal style that supports the notion of being objective. The procedure, for example, is written impersonally: ’The calorimeter was calibrated ...’ and ’After crystallisation, the purple residue was dissolved in .. ’. By avoiding any reference to a specific investigator, the report seeks to convey that the investigation has been carried out and reported on objectively, in an unbiased manner. The implication is that given the same circumstances, any competent person carrying out the same investigation should obtain similar results and reach similar conclusions.
Writing practical reports in this impersonal style is demanded in most undergraduate and taught postgraduate courses in science and engineering. In fact, the practice in peer-reviewed science journals of high standing is less clear-cut. Sometimes, authors of articles in the leading journals Nature and Science refer to ’we’, especially in article introductions and discussions, although they use the impersonal when explaining methods and reporting results. It is worth pointing out that Watson and Crick’s (1953) famous article in Nature on the structure of DNA begins (p. 737), ’We wish to suggest a structure for the salt of deoxyribose nucleic acid ..’.
Active or passive?
The active voice emphasises the subject of the sentence, who or what carries out the action, e.g. ’Heath and Field (2017) analysed the beam’s loading characteristics.’ Using the passive voice, the sentence emphasises the object that is acted upon, e.g. ’The beam’s loading characteristics were analysed by Health and Field (2017).’ Using the passive voice, the source of the action, the actor(s), can be left out entirely: ’The beam’s loading characteristics were analysed.’
Scientists and engineers commonly use the passive voice in writing technical documents. As we have seen, doing so gives the work objectivity and authority and avoids the writer having to say who did what. However, writing that way throughout makes documents rather ’dry’ to read. Where you are able - for example, in a literature review - injecting sentences with an active voice brings vitality. Instead of having a document full of passive people or objects having things done to them, you have a document that has (at least some) people or objects engaging in action.
Passive and active
In the table below, enter the missing passive or active form of the sentence. The first one has been done for you:
Check your answers at the end of the chapter.
Key points in the chapter
1You may need to ask your assessor specific questions to clarify the purpose, audience and code for a given writing assignment.
2Interpreting the task usually involves deconstructing the title or guidance for its precise meaning, to uncover the assessor’s intention in setting the assignment.
3Most kinds of communication involving academic writing have recognised structures with a beginning (introduction), middle (body) and end (conclusion).
4Essays and practical reports normally have clear structures; in the case of practical reports, these tend to be modelled on the style of research papers in peer-reviewed scientific journals.
Watson, J. D. and Crick, F. H. C. (1953). ’Molecular Structure of Nucleic Acids. A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid’. Nature, 171, pp. 737-738.
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Godwin, J. (2014). Planning Your Essay. 2nd edn. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Greetham, B. (2018). How to Write Better Essays. 4th edn. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Morley, J. (2017). The Academic Phrasebank. Manchester: University of Manchester. Available from: www.phrasebank.manchester.ac.uk/ [accessed 29 August 2017].
Swatridge, C. (2014). Effective Argument and Critical Thinking. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Taylor, G. (2009). A Student ’s Writing Guide: How to Plan and Write Successful Essays. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Young, T. M. (2005). Technical Writing A-Z: A Commonsense Guide to Engineering Reports and Theses. British English Edition. New York: ASME.
Answers for Chapter 3
Activity 3.1: Effective practical report titles
(a)(ii) and (iv) are the best answers, with (ii) the more formal. Whether to use a report title that is a question (iv) is a matter of taste and style (check with your assessor).
(b)One possible answer: Tree ring evidence for the effects of drought on the growth of the English oak tree.
Activity 3.2: Passive and active