This Blog was Written for Science: Formatting Scientific Writing

by Brittney Osborn

I often find myself working with students who are frustrated by the formatting of scientific writing assignments. The idea of using past tense and passive voice can be a challenge, as can adhering to CSE or APA formatting requirements. The keys to overcoming the challenge of tackling a paper in a new formatting style are planning ahead, becoming familiar with the formatting style, and reviewing other scientific papers in order to gain an understanding of the use of past tense and passive voice.

By planning ahead, you can alleviate much of the pressure of writing a paper in a new style. Making writing center appointments in advance and reviewing the paper requirements will help the writing process go more smoothly. Start by making an appointment to meet with a writing consultant. Then review the assignment guidelines and write down any questions that arise concerning formatting or wording. Begin writing the paper and mark any questions that come up as you write so that when you attend your consultation, you have questions ready. For example, you may wonder if you can start a sentence with a number, or perhaps you are not sure how to format an in-text citation. Mark it and make a note of your question in the margins or the body of the text. I highlight anything I am not sure of or change the text color so that I don’t forget to address it later. Planning ahead and getting an early start on an assignment will give you the time needed to determine what you already know about the format and what you could understand more fully.

To become more comfortable in scientific writing, one must become more familiar with specific rules of the format. This can be done a little bit at a time by taking notes of the little rules as often as possible so that using them eventually becomes instinctual. For example, with CSE format, the header is not present on the cover page but is present on every page after the cover. In an APA paper, however, the running head is present on the cover page as well. Another contrast between these two formats is the order of the reference page: APA is organized alphabetically, while CSE is organized by the order the sources appear in the paper. These are just a few examples of the many differences between these two formats. By learning these rules and applying them to your writing every time you craft an essay, it becomes easier to recall them without having to look them up.

Another issue with writing scientific papers is use of passive voice and past tense. Reading scientific papers provides various examples of how to structure sentences using passive voice and past tense, and you can read examples as part of the research required for your essay. For example, many students are unsure of how to write the materials and methods section of a biology lab report, which should detail how an experiment was done, but not by listing the steps taken. Use of words to indicate chronological order (first, next, then, finally…) can often be used effectively. Also, passive voice is used here. For example:

  •             First, we measured 50µl of CaCl2 solution.
  •             First, 50µl of CaCl2 solution was measured.

The first sentence is in past tense but is not in passive voice while the second sentence is in past tense and passive voice. While there are different ways of stating the same information, it must be understandable and concise as well as past tense and in passive voice.

Using these techniques will help a student writer develop the skills needed to better approach a scientific paper. You can also research more about the specific formatting style you’re writing in, ask your instructor, and develop a writing process that best fits your style of learning. Trying new methods is one part of learning and developing a style of your own, which will ultimately make you a more adept writer.

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