Scriptum Brevium: How to Avoid Overwriting a Methods Section

By Ellen Israel

Cylinder Joke

Writing the methods section of a report should be easy. You only have one task: write how you performed the experiment. However, it can be hard to make your methods section as concise as it needs to be. The experiment you performed was probably long and complicated, and it may seem impossible to trim everything down to a paragraph or two. In order to write an effective methods section, though, extraneous details must be sacrificed.

The following is an example of an overwritten methods section:

In potions class, we were tasked with finding out if Professor Slughorn’s unknown powder actually contained the amount of mandrake extract that it was supposed to. Our experiment took place in the dungeons of Hogwarts. Before performing the experiment, we created a 100 mL mixture of the powder and water by mixing together 1 g of the unknown powder with 100 mL of water in a 150 mL vial. Afterwards, we performed a stirring charm on the mixture to get the unknown powder to dissolve very quickly. We found that the unknown powder actually contained 0.05 g of mandrake extract when it was supposed to contain 0.1 g.

While this is thorough, it provides too much information. Some of the information it contains is implied, so there’s a lot of extra fluff that needs to be trimmed.

To create a more concise methods section, try the following strategies:

  1. Only state the location if it was important to the outcome of your experiment.
  2. Remove unnecessary words, such as intensifiers like “very” and adverbs like “quickly.”
  3. Write in the passive voice. This keeps the focus of your methods section on what was done instead of who was doing it. Writing in the passive voice means using the object of an action as the subject of the sentence, so instead of writing “we created a mixture…” you would write “a mixture was created…”
  4. Leave out information about your results—this is not the right section for them.

Here’s how our example looks once we apply these strategies:

A 100 mL solution was created by dissolving 1 g of the unknown powder in 100 mL of water. A stirring charm was performed to dissolve the powder.

Although this example is much, much shorter, it gets the same information across by giving the most relevant details. For instance, if the methods section tells us that the experiment involves a 100 mL solution of the unknown powder and water, then (hopefully) a student who wants to replicate the experiment should be able to conclude that it was created in at least a 100 mL container.

If you find that these strategies still aren’t helping, try writing out the steps of your procedure in a bulleted list. Keep the steps short as possible, and you might find that translating this list into a methods section condenses your writing exponentially.

If you keep these strategies in mind when writing your materials and methods section, you’ll succeed in keeping your writing concise.

This entry was posted in Specialized Writing Advice and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply