One way to begin developing a clear writing style of your own is to evaluate the writing of others. Try to evaluate what it is that you do and do not like about the writing specifically and to separate the content from the style of the writing. Next, look at how the authors communicate information: Are they vague, concise, or unnecessarily wordy? Have they gone mad with the thesaurus? Do they make their point clearly? This active evaluation will help identify aspects of effective writing that will help you evaluate your own writing.
Reading chemical literature
Evaluating all forms of writing is useful to develop the ability to clearly communicate information. However, each subject has its own unique style that had been adopted by its community. In chemistry information is organized in a more modular way than writing in the humanities, but the basics of clear communication are the same. When actively evaluating chemical literature, pay attention to points listed below that highlight the style of the field.
Vocabulary used in chemical context
Everyday words may have different meanings when used in a chemical context. For example, “plating” means one thing on the food network, but means the deposition of metal in electrochemistry. Pay attention to the way key words and phrases are used as a way to express an idea and the way it is treated grammatically in a sentence
Formulaic organization of information
Chemical writing relies on a formulaic organization to help guide the reader through the logic of the experiment or to the information of interest. This structure also helps authors outline their work and expedite the writing process.
The purpose of the writing
Good technical writing is efficient and every sentence contributes to the goal of the work. As you read more chemical literature, practice evaluating the function of the individual sentences. Do they provide description or analysis? How do they use evidence to support the claims of the work? Are they objective or someone’s opinion?
Getting though the semester or a large project
To avoid feeling overwhelmed near a due date, break up assignments into small sections and schedule time to complete them as soon as possible. To help you stick to your schedule set appointments with the writing center or a friend to hold yourself accountable. The following list provides a useful outline of common subtasks for larger assignments.
Make a list of the goals and technical information of the assignment, such as: the due date; assignment type; the scope of the assignment; the word count or length; and any required components of the assignment (graphs, figures, bibliography, multiple drafts, and required trips to the library or writing tutor). This list will guide the division of the assignment and be a checklist to make sure you have completed all of the requirements.
Collect materials for the assignment
This can range from a section in a textbook to tens of journal articles. Keep your text hunting in proportion and on topic. If the assignment is to report on the use of x-ray diffraction to patent new drugs, writing half of your paper on who discovered x- ray diffraction takes the paper off topic and will not impress your instructor.
Active reading and note taking
Once the references have been collected, schedule time to read them. Take the time to read actively by taking notes and writing summaries of what you have read. Make a list of brief summaries or highlights for each source. When dealing with longer works, writing a summary of each section or each paragraph can help simplify complicated ideas. Breaking down a completed work into outline form is a useful practice because it is essentially writing a paper in reverse.
Analyze all data collected in lab or by research before including it in a writing assignment. Raw data should never be included in the final draft of an assignment unless requested. The analysis can range from finding an average or trend line for a graph to repotting data from several sources. When comparing data from multiple sources it is vital that the data sets are consistent (the experiment measured the same variables and reported values with the same units, etc.). After data processing, take the time to interpret the data properly. If possible, present a copy of your processed data and a summary of your analysis to your instructor to verify that both the data and analysis are correct before writing the analysis section.
Prewriting – Figuring out what to say
Clear ideas in your head rarely, if ever, translate to complete works on paper. Prewriting organizes all of the information collected for the assignment and helps to identify gaps in information or analysis. Several helpful prewriting tools are brainstorming, outlining, and drafting.
Brainstorming brings all of the collected information together and evaluating that information. This stage connects the basic ideas of the work into a rough form. It should also be the stage where you can construct a draft thesis, or goal, for the assignment.
Outlining takes the rough ideas from brainstorming and connects them with more detailed information and analysis. This structure should be directed by the thesis of the work. Having a good working thesis streamlines the outlining process by providing a check; if the information does not support or relate to the thesis it should not be included. If the final work will have figures or graphs, include them in the outline. A detailed outline is a great tool for your instructor to quickly check that your logic and analysis are correct. Adding or rearranging bullet points is easier than rewriting paragraphs.
Drafts allow you to focus on the actual language of assignment. Plan to have at least two drafts before the finished assignment. If you have difficulty finding the right word or phrasing use the first draft as a very rough connection through all of the points you want to make in the assignment. Then use subsequent drafts to perfect the language. Ideally, allow enough time to set the draft aside for a day or two before editing.
Always include time to edit written assignments. Even small mistakes can change the meaning of your writing and greatly impact the way your assignment is perceived. Here are a few tips to keep in mind when planning the editing process.
- To find mistakes in the flow or phrasing read the work aloud.
- When editing it may be helpful to focus on one thing at a time and work from single word issues such as spelling or usage (their, there or they’re) through to grammar, punctuation and tone.
- If you would like help correcting the text of your work schedule to meet with a writing tutor in the University Writing Center (Broome Library 2360).
- Report physical values with the appropriate units (42.6 J or 8.3 atm L K-1 mol-1).
- Report numbers with the correct significant figures.
- Decimals with values between zero and one should have a zero before the decimal point (0.2 not .2).
- Use superscript and subscript in chemical formulas in (SO42- notSO42-).
- Make sure your final work looks professional.
- Double-check the assignment guidelines for font, line spacing, and margin requirements.
- If guidelines are not given, use a standard font such as Times New Roman, Helvetica or Calibri; a 10-12 point font for body text; and 1” margins on all sides.
- Do not include a title page unless requested.
- Include your name, the date, the class and section, and a title.
- Do not double-space the information lines.
- Use the print preview function to check for proper formatting of text and figures.
- Print text in black ink.
- Use page numbers to keep pages in the correct order.
- Neatly staple the ordered pages in the upper left-hand corner of the document.
References / Citations
Citation is a critical tool in all sciences; it credits those with new ideas and allows other researchers to use the work of others as evidence to support their own work. Once an idea becomes integral to the general understanding of science it no longer has to be cited as an original idea by the author. However, if a specific fact is used it should be cited.
Invoking a scientific law does not need a citation.
Example 1: A salt water solution has a lower freezing point than pure water under the same pressure.
Experimentally determined values should be cited.
Example 2: Water has a freezing point depression constant of 1.86 K mol/kg.13
All other ideas or facts used in your work should be cited, even if you have changed the phrasing. Insufficient citation is considered plagiarism. Chemists use the American Chemical Society (ACS) standard to report citations. In text citations are given in parenthesis (1) or superscripts1. A copy of the ACS Style Guide is available in the library2 or on the ACS website3.
Last minute pointers
- Read the assignment guidelines and make sure you have attempted all of the requirements.
- Cite all sources used in the assignment.
- Proofread your work.
- Follow the editing and formatting steps (above) as much as possible.
References in ACS Format
- Kanare, H. M. Writing the lab notebook, The American Chemical Society: Washington, DC., 1985.
- Colin Purrington. Designing conference posters. http://colinpurrington.com/tips/academic/posterdesign (Accessed July 31,2012).
- Coghill, A.M., Garson, L.R. The ACS Style Guide: Effective Communication of Scientific Information, 3rd ed.; American Chemical Society: Washington, DC., 2006. American Chemical Society Style Guide, Chapter 14-References http://pubs.acs.org/doi/pdf/10.1021/bk-2006-STYG.ch014 (Accessed August 15, 2013).