Writing in ESRM
The Environmental Science and Resource Management (ESRM) Program places great emphasis upon effective and elegant communication. Our ESRM faculty consider being able to communicate technical material an essential skill set. Along with proficiency in collecting, analyzing, interpreting, and presenting quantitative data both in the field and laboratory, and being able to understand the interdisciplinary context of environmental challenges, technical writing is a core skill set you must master to succeed both here at CI and after graduation. While few of us begin our journey as great writers, our ESRM curriculum is designed to develop your potential and ultimately grow you into a strong professional writer by the time you graduate. To ease this transition, we offer the following guidelines and expectations for work produced in ESRM courses here at CI.
When you first enroll in the ESRM Program, you are expected to be proficient writers of English with a strong command of basic spelling and grammar rules and traditions. We also expect that you will:
- Have a strong working knowledge of Microsoft Word. While use of alternative word processing software is acceptable, all students will be expected to be proficient users of Word.
- Have a strong working knowledge of Microsoft Excel.
- Seek out assistance from Program faculty and university-wide writing support resources (particularly the Writing Center) whenever you have questions or uncertainty with regards to writing.
- Show a commitment to growing your writing skills and constantly strive to improve your abilities, regardless of your level of proficiency.
- Communicate with your instructors and colleagues in a professional manner at all times.
By the time you graduate from the ESRM Program, we expect that you will be strong writers, familiar with all the conventions of technical writing. We also expect you to:
- Be experienced users of Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and ArcGIS.
- Be experienced users of bibliographic software and graphing software.
- Be able to author technical work in a range of genres, particularly technical reports, oral presentations, and posters.
- Have authored at least one major scholarly work on a topic of your choosing (i.e. a senior capstone report).
- Have authored at least one major scholarly poster on a topic of your choosing (i.e. a senior capstone poster)
- Have extensive experience revising and editing technical writing.
- Be proficient summarizers of technical work.
How to use our guide
This guide comprises our default expectations for writing and related activities in our ESRM program. While individual professors may have somewhat different expectations for individual assignments or even a particular course, unless your instructor specifically gives you instructions to the contrary, these are the guidelines you should adhere to for all ESRM courses at CI.
Types of ESRM Writing
As a student in the ESRM Program, you will be exposed to most or all of the following types of writing during your course of study here at CI:
- Thesis Statements
- Reading Summaries
- Lab Reports/Write-Ups
- Technical Reports/Term Papers
- Persuasive Writing
- Senior Theses
- Slideware-based Oral Presentations
- Annotated Bibliographies
- Professional Letters
Learning by reading
In addition to containing much information about the particular subject at hand, frequent reading and analyses of other writers' work (particularly peer-reviewed work) will greatly enhance your own writing skills and improve your ability to spot common errors and edit. To be a good writer you must first be a good reader. In that vein, we offer below some suggestions for reading the genre of writing students describe as the most difficult to read and comprehend; technical research papers in peer-reviewed journals.
Realize that, in the context of our courses (and science in general for that matter), the word “criticism” does not have a strictly negative connotation. You should be thinking both about the strengths of the work as well as its weaknesses. As you are taking notes or responding to these works, try and avoid one-word or one-sentence assessments. If you liked something the authors did, think about why their statement or approach was effective. If you didn’t like or were confused by something in the paper, describe the problem as you see it and reread the section. An excellent habit to adopt is for you to summarize/comment briefly upon each paper you read. If you are new to reading technical papers, briefly commenting on the strengths and weaknesses of each section will really help your progress down the technical writing road.
Sections of ESRM Papers
Here is a brief breakdown of each section of a typical scientific paper along with a few specific questions (in dark red) that may help you focus your critical evaluation of a given paper:
- This should be brief description of what was done and/or elucidated.
Can you tell what was done/discovered?
- Author order generally represents a progression of delivered effort and labor from greatest to least.
- The first author wrote most of the paper and/or is in charge of both the overall study and/or shepherding it through the writing, review, and publishing hurdles.
- Frequently the last author is the professor whose lab oversaw the work or the researcher who secured the funding for it.
- This is a brief summary of each of the subsequent sections. It is an abbreviated encapsulation of why, how and what was done in this experiment or study.
- After the title, this is the one thing everyone will read.
Does this make you want to read the rest of the paper?
- These are chosen to increase the chances that a search engine will flag this study for those hunting for information on a particular topic.
- Keywords are generally limited to only a few terms (three to six typically).
- Search engines typically look through the title, abstract, and keywords. Therefore the most effective keywords are terms or phrases not employed in the title or the abstract.
Are these terms likely to draw in people searching for information about this topic/organisms/question?
- Begins with a problem statement and then progresses to an outline of the work.
- Generally moves from broad concepts to the specific topic of the research, concluding with the hypothesis or hypotheses to be tested.
Why is this study being conducted?
Is the hypothesis stated clearly?
Should this study have been conducted based upon the information provided?
- This explains exactly what the researchers did over the course of their study.
- The description needs be of sufficient detail for others to reproduce it (including the manufacturer of particular equipment, concentration of chemicals, etc.)
What did they do?
Do you have enough information to repeat this work if necessary?
Does the experimental design provide a rigorous test of the stated hypothesis?
Are there potential confounding factors not evaluated in this experimental design?
- Reports the data collected. Depending on audience and nature of the dataset, this can range from raw values to results of post hoc statistical tests. An increasing tendency in recent years for large datasets is to simply report the summary statistics in the body of the paper and then deposit the entirety of the raw data in an online appendix or supplement (see below).
- This section should provide only a minimum interpretation of the data.
Are the results ambiguous?
How do these results support or reject the hypothesis being tested?
- Interprets and analyzes data from Results section.
- Places the study’s findings in the context of previous or contemporary work.
- Identifies any limitations of work.
- Spells out the key implications of this work.
Are the authors’ interpretations of the results justified?
How do these findings contribute new knowledge to our collective understanding?
What is the next step or future research suggested by this work?
Conclusion (often not a distinct section, just the very last part of the Discussion)
- Should recap the key overarching problem.
- Goes from specific results of this study to the broad concepts / challenges.
- Summarizes the key conclusions.
- Gives credit and acknowledges the help of others who may not be in the author list.
- Describes who funded the work.
- Often can give insight as to why the study was done (e.g., “This work was done in partial fulfillment of the requirements for a Master of Science at the University of California Los Angeles”).
References (= Literature Cited)
- An essential part of the paper.
- Cites every concept or datum that didn’t originate with the author.
Appendix or Supplement
- This is generally used to ease the reading of the paper.
- This is an increasingly popular mechanism to make large datasets available.
Do the authors present a compelling case for their conclusions?
Was it worth your time to read this paper?
Does this inspire you to do a study of your own or suggest a new avenue for exploration?
What are the management implications of this work?
What are the strongest aspects of this paper; what are the weakest?
What arguments worked well? What arguments could stand to be improved?
All students need reliable access to computer systems. While owning a computer is not necessary, we strongly encourage students obtain a relatively recent laptop for use during their studies at CI. While computer laboratories and laptop check-outs are available at the CI Library and from other locations, having a computer at one’s disposal will greatly aid in both conceptual learning and general skill development.
All students need to be able to set up and print to large-scale plotters. Plotters are most typically used for printing large-scale maps and posters. Currently, the only student accessible plotter is in the ESRM GIS Lab (BT1352). Access to this plotter is currently available via GIS Lab computers.
Microsoft Office Suite (Word, Excel, PowerPoint).
Bibliographic software (Zotero or Endnote)
iTunes (version 10.0 or later)
Professional Graphing Software (SigmaPlot, Systat, R, Omnigraph Sketcher, or equivalent)
Statistical Software (SPSS, Systat, R, JMP, or equivalent)
Minnesota DNRGPS (version 6.0 or later)
Upon completion of the ESRM curriculum, students will have demonstrated a working knowledge of and basic proficiency with the following programs. While the expense of full individual licenses for these programs will put them out of the reach of most students, these programs are available on all ESRM classroom computers and on computer lab machines across the campus. Site Licensed programs include:
ArcGIS suite (version 10.1 or later)
SPSS (version 19.1 or later)
Acceptable Electronic Formats
Only the following file formats are acceptable for electronically-submitted work unless specifically articulated by a particular instructor:
doc docx xls xlsx pdf jpg tiff ESRI family of file extensions
File Naming Convention
All electronic files will be labeled as follows:
[Last Name],[First Name][ESRM Course Number]_Title].
So, for example, a Week 4 Reading Summary submitted by Jenny Sanchez should be labeled as:
Reports and General Submissions
Identification: Student’s full name, course number, and date submitted should be on the first page, generally in the upper right header region.
Margins (top, bottom, left, right): 1”
Font: Times New Roman
Font size: Main body of the text = 12pt.
Titles, headings, etc.: may be larger at the discretion of the author but generally no larger than 24pt.
Spacing: single space (unless noted by instructor) In-text Citation Format: (Author-Year; unless noted by instructor)
Literature Cited Format: Ecology (unless noted by instructor)
Identification: Student’s full name, course number, and date submitted should be on the first page, centered towards the bottom of the first slide, under the title of the presentation.
Margins (top, bottom, left, right): while there is no clear standard here, for text, 0.5” is a good starting point
Font size: Main body of the text = 28pt
Titles, headings, etc.: may be larger at the discretion of the author but generally 40pt is large enough
Spacing: single space between blocks of related text, double space between text separated by bullets or other grouping rules
Color: This is a matter of personal choice, but light colored fonts (e.g., white or beige) on a dark colored background (e.g., black or dark blue) are preferred and easiest for an audience to read at a distance.
In-text Citation Format: (Author-Year; unless noted by instructor)
Literature Cited Format: Ecology (unless noted by instructor, placed on the final slides)