5 tips to supercharge your undergraduate science writing

I have marked student papers for a suite of undergraduate courses in the past two years, from statistics to science communication, and every semester I see students getting caught by the same writing pitfalls.

Of course, undergraduate study is a time of learning and students are not expected to write perfectly (nor do markers, or Professors!). Nonetheless, it pains me to deduct marks that could otherwise be won if students were more familiar with the conventions of science writing. 

And so, this month I teamed up with my colleague Holly Beckett to compile five tips on how to improve your science writing in the areas where students most often lose marks.

The sooner you focus on refining these five things, the smoother your studies will be, and the higher your marks.

1. Structure, structure, structure

A common focus of science writing is to learn what information goes in each section of a report or scientific article. What we focus on less is structure within each section, but this internal structure is extremely important for providing a clear and well-argued assignment.

For now, let’s focus on Introductions. Undergraduate science students are often taught that introductions start with broad context and become more specific throughout. While this is roughly right, a reallystrong Introduction has more to it than this. 

The opening and closing paragraphs of an Introduction are the most important ingredients to achieving good structure in this section. 

Your opening paragraph needs to grip the reader, situate your study in a broader context, and signpost the journey that lies ahead in your paper. In other words, your opening paragraph should be a microcosm of the whole Introduction. Start with 1) a statement of broad context, then, ideally in one sentence each, state: 2) more specific context, 3) what the problem is that your study addresses (this is called the rationale), and 4) how your study addresses this problem. All in one paragraph!

Your final paragraph needs to lay a roadmap for what is ahead in your paper and state the key questions underpinning your study. In other words, this final paragraph should be a microcosm of the technical parts of your paper. It should include a specific but concise outline of what your study involved, as well as clearly stated hypotheses. These hypotheses should be stated in biological terms, rather than statistical terms e.g. ‘We expected that blue birds would nest higher then green birds’ versus ‘We expected a statistically significant difference between the nesting heights of blue and green birds’.

Each of the paragraphs between the first and last should deal with a single issue or idea that is necessary to understand the context and details of the paper to follow. 

2. Less is more

Less is more. 

But really. Less is more. 

Read your work aloud. Often, we write things in a longer format than we would say when speaking. 

Then consider… have you already said a similar thing in another sentence? If you have, you probably don’t need to say it again. 

Consider… ‘If I were forced to write this in less words, could I?’ If you can, do. 

Consider… have I grouped together all the sentences that talk about the same idea? If you haven’t, try moving them into one paragraph. Shuffling sentences around to bring together related ideas often makes it possible to synthesise your ideas more effectively, a happy side effect being to cut down on words! 

And, finally, even if word limits are not given, less is more. Effective, concise communication is the easiest way for markers to recognise that you comprehend the key ideas, and to understand and award your arguments.

3. Conventions in science writing

Science writing includes a lot of conventions about how data is presented in figures and tables, how we report data and statistical results in-text, how we write species names… the list goes on. Needless to say, learning the conventions of science writing can be very tedious. 

But it is worth it (!!!).

Conventions provide consistency to the language of science, making it easier to identify important information, see patterns in data, and recognise things in the science that don’t make sense. 

We have included five flash points below, but note that most university libraries provide detailed style guides (again, tedious, but worth looking through).

  1. Figure captions go below figures, table captions go above tables. But… below tables, you can add additionalannotations to describe small details such as abbreviations or significance thresholds).
  2. All axis labels on figures should be formatted in text large enough to be legible, and should include abbreviated units e.g. ‘Incubation time (mins)’.
  3. Species names belong in italics, with the first part (the family name) capitalised e.g. Lasiorhinus latifrons. You can thereafter refer to this species as L. latifrons. Further, you can introduce common names by including them in parentheses after the species name e.g. Lasiorhinus latifrons (southern hairy-nosed wombat). Thereafter, you can refer to the species in-text by calling it the ‘southern hairy-nosed wombat’. 
  4. If you are reporting significant p-values even smaller than 0.001, write ‘<0.001’. If your p-value is significant, but above 0.001, include the actual p-value to three decimal places i.e. beard length differed significantly between men of different ages (p = 0.041).
  5. When reporting means, also report some measure of the variation around that mean, such as a standard deviation e.g. mean petal length was 5 cm ± 1.2 SD.

4. Critically evaluate

There are a number of ways that we frame questions for students, using words like identify, describe, compare, summarise, interpret and evaluate. Watch out for these words.

Students often identify, describe and even compare well, but do not put enough emphasis on critically evaluating in their answers. This is important, because it is critical evaluation that earns high marks.

Critical evaluation means to weigh the value and meaningfulness of multiple pieces of information, and often requires us to synthesise ideas into key messages.

So watch out for questions that include words like evaluate, interpret, analyse and assess, and always consider whether short and long response questions require critical evaluation. We have written an example of description versus critical evaluation below.

Imagine this question: ‘Assess why nesting height of birds differs depending on colour’.

A descriptive answer might say: ‘Brown and green birds nest at different heights, probably because colour provides camouflage’.

An evaluative answer might say: ‘On average, green birds nested higher in the canopy than brown birds. This could be related to camouflage from predators among foliage versus against the trunk and branches, however, our study was not designed to test for this relationship’.

5. Take on feedback

Receiving critical feedback can be challenging, and it is not uncommon for markers comments to feel terse and personal. We know, because we were undergraduate students once, and because we sometimes receive student emails asking why we chose to mark them so harshly! 

In reality, the brevity of markers feedback (which may often read as rudeness) is much more a measure of the time pressures on markers than it is about a marker not liking you, or your assignment. In fact, most markers want to help you, and all markers enjoy seeing students perform well and improve during semester. 

If you receive critical feedback that you find challenging, step away from it for a day. Swap your assignment with a friend and see if you can view the feedback more objectively through their eyes. In truth, often when we feel someone has marked us unfairly, or has totally missed our point, it is because the point was not made clearly, or focused on something askew. 

As best you can, aim to take on feedback positively. The work of markers is never perfect, but our feedback is intended to be used constructively, to make your next assignment and your undergraduate training better. 

***

Next time you have an assignment due, try to implement these tips and, over time, we hope you feel that they help improve your writing—and your marks! 🙂

Many thanks to Holly for her contributions to this article.

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