Tips and Techniques for Scientific Writing

By Shira Segal, Peer Writing Assistant

Completing an experiment or research project is usually a pretty exciting endeavor – whether it’s in Biology, Chemistry, Psychology, or another scientific field. In order to convey your results to others and hopefully get them to feel as excited as you are about your research, the write-up must be done in a clear, precise, and specific format – and that can be quite the daunting task! Here are some tips/techniques to help:

1. Avoid Ambiguity – It is best to be as clear as possible when describing the details of an experiment. Make sure to clearly define terms the first time they are used, and be as descriptive as possible when explaining observed effects.

“X affects Y” = ambiguous

X increases Y = Descriptive

“There was a significant effect” = ambiguous x

There was a significant increase = Descriptive

2. Aim for Simplicity – Simple language is best for conveying results in a way that makes them accessible to people who may not have the same level of expertise in the given field. Additionally, avoiding scientific jargon will help make your results stand out instead of being hidden behind unnecessary language barriers.

3. Write in the Active Voice – When writing a lab report, many profs recommend that writing should be in the active voice – meaning it always describes the actions the researcher is doing, not the actions being done to the subject.*

“A 5ml solution was poured into the beaker” = passive x

”We poured A 5ml solution into the beaker” = active

4. Avoid Making Definitive Statements – When we obtain data that match our hypothesis, it can be tempting to write that our results prove this theory, or serve as evidence for that phenomenon – but we must keep in mind that our results are never definitive. Use phrases like “results suggest” or “may be indicative of” to avoid a conclusive tone.

Along with these tips, always be sure to refer to the lab manual/writing guide specific to your course, as some subjects have more rigid guidelines on formatting than others; however, these are some general pointers that should help in any field. Happy writing!

* Note that some profs will subscribe to the convention of writing in the passive voice; best practice is to check with your professor or T.A.


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Tips for Painless Referencing and Formatting

By Zoe Share, Peer Writing Assistant

There are few things more satisfying in a student’s university career than completing a long and time-demanding essay. The last words have been typed, paragraphs have been edited and revised, and finally you are left with what you hope is a strong and brilliant piece of writing. But the essay-writing process does not stop with the final period at the end of your conclusion. Often, the last step of a written assignment has to do not with content, but referencing and formatting. These can be tedious tasks, especially the night before a deadline or when you’ve worked on a paper for so long that you are getting sick of it. The following tips will help you make this process painless and quick!

1.  Record all of your sources. While still in the planning or researching stage of your paper, be sure to write down all bibliographic information for potential sources. This information varies among source types (i.e. book chapter vs. journal article), but generally includes: author name, title, publication date, page numbers, book title or journal name. If you think you might need it for a bibliographic entry later on, write it down! It is better to have more information than to be missing something important.

2.  Be aware of Google searches. Doing a quick Google search of your topic and finding a PDF copy of the perfect journal article for your argument seems like nothing short of a miracle at the time. However, from personal experience, I know that these articles sometimes lack all of the necessary information for a bibliographic entry, particularly the journal they have been published in. If you simply save the article to use later, you may have trouble locating this information when it comes time to do your bibliography. This can cause a lot of frustration (trust me!). The easiest way to deal with this problem is to try searching the article title on Summon (on the library website) or reputable databases like Jstor to attempt to locate where the article comes from. It is best to do this sooner rather than later, to avoid a panicky search hours before your deadline.

3.  Reference as you write. Whether you are using in-text citations or footnotes/endnotes, it is helpful to record at least some sort of reference every time you insert a quote or paraphrased information into your paper. Do NOT just put (*citation*) and plan to fill it in later. Generally, these citations require relatively little information anyway – the author’s last name, a publication year, and maybe a page number – so getting into the habit of completing citations as you write means less work in the final stages of your paper.

4.  Consult the style guide. Each referencing style – MLA, Chicago, APA, ASA – has its own style guide with instructions on how to cite your work and complete your bibliography or works cited page. What many students are often unaware of is that these are comprehensive guides that also include details on how to format your paper – the title page, page numbering, subheadings, etc. Style guides are therefore a great resource; take advantage of them! Copies of handouts for each citation style are available online at courtesy of the Writing Centre. Another great resource is the website which also provides copies of style guides, and is especially useful when trying to reference an obscure type of source, like a YouTube video.

Photo courtesy of Reeding Lessons under Flickr Creative Commons Attribution license 2.0.

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Writer’s block (tips from the trenches)

By Maggie Veneman, Peer Writing Assistant

Writer’s block doesn’t just happen to professional fiction writers; it happens to anyone who picks up a pen. Maybe you’re trying to decide what to write on your best friend’s birthday card, or maybe you need to think of a polite way to email a professor about an extension. We’ve all encountered writer’s block, and chances are you know how debilitating it can be when you’re working on an assignment. That blank white page quickly becomes the most daunting thing you’ve ever experienced, especially if you’re battling a deadline, and I’d like to discuss how to deal with and ultimately overcome this issue.

George R.R. Martin, author of Game of Thrones, makes a good point about the two major ways to begin writing something:

I think there are two types of writers, the architects and the gardeners. The architects plan everything ahead of time, like an architect building a house. They know how many rooms are going to be in the house, what kind of roof they’re going to have, where the wires are going to run … The gardeners dig a hole, drop in a seed and water it. They kind of know what seed it is, they know if planted a fantasy seed or mystery seed or whatever. But as the plant comes up and they water it, they don’t know how many branches it’s going to have, they find out as it grows. And I’m much more a gardener than an architect.

His words ring true for university assignments as well as fiction; whether you’re working on an essay, a lab, or a thesis, you’re likely going to use one of the approaches Martin describes. If you’re an architect who relies heavily on outlining, and you reach a stage in your outline from which you can’t really proceed, then unfortunately you could be at an impasse. If you’re a gardener, and you’ve planted your seed but find yourself short on ideas for branches, you’re also at a standstill. So my first piece of advice is to change your tactics: if you’re an architect, try being a gardener, and vice versa. You may find that using a technique with which you’re unfamiliar is a good way to open your mind to new ideas, and hopefully you can fend off your writer’s block.

Another idea, which may seem counterproductive but is actually one of the most productive things you can do, is to stop. Put down the pen and do something else. Surf the web for a few minutes, have a chat with your roommate, go for a walk, or work on something for a different course. Most students have perfected the art of procrastination, and now is the time to use this as a tool. If you’re really lacking inspiration, and Milton’s Muse isn’t coming to your rescue, the best thing to do is to accept that you are stuck and move on to something else. When you revisit your assignment later on, you’ll find it much easier to foster ideas with a clear head.

If this advice hasn’t worked for you yet, there is one more thing that is extremely helpful in terms of beating writer’s block and generating ideas: talk to someone. It takes a very, very good friend to listen to you ramble on about Russian realism in Anna Karenina, but if you have a friend, a parent, a classmate or a TA like this, take advantage! Speaking aloud about a topic and exchanging ideas is hands down the most effective way to galvanize your intellectual ability, and I guarantee that you will come away from that conversation with at least one new idea.

Next time you experience writer’s block, try one or more of these techniques and see if they work. There are certainly other strategies you could explore, as well, but I’ve found the ones I’ve listed to be the most effective. Try everything and anything. Once you find what works for you, you had better get some more paper.

Photo courtesy of  Jonno Witts under Flickr Creative Commons Attribution license 2.0.

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How to write an introduction paragraph

By Janice Niemann, Peer Writing Assistant

 Struggling to get started on your paper? I don’t blame you. Introduction paragraphs can be one of the hardest parts of an essay to write (and it definitely doesn’t help that they come first). Fortunately, I have a go-to format for you! It’s been unbelievably helpful to me over the years (I’m currently working on my Master’s), and I’d like to share it with you. It consists of three main sections:

  1.  Why your topic is interesting. You can also explain why your topic is relevant or give some sort of context. Basically, you want to jump right into your topic in your opening sentence. Try to avoid things like “Over the years…” or “Throughout history…” or “Many people believe…” that give your reader no actual information. Your reader wants to know right away what you’ll be talking about. Also, if you can catch your marker’s attention, that can only help your overall grade. This section can be as short as one sentence or up to three or four (or more), depending on the length of your paper.
  2. Road map. Some people call this section sign posting, but I prefer to think of it as a road map. Essentially, it’s an outline of what you’ll be talking about, condensed into a few sentences. You probably want to avoid giving your actual arguments here and instead focus on the general progression of topics in your paper. Your reader should feel like you’re holding their hand and showing her or him the general direction that your paper is going.
  3. Thesis statement. Ah, the thesis statement. Arguably the most important part of your whole paper (not to add extra pressure or anything). A good thesis statement is argumentative or controversial or conceivably debatable. This final sentence (or two) is where your argument should clearly come out. Remember that someone should be able to disagree with your thesis statement, and then have you convince him or her of your argument as your paper progresses. Try, if you can, to have section two lead up to your thesis, which I know can be difficult, but it’s nice to have a smooth introduction. Nobody like a clunky start.

One final tip: If you’re at a loss for how long your introduction should be, a good rule of thumb is 10% of your total word count (same for your conclusion paragraph). If your paper is supposed to be 1500 words, then your introduction should be about 150; similarly, if your paper is supposed to be 3000 words, then a 300-word introduction should do nicely.

I know that it’s hard to sit down to a blank page and begin explaining your brilliant idea, but hopefully this format will make things a little bit easier for you. Until next time, happy writing!

Good luck! See our Introduction handout for more information.

Photo courtesy of  Sandra under Flickr Creative Commons Attribution license 2.0.


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The “Topic/Assertion/Why” model for writing thesis statements

My favourite teacher in high school was my Grade Nine English teacher, Mr. Moran.  Not only was Mr. Moran one of the funniest people I have ever met, he was also one of my most influential mentors in the craft of writing.  He taught me some of the most valuable and long-standing lessons in English language and literature that I have ever learned, and that I  still use as a third-year English major in university.

Mr. Moran was the first person to introduce the concept of a thesis statement to me.  The task of narrowing down the basic argument of a paper into a single sentence at first seemed like a daunting task, but Mr. Moran simplified the creation of a thesis into three easy steps.  He explained that the thesis sentence can be broken up into a topic, an assertion, and an explanation of why that topic and assertion are both valid and important.

The ‘topic, assertion, why’ model that I used to create theses in my grade nine 500 word assignments is the same model that I use to create theses in my third-year, 2,500 word assignments (although the eloquence of my sentences has hopefully somewhat improved).  I also use this model in my Peer Writing Assistant sessions because it simplifies the structure of a thesis—if a sentence cannot stand up to the ‘topic, assertion, why’ model, it is not an effective thesis.  This model stands the test of time for me because it is broadly applicable and it accounts for the nuances in language and style that I have developed over the years.  I have Mr. Moran to thank for breaking down the complexity of a thesis into a coherent format, and hopefully this contribution to my Peer Writing Assistant lessons will help new students feel more confident in constructing effective arguments.


Image of Thesis Statement word cloud courtesy of the Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-No-Derivations 2.0 license.

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Planning, planning, and more planning!

Have you ever had to travel somewhere last minute? It’s stressful. Really stressful. You have no time to think about what you’re going to need, so you end up wherever you’re going with only your left socks, more t-shirts than you’ll ever use, no charger cables or adapters for anything, and toothpaste but no toothbrush. That’s why planning is a good thing – you bring exactly what you need, without dragging around a whole bunch of junk you’re never going to use.

All metaphors aside, essay planning is, in my experience, the most underrated stage of the writing process. Not only does it give you time to think through your ideas a few times, to move arguments around to see what order makes the most sense, and to adjust your thesis as new ideas pop into your mind, but it also helps to ensure that you’re doing the right work. With the kind of workload most of us at university are dealing with, not to mention managing class with extra-curricular responsibilities and commitments like clubs and jobs, planning effectively is essential. If you plan your paper really well before you start writing anything, then you don’t waste time writing versions of your paper that weren’t going to work anyway.

Now, when I say, “planning,” I don’t mean just writing really vague things on a piece of paper you’re going to lose in ten minutes. I mean having a working thesis, and then outlining each of your arguments with a topic sentence, bullet points of your evidence (if you have page numbers, quotes, statistics, whatever you’re citing – put it down!), and a connection to that elusive “so what?” question of your thesis. If you have a really good outline, then writing the paper becomes a matter of filling in the blanks. Remember, the more time you put into your writing before you start the first sentence of your introduction, the faster (and usually better!) the writing goes.

P.S. If you’re looking for a good outline model, check out this handout offered by the Writing Centre: Creating Outlines

PWA Stacey

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Quick fixes for essays

I volunteer as a PWA (Peer Writing Assistant) at the Writing Centre, and, while I spend a lot of time helping students with their theses and paragraph structure, I also see a number of small mistakes that would be remarkably easy to fix. Of course, one small mistake shouldn’t really affect your final grade, but if it takes you only 5 minutes to fix a few things, why not?

1. Check your fonts. Most people don’t have Times New Roman set as their default font in Microsoft Word (or any other word processor), so they change from Cambria or Ariel when they open a new document. Should solve the problem, right? Not so much. When you go to set up your header with your last name and page number, you have to change the font up there. When you insert your footnotes, you have to change the font down there, too. Or just set Times New Roman to be your default. Up to you.

2.  Never have a lonely this. When you use the word this, it needs to be followed by a subject; ask yourself, this what? For example, if I write, “Students often submit their papers late, with poor grammar, and different fonts. This is one of the biggest problems in society today,” what is this? Is it the lateness, the grammar, the fonts or the combination of all three? It should read something along the lines of “This tardiness is one of the biggest problems in society today.” Besides being a general grammatical rule, avoiding the lonely this also reduces ambiguity in your essay and confusion in your reader, which is always a plus.

3.Comma which or that: choose one. You know when Microsoft Word gives you the green squiggle and wants you to choose between comma which and that?

Comma Which and That

Well, for once, you should listen to it. Basically, you use comma which for nonessential information (if it doesn’t really matter that the zoo’s downtown) and that for essential information (if it’s really important that the zoo’s downtown). I realize that the mechanics of this choice probably sound a little grammatically heavy, but, for the most part, it’s easy: just choose one. Comma which or that.

4. Contractions don’t belong in formal writing. I’m sure that most of you know this rule, so it’s more of a gentle reminder. Contractions don’t belong in formal writing. If you’re writing a blog then, by all means, contract away (I certainly do). If you’re writing an essay or a lab report or a book review or a comment sheet, maybe steer clear of the contractions. (And avoiding contractions will also up your word count, a perk that shouldn’t be ignored.)

Now, these rules might not be applicable in absolutely every situation, but they’re generally true. Good luck with your papers and, until next time, happy writing!


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Why you should talk to your profs

The best thing I ever did for my school work (writing, classes in general, all of it) was get up the courage to go talk to my professors.

In my experience, undergrads have a tendency to be intimidated about going to see their course instructors about their papers, especially in the early years. But the truth is, profs and TAs are there to help you do well in the course – they want to see you succeed – and going to talk to them about any questions you have, bouncing ideas off of them for the outline of a paper, running a thesis by them, whatever, can really help keep you on track with your ideas, and help you organize your thoughts. I often find my papers are better structured, and I have avoided silly little mistakes made out of ignorance when I meet with my Prof before handing in an assignment. These meetings don’t have to be long, but they allow you to get feedback before you get your grade, which is great! You could email your course instructors for these kinds of questions, sure, but in my experience, something gets lost without that face-to-face interaction. You can get a lot more out of a 15-minute conversation with someone than you can in 15 emails (not to mention it takes a lot less time).

Another bonus that most people don’t think about is that arranging to have a quick chat with your course instructor about an assignment forces you to manage your time. If I am going to see a prof about my thesis for a paper 2 weeks before that paper is due, then I have to have a thesis (and probably an outline) for said paper 2 weeks before it’s due. BAM! Time management.

But wait, there’s more! Getting to know your profs and TAs by going to talk to them face-to-face helps build relationships. That may sound trivial at first, but think about it: these are the people who may, one day, give you references for jobs or post-graduate studies. Building those relationships now can open a lot of doors in the future. Furthermore, your course instructors are a wealth of information (and not just about their subject matter), so why not take advantage of that? Say you’re thinking about doing a graduate degree. Who better to ask about master’s programs than your TA, who is currently working on their master’s?

I’ve had profs who have changed the way I write, who have changed the way I look at the world, and who have thoroughly enriched my time at Queen’s so far. This is a rare opportunity for us as students, so take advantage of it! So go talk to them – they don’t bite!


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October 30, November 4, 5: Writing an English Essay

Writing a first-year (or any) English essay can be daunting. This workshop will cover the essentials of writing a successful English paper: titles, conclusions, and everything in between.

This workshop will be offered

Wednesday, October 30, 4:30 p.m. – 5:30 p.m., Walter Light 205

Monday, November 4, 4:30 p.m. – 5:30 p.m., BioSci 1102

Tuesday, November 5, 5:30 p.m. – 6:30 p.m., Dupuis 217

All English 100 students are encouraged to attend; the workshop is also open to any English students who want to review strategies for writing successful English essays.

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