Rethinking How to Write

Note: This section is adapted from ideas presented in the following journal article: Whitesides, G.M. Whitesides Group: Writing a Paper Adv. Mater. 2004, 16, 1375-1377. All statements in quotation marks are derived from this source.

1. Why do I have to do this?

Let’s start by thinking about why you are required to write a “lab report.” Whitesides tells his research group:

“Realize that your object in research is to formulate and test hypotheses, to draw conclusions from these tests, and to teach these conclusions to others. Your object is not to ‘collect data’…. A paper is an organized description of hypotheses, data, and conclusions intended to instruct the reader” [emphasis added].

In other words, papers are the primary way scientists communicate their findings, which is a critical component of scientific work. So, there are two reasons you write Project Reports in this course:

1. Scientific writing is an important skill that takes practice. You need to start practicing.

2. You are writing to learn. The process of constructing the paper provides a framework for you to compile and analyze the laboratory data you have gathered so that you can make sense of it and use it to support a scientific claim. The writing process helps you learn the material.

 2. “I hate writing lab reports.” Why is it so hard?

Writing high-quality lab reports is a challenge for most students. The reason is pretty simple: You are not yet an expert in either the subject matter or scientific communication. So, everything that is important to the construction of the lab report is new to you.

3.  Can writing a lab report be less painful?

Yes. You can write high-quality lab reports without endless hours of frustration. But you probably need to rethink your understanding of a scientific paper and how to approach the writing process. The information below and the Project Report format used in this course are designed to help you improve your scientific writing skills.

4. How should I shift my thinking about scientific papers?

Here is the description of a paper offered by Whitesides. Pay close attention to the sections I have emphasized in italics and bold:

“Remember to think of the paper as a collection of experimental results, summarized as clearly and economically as possible in figures, tables, equations, and schemes. The text in the paper serves just to explain the data, and is secondary. The more information [that] can be compressed into tables, equations, etc., the shorter and more readable the paper will be.”

When you sit down to write a lab report, you most likely start with a blank page and then struggle to fill it up by asking yourself, “What do I say about this?” The description by Whitesides highlights the flaw in this technique. The writing process should not center around the text. It should center around the presentation of your findings. Because you are a novice in organic chemistry, most of the time you spend “writing” is actually devoted to understanding the investigation and the data. How can you make that time more efficient and effective? Shift your thought away from writing a text and toward an organization/analysis of the data.

5. How should I start writing a paper if I’m not supposed to think about the text?

Start with an outline. It’s the same advice you’ve probably heard from countless instructors in courses that require you to write papers. But unless the instructor graded your outline, you’ve probably never actually done it. I know I never did when I was a student. But if you rethink your understanding of a scientific paper and an outline, I think you will see its value. Here are points from Whitesides about outlining a scientific paper. Again, pay attention to the sections I have highlighted.

• “An outline is a written plan of the organization of a paper, including the data on which it rests.

• “You should, in fact, think of an outline as a carefully organized and presented set of data, with attendant objectives, hypotheses, and conclusions, rather than outline of text.

• “An outline itself contains little text.”

• “Organize the outline and the paper around easily assembled data – tables, equations, figures, schemes – rather than around text.”

The last bullet point is the key to preparing an effective outline. Construct your paper first as a series of relevant figures, tables, etc. When this is done well, the “storyboard” of the project will convey nearly all the important information in a concise, visual way. If you prepare a well-constructed outline, 90% of the work of the paper is done. You just need to fill-in brief text to explain the data as necessary. For the Project Reports required in this course, focus on answering the questions and following the advice provided below as you prepare each report section.

Section 1

• Why did I do the work?

• What were the central motivations and hypotheses?

Section 2

• What actions did I take to complete the work?

• What was measured/observed?

Section 3

• What do the data mean?

• How do I know?

• How does the data allow me to answer the objective/motivation stated in Section 1?

• “Organize in order of importance, not in chronological order.” Do not give a recitation of your thought process. The reader does not care how you arrived at your conclusion – only WHAT you conclude and how you justify it.

The final bullet under Section 3 is critical. The biggest mistake made by most novices is to try to explain their chronological thought process to the reader. (“First, I thought about this….Next, I calculated that….Then, I thought about this other thing….”) This usually results in a confusing and unnecessarily long Argument.

When you prepare your outline, organize the data in terms of importance. Present the most convincing data first, then provide additional support with secondary data. This will streamline the paper for both the writer and the reader.