Section 5.5 Writing for Chemistry
Writing can sometimes seem like an obstacle for science students. Within scientific culture, the importance of effective communication is often underemphasized. This under emphasis leads many students entering college to see science writing as, at best, a necessary evil, and at worst, a tangled mess of jargon and arbitrary formatting. So far from being true, the exact opposite is the case. In the wise words of Professor Steven Neshyba, “Science is in the communication. Science doesn't exist in someone's head. The science is the communication.” To learn more about how to be an effective science writer, read this guide!
Unless otherwise stated, all italicized quotes throughout this section are excerpted from the interview with Chemistry faculty members at the University of Puget Sound that informed this section.
Writing in chemistry is challenging for new students since there are many different types of writing in chemistry. However, most of these genres can be broken down into a shared set of sections, each with its own distinctive style and purpose: a title, an abstract, an introduction, an experimental section, a results section, a discussion, a conclusion, and a literature cited. Together, these sections make up the most fundamental genre in chemistry writing: research articles (i.e., lab reports). Further, these sections also make up the research posters, review articles, and research proposals you'll be introduced to in upper-level classes. The only kind of writing in chemistry not made up by these sections is the notes you'll take in your laboratory notebook.
The purpose of chemistry writing depends on the genre. A lab notebook is meant to be fairly informal, but clear and detailed enough that another chemist unfamiliar with the experiment you're doing could open up your notebook and repeat the experiment. Keeping this kind of detailed record of your lab work will allow you to go back later and understand what it was you did in lab. In turn, understanding what you did will give you the context you need to write an informed lab report and thus make the process much easier.
These lab reports are formal papers that are meant to be places for you to practice sorting through, presenting and analyzing data. Further, lab reports also give you practice deepening your understanding of what you did in lab by allowing you to see your knowledge gaps and fill them by looking things up or asking your classmates and professor. Last but not least, lab reports are the avenues of communicating your results to faculty and other scientists, making them the crucial places where science really occurs.
“Brevity may be the soul of wit, but it is the cerebrum of good science writing.”
When you write for chemistry, be clear, concise, and precise. In art, ambiguity is often ripe with meaning, but in scientific writing ambiguity is distracting. One of the most common writing errors chemistry students make is being vague when they should be precise. Don't say “the product was obtained in good yield” when you could just as easily say “the aldehyde 3 was obtained in 64% yield,” a statement that contains much more useful information for other scientists trying to replicate your experiment.
Despite the importance of clarity, being precise shouldn't prevent you from telling a story with your data: structuring a lab report as a narrative is a higher-level skill that can turn a seemingly mundane paper into a compelling one. Your Title provides a hook to draw in the reader; then the Introduction sets the narrative background and poses the problem that needs solving; the Experimental and Results sections show how your protagonist has interrogated nature, and the answers they have gained; and then the Discussion puts the results in context with other results cited in the Intro (by either verifying or contesting them) while forcing you to explain why this might be. Of course there are often questions left unanswered, or new questions that arose in the course of the work; these then appear at the end of the Discussion to entice the reader to look for the sequel (that is, the reader's own subsequent research).
“A figure saves a thousand words.”
Evidence in chemistry—as in all natural sciences—is exclusively empirical, reproducible data from experiments you have done yourself or from a peer-reviewed, scholarly source. As the quote marking this subsection suggests, it can be very helpful to organize your results and explain the context you give in your introduction using figures and tables. These tables and figures are a powerful way to harness your evidence if you pair them with descriptive captions and embed them in the text of your lab report. That said, figures and tables don't replace words: don't include a figure if you don't explain it in text!
Conventions and Tips.
Don't write from beginning to end. Many students think they should write a report in the order that it appears, but this is often an inefficient way to write a research paper—the abstract comes immediately after the title, but it should normally be written last, because it is easier to summarize the research after you've written the entire report and have thus refined your understanding of the research. Although there is no one-size-fits-all approach, here is an order that is usually effective: Organize your thoughts and your data, write the Experimental Section, prepare the important illustrations (i.e., Tables, Figures, and Schemes), write the Results section (using the illustrations as a guide), draft an outline of the Discussion section, write the Introduction, complete the Discussion Section, write the Conclusions, add References, write the Title and Abstract.
Start early and get help if needed. Usually professors won't have time to go over your whole draft, so make sure you go into office hours or send an email with a few specific questions for them to answer.
Know your audience. You are writing for other chemists with a similar level of knowledge to your own but who are not familiar with the exact experiments you performed. You don't have to go into gory detail about procedures that any chemist should know—it is even OK to use a little jargon if it is part of the chemist's lexicon. For example, “the reaction was heated at reflux for 2 hours” is perfectly clear to any chemist who has taken organic chemistry.
Delete superfluous words: don't say “the melting point was determined to be 198-199ºC,” say “the melting point is 198-199ºC.”
Chemical names are not capitalized (unless they are trade names).
All manuscripts should be double-spaced (unless told otherwise).
Use the proper number of significant figures when reporting data.
Always put a space between a number and its units.
Always put a zero in front of a decimal value, otherwise a decimal can be mistaken for a period.
Use the correct citation style (see Chapter 8).
Write in pen in your lab notebook. You'll find out why, if you spill something!
The Journal of the American Chemical Society is a great place to look for examples of excellent writing in chemistry. The more papers you read the more successfully you will be able to write one.
Collins Memorial Library provides a very helpful online “Chemistry: Subject Guide” at
http://.pugetsound.edu/chem—there's even a tab on “Writing and Citing”!