Section 5.8 Writing for Exercise Science
Students in Exercise Science, like other STEM students, must learn to write well in order to communicate scientific ideas both to other scientists and to general audiences. Writing assignments in Exercise Science classes build on the foundational scientific writing skills developed in introductory biology and chemistry to prepare students for careers in research or health professions. Strong scientific writing requires practice and attention to detail; read on for ideas on where to start.
One common genre in Exercise Science is the research paper. These are student versions of published scientific journal articles written by collaborative research teams; students sometimes write research papers as group assignments. Research papers include prescribed sections such as Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion. The best way to develop research paper writing skills is to read lots of exemplary papers from high-quality journals. Learn from the format and writing style. Some classes may also assign lab reports, which are similar to research papers but are about smaller experiments. While data presented in lab reports may not be novel, it’s still important to place them in the context of the field in the introduction and conclusion.
Another type of writing assignment is a position statement. Position statements are argumentative papers where the author should give their personal stance on an issue, and support it with considerable evidence on both sides. Be sure to clearly articulate how the evidence has led you to the stance you hold.
Lay summaries of scientific journal articles are another common writing assignment. These papers help you hone your written communication skills to explain challenging scientific concepts to people from outside the field. Make sure you take time to understand the article yourself; if you don’t understand it, how can you explain it? Use clear language and because the field of Exercise Science isn’t a field that uses quote evidence, don’t quote directly from the article.
Finally, literature reviews also require you to synthesize information from scientific literature, but for a more informed audience. Instead of summarizing a list of related papers, a lit review should show how the ideas in the papers interact with each other. As you write, group papers thematically and focus on their similarities and differences. What conclusions can you draw from the whole body of literature you examined?
“There are two big pieces to writing: one is communicating what you mean to say, and one is being right about the science.”
In the field of Exercise Science, writing is used to communicate scientific discoveries and how they fit into the broader context of research in the field. As a student, you are practicing this skill: written assignments show your professor that you can synthesize published studies and/or your own data to draw conclusions about a topic. Writing can help you integrate information, demonstrate your knowledge, and communicate specialized knowledge to different audiences, including people without scientific training. By writing for different audiences, you comprehend the science better yourself and learn to communicate it in new ways.
Traits and Characteritistcs.
“The best way to learn how to write is to read and see how it’s done.”
Good writing in Exercise Science communicates difficult concepts clearly. Try to make your argument clear by explicitly laying out how point A leads to point B and point B leads to point C. If you’re struggling with this, take a step back and consider what main points you’re trying to convey. Use simple words where possible, and strong verbs instead of adjectives or flowery language. Concision is best: “Heart rate increased by 23% over 5 minutes” is much better than “This caused the heart rate to be gradually augmented by a moderate amount.” There’s no need to confuse yourself or others by trying to sound smart! Precision of language is also important: be sure the terms you use are the correct ones, and that you define specialized jargon.
Lab reports and research papers adhere to a strict format with prescribed sections. Within sections, use paragraphs that are clearly organized around one idea and supporting evidence. Research papers and lab reports have a concise and formal style that may be different than other forms of writing you have experienced. This consistency adheres to the expectations of readers and makes it easy for them to find information. Again, reading articles from respected Exercise Science journals is the best way to familiarize yourself with the tone and the way sentences and paragraphs are constructed.
Evidence should usually be drawn from primary sources, which are peer-reviewed scientific journal articles. The PubMed database 1 from NCBI is the best place to go for papers. When incorporating evidence, avoid direct quotations. Instead, you should read the article until you understand it well enough to clearly paraphrase the results or conclusions. Remember that paraphrased information still needs to be cited. Every statement of fact that isn’t data you collected yourself should be backed up with a citation. Evidence may also include empirical data that you or your classmates collected in lab. When you report evidence from data that you collected yourself, don’t just list numbers; think about the question and what data meaningfully answers it. Think about meaningful metrics like percent change or differences between experimental and control groups. In a research paper with lots of results, group results logically into paragraphs.
Conventions and Tips.
- Get Zotero (Section 12.2) and learn how to use it! Exercise Science doesn’t have a standard citation format, and Zotero allows you to move quickly between formats while keeping the details accurate. If you need help, see a librarian.
- Pay attention to detail with your citations. Consistency is key. Even with Zotero, it’s important to double- and triple-check that everything is right.
- For assignments with multiple drafts, be sure to revise based on your professor’s feedback. Be sure to open any feedback they’ve left with track changes. If the feedback is confusing, ask about it in office hours!
- Pay attention to tense! If you’re proposing something you haven’t done, it should be in future tense. If you’re reporting something you already did, like methods or results for a completed experiment, it should be in past tense. Either way, be sure to maintain consistency throughout the section. If you’re unsure what tense to use, ask your professor.
- Conventions on active and passive voice can differ from professor to professor, but be sure to be consistent. If you’re confused about what passive voice is, check out using passive constructions cautiously (Subsection 7.3.3).
- Take care using “I.” It may be appropriate in assignments like position papers and independent research proposals, but if you performed an experiment in a group, “we” is preferred.
The article Writing for the Journal of Orthopaedic Research by Timothy M. Wright, Joseph A. Buckwater, and Wilson C. Hayes (published 1999 in the Journal of Orthopaedic Research) provides excellent guidance for writing research papers and lab reports. While some details are specific to this journal, many suggestions (including details on concision and phrasing) are widely applicable.
Again, reading and emulating articles from high-quality Exercise Science journals is a great way to improve your writing. Some journals to look at for examples are Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, the Journal of Applied Physiology, the American Journal of Physiology, and the Journal of Orthopaedic Research.