Tip on Writing Essays


Use First Person Active Voice - When explaining what you have done or what you propose to do say, for example, "I performed reciprocal transplant experiments to determine the effects of soil type and microenvironment on the growth of flowering dogwood." Do not say, "Reciprocal transplant experiments were done to determine the effects of soil type and microenvironment on growth of flowering dogwood." By saying "I performed..." you more forcefully involve the reader by communicating exactly what you did. By saying "...experiments were done..." we never know exactly by whom. As another example, would you want someone you care for to say "I love you" or "You are loved by me?" Be careful, some British journals prohibit the use of first person active voice and insist on using 3rd person passive voice.

Use Precise and Non-Technical or "Jargon" Language Where Possible - Use common language wherever possible, but use language precisely. Make sure that the language you use clearly and unambiguously communicates the idea you intend. Scientific articles should be understandable by a generally knowledgeable reader. Do not use jargon or technical terms if they can be avoided, or at least define them when they are first used.

Use Short Sentences Where Possible - Avoid long sentences with multiple clauses. It is more difficult to follow the train-of thought of a long sentence than of two or more short sentences. If your sentence is beginning to look more like a paragraph, then it probably should be broken into multiple sentences.

Avoid Indefinite References - When describing an idea or result in a series of sentences, be clear about which earlier ideas or results you refer to in any subsequent sentences. For example, "Birds in the genus Parus (the chickadees) appear to be the major avian predators of leaf-mining insects. This is because the leg musculature of chickadees allows them to hang upside down from leaves and peck open leaf mines." Strictly speaking the second sentence begins with the somewhat vague and indefinite reference to "This." Had there been other antecedent sentences what "This" refers to might have been unclear. In this example it would be better to combine the sentences deleting the "This is" and appending the clause beginning with "because" at the end of the first sentence. For example: "Birds in the genus Parus (the chickadees) appear to be the major avian predators of leaf-mining insects because the leg musculature of chickadees allows them to hang upside down from leaves and peck open leaf mines." Although the combined sentence would be long, its meaning might be more clear. Obviously judgment can be exercised since not all references to antecedent information will be vague or indefinite.

Avoid Chatty or Conversational Phrasing or Word Choice - Written language is not identical to spoken language. Written language usually appears somewhat more formal and precise than spoken language. Slang, conversational exclamations (We did these neat experiments and the results were awesome!), and imprecise word selection have no place in essays.

Use Strong Topic Sentences - The first sentence in a paragraph should describe the topic and subtopics of that paragraph. If one cannot tell from that sentence what is to follow, then the information in the paragraph will not serve to further the train of thought of the essay. Write clear and strong topic sentences, and make sure that material unrelated to the topic of the paragraph is placed in another more appropriate paragraph.

Be Brief and Succinct - Scientists actually pay to have their research papers published! So be brief and to the point. In scientific essays, there are no rewards, only penalties, for unnecessary length.

Pay Attention to Sentence Structure - Sentences should have a subject and a verb, tenses should agree, parallel clauses should be parallel.

When Communicating New or Technical Information Seek Models From Scientific Articles - When reporting on an idea that you have never written about before, or reporting technical information, check a scientific article that reports on the same or a similar topic to see an example of how to craft a precise phrase to serve your needs. For example, describing quantitative results, experimental methods, statistical methods, or the results of statistical tests can be quite daunting, if you have never done it before. Examine the methods and results sections of scientific articles as a guide about how to do so. By looking at published papers, you can get an idea of the appropriate level of detail, specific wording, the exact components of a statistical test to report, and specific almost stylized phrases used repeated in scientific articles in many recurring situations like describing a common kind of experiment or reporting an often used statistical test.

Cite Other Articles by Their Author(s) and Date - When referring to material from other scientific articles always cite the author(s) and date of the publication in text or parenthetically, and give the full citation in the Literature Cited section. At the end of a sentence or paragraph, one can attribute the idea in that sentence or paragraph to a single paper or a group of papers by placing the authors and dates in parenthesis, for example (Connor and McCoy 1979, McGlathery 1994, Connor et al. 1994). In the Literature cited section, the authors last names, initials, the date of publication, the article title, journal title, volume number, and page numbers are reported. One can also emphasize the approach, results, or interpretation of a particular paper or group of papers by specific authors or sets of authors by specifically referring to them in the text, not parenthetically; for example, "Connor and Simberloff (1979) criticized Diamond’s (1975) assertion that..." The full citation of articles referred to in this manner also should be report in the Literature Cited section.

 Italicize or Underline Generic and Species Names - By convention generic and species names are italicized or underlined. Generic names, and the names of higher taxonomic groups should also be capitalized. For example, the Carolina chickadee is Parus carolinensis, flowering dogwood is Cornus florida, etc.