Humanities vs sciences

Scientific writing

Lean writing – 1

All writing guides – including this one – give similar advice: no unnecessary words, make every word count, keep it concise. Every sentence needs to be toned for high performance: plenty of muscle and no excess fat. This is good advice for writing in general but lean writing is especially important in scientific writing because scientific writing places its emphasis on gathering and reviewing evidence; and on conveying quantitative information. ‘Quantitative’ means ‘measured or measurable by, or concerned with, quantity’ i.e. ‘how much of something is there’.

Lean writing – 2

Scientific writing is concerned with measurement and observation not opinion and supposition. This means that it tends not to use superlatives, comparatives or adverbs. Read through a few scientific papers and you’ll find a complete absence of words like ‘best’, ‘greatest’, ‘very’ ‘quite’, ‘rather’, ‘somewhat’, ‘really’, ‘nearly’, ‘slowly’, etc. In writing for the humanities you will regularly come across phrases like ‘There may be a sense in which’ or ‘It is interesting to note that’ but not in scientific writing.

Scientific method

A very useful book entitled Successful Scientific Writing by Janice R. Matthews, John M. Bowen and Robert W. Matthews begins like this:

“Scientific writing almost always begins with a question that cannot be definitively answered out of our previous personal experiences.”

To put this another way, I can go and see a performance of King Lear and come away with a greatly improved understanding of how Shakespeare’s language works and why is it effective. On the other hand, I can go and see world class athletes perform and barely improve my understanding of why they perform so well. To understand their performance I would need to do some detailed research. Scientific writing therefore reflects scientific method.

Scientific method involves:

  • the systematic search for intersubjectively accessible knowledge;
  • the recognition and formulation of a problem or question;
  • the gathering of data through observation and experiment;
  • the formulation of hypotheses;
  • the testing and confirmation or rejection of those hypotheses.

If you don’t know what some of these words mean, look them up in the dictionary.

It is not only beginning with a question that is important but also the way that question is answered. To answer a scientific question you need to have an organized and pre-planned way of doing so i.e. a systematic search. This way of answering the question must be reproducible by other people and must always lead to the same conclusion. This is what ‘intersubjectively accessible knowledge’ means. Stories about scientific method sometimes feature in national or international news. Someone will claim to have made an amazing discovery. Other people will try to reproduce the original experiment and fail.

Showing evidence

One of the key points about scientific method is “the gathering of data through observation and experiment”. This data will be the evidence on which you base your conclusions. However, your essay will need to show that you have followed scientific method throughout. A good way to do this is to ask yourself questions throughout the research leading up to writing the essay.

Important questions to keep in front of you are:

  • Is your work reproducible?
  • Does your work involve the application of existing principles or methods; and, if so, are you applying them correctly?
  • If you are departing from accepted principles or methods, why are you doing so?
  • Have you made a plan for your work?
  • If your research involves interviewing or studying a group of people, is the sample big enough? Are there any ethical implications? Does your institution have a policy on ethical practice in scientific work?
  • What systems have you set up for collecting your data?
  • Are you aware of existing work relevant to your question or hypothesis? This is particularly important as cutting edge research is published in journals first.

Structure

Scientific writing follows rigid structures that reflect the scientific method underlying it. If you are uncertain about this, go and look at scientific journals in the library and you will see that the papers they publish are usually organised as follows:

Introduction. Your introduction should cover three main areas. You should begin by sketching the general field of interest – e.g. the performance of world-class athletes – and the type of research that has already been carried out. You should then say how your essay fits with that existing research: are you hoping to modify an aspect of it, apply a method used in one field to a new field, reproduce an existing experiment? Finally, you should state your question or hypothesis and say how you intend to answer or explore it.

What & how. The next part of your essay should deal with ‘what and how’ or materials and methods. Materials mean the things or people involved in your study. To continue with our example of the performance of world-class athletes: how many athletes did you study? what events do they compete in? was your sample mixed or did you only concentrate on sprinters and if so why? If your essay is focused on, say, the relationship of a particular diet and performance, then you would include details of that diet.

You should then say what was done, over what period of time and why. Your description should follow, if possible, the chronological order of what happened. This will not only help you to organize your writing but will also help you to present your results as the logical outcome of a logical process. If you are following existing models then you should say what they are in this section. Remember also that if you are using existing models you should make sure that you are using them correctly and not missing any stages out.

Results. The next part of your essay should state clearly what you found out. This is where you would usually put diagrams, figures or tables. You should comment on the data you present but what you say should not just be a description in words of the data. Your emphasis should be on the results that are relevant to your original question or hypothesis. However, you should not leave out results that don’t fit your hypothesis. If you have some results like this then it is important to understand the reasons and explain the anomalies.

Discussion & conclusion. This is the part of your essay where you interpret your results. You should say where your results were relevant to your hypothesis and where they were irrelevant. You should also say how your results converge with or diverge from existing work in the field. You should also try and say what the implications of your results are. For example, you might say something like this:

Although Blogg’s diet and performance model was originally developed to improve the performance of sprinters, this study suggests that it can be usefully applied across a range of track and field events.

Or something like this:

Blogg’s diet and performance model was originally developed to improve the performance of sprinters. The failure of this study to reproduce the same results across a range of track and field events suggests that its general conclusions about athletes’ performance are of limited application.

Abstracts

If you look at papers in scientific journals you will see that they are prefaced by an abstract. An abstract is a condensed or abbreviated version of the complete paper. It gives a clear description of the contents of the paper without reproducing them in detail and is usually somewhere between 100 and 300 words in length.

It is unlikely that you will have to write one for every undergraduate essay but you will certainly have to produce one if you are, for example, a sports science or nutrition student who chooses to write a final year dissertation.

Abstracts are a very useful way of checking what you have written and clarifying what you are trying to say. Can you compress the contents of your essay into 150 words? When you have done so, are there any glaringly obvious omissions? Try writing an abstract before you start writing the essay; and then another one when you have finished. The differences may surprise you.