Report Writing at 3rd-level Lawrence Cleary, Patricia Herron, Dr. Íde O’Sullivan, Research Officers, Regional Writing Center, UL
Seminar Outline • Lab Reports as a ‘type’ • Types • Typical Structure • Specifications for lab reports in physics and biology at UL • Inconsistencies across disciplines and within disciplines • Style and Tone: Initial Overscientifisication and Underfirstpersonnongrataficticiousication of a Lab Report in Progress • Looking Ahead: Writing in Your Chosen Profession
Lab Report as a ‘type’ • Science, Technical, Business and Research Reports • Primary and Secondary Research Reports, Progress / Status Reports, Business Plans and Proposals, Feasibility, Evaluation and Recommendation Reports, Technical Background Reports, Instructions, Users Guides, Organizational Policies and Procedures, and Technical Specifications
Commonalities • They set out a series of facts based on evidence of some kind. • The information they provide can usually be checked. • This information is set out in such a way as to be most useful to the reader. The reports have special rules or conventions covering how information is presented. • They are usually aimed at readers with a specific interest in the subject. (Seely 2002: 7)
Typical Structure • Typically, Lab Reports are organized around the following section headings:
Specs for Lab Reports in Physics and Biology • Typical Layout: • Title [Short and clear] • The aim of the experiment [what you hoped to achieve] • Theory • Diagram of apparatus
Specs for Lab Reports in Physics and Biology • Typical Layout (con’t): • Procedure [in a numbered list, give brief detail of how the experiment is performed etc.] • Results • Analysis • Discussion / Conclusions
Additional Information for Writers of Physics and Biology Lab Reports • Graphs are plotted to find relationships between measured variables. Guidelines are very specific about how they should be plotted. • Reports must be written up in an A4-sized hardback science notebook only. • Pay attention to the presentation. • Reports must be completed before leaving the lab.
One size does not fit all • Not all disciplines use the same format or structure for their lab reports, nor do different disciplines have the same expectations for what seem on the surface to be similar requirements. • Not all teachers in each discipline have the same requirements. Pay attention to individual teacher expectations.
Best Advice • Know what your particular instructor requires. • Follow guidelines to a T. If no guidelines are required, ask for guidelines or a model to follow. • Give the information asked for and nothing more. More is not necessarily better. Concise precision is. • Write legibly. • Answer questions intelligently and intelligibly, expressing ideas concisely, yet clearly.
Style and Tone • Style as Choice • Stylistic features common to scientific and technical writing • Style and Tone • On Ambiguity
Style as Choice “Every writer has available the enormous resources of a whole language. English presents a particularly large range of choices of individual words, and of combinations of words into small and large ‘structures’—idioms, phrases, clauses, sentences, paragraphs, sections, chapters. The choices we make create the ‘style’, which is a term covering balance, emphasis and tone.” (Kirkman 2005:1)
Variety and Flexibility “…too many writers”, states John Kirkman (2005: 3), “try to restrict their choices to formal, third-person, passive, impersonal constructions. The cumulative effect of this is a sense of monotonous, roundabout clumsiness.”
Stylistic features common to scientific and technical writing • Sentences • Short v. long • Simple v. complex
Stylistic features common to scientific and technical writing • vocabulary • Short vs long phrases • Ordinary vs grandiose • Familiar vs unfamiliar • Non-technical vs technical • Concrete vs abstract • Normal, comfortable idiomatic expression vs special, stiff scientific idioms • Direct incisive phrasing vs roundabout, verbose phrasing
Stylistic features common to scientific and technical writing • Verb Forms • Active vs passive • Personal vs impersonal • Informal vs formal
Stylistic features common to scientific and technical writing • Paragraphing • Use vs non-use • Coherent vs incoherent • Cohesive vs incohesive • Unified vs Disjointed
Stylistic features common to scientific and technical writing • Mechanics • Spelling • Capitalization • Punctuation: Careful use vs casual, random use
Style and Tone “Tone reveals the writer’s attitude toward the reader and the subject. Tone is a matter of syntax, diction, and subject matter” (Rubens 2001: 81). After you investigate the proposed system in detail, you should thoroughly understand its architecture. So you might want to get going on a prototype of the new system asap.
Rhetorical Situation Sometimes, the elements that make one or some other version of a text more effective may not be a matter of the accuracy or clarity of technical content any more than it is a matter of grammatical ‘correctness’. Sometimes, communicative effectiveness comes down to a writer’s understanding of her relationship with her audience and of the context into which she writes (Kirkman 2005: 1-2).
Ambiguity • “As readers and listeners we can, if we wish, willfully misconstrue almost any statement, especially one that contains general rather than special vocabulary” (Kirkman 2005: 137).
Looking Ahead: Writing in Your Chosen Profession “We wish to argue for two broad kinds of knowledge about writing that are potentially capable of helping people to cope with the transfer and adaptation of foundation literacy skills to the workplace: 1) metacognitive knowledge about the best ways of solving the problems of writing; 2) conceptual knowledge about the nature of writing. We do not consider it at all likely that workplaces themselves would provide significant education in respect of either of these; rather we see it as the job of formal education to initiate the appropriate learning in respect of each of these areas, in the expectation that subsequent experiences in work will inevitably provide the circumstances for their development and consolidation” (Davies and Birbili 2000: 440-441).
Looking Ahead: Writing in Your Chosen Profession “Communication in writing for varied purposes” was in amongst the top thirteen attributes that employers wish graduates to have, and “written communication” in the top ten list of the most important professional transferable skills to have (Sherry and Hunt 2007: 2; Curry, Sherry, and Tunney 2003: 5, 18). “…it is important not to lose sight of the fact that there were a number of skills highlighted with which all responding employers have a lower level of satisfaction yet regard as particularly important – time management, coping with multiple tasks and written communication - and it is recommended that particular attention be paid to these skills in third-level education”(Curry, Sherry, and Tunney 2003: 22).
Sources • Curry, P., Sherry, R., and Tunney, O. 2003 What Transferable Skills Do Employers Look for inThird-level Graduates?: Results of Employer Survey. Dublin: Transferable Skills Project. • Davies, C. and Bilbili, M. 2000 “What do People Need to Know about Writing in Order to Write in Their Jobs?”British Journal of Educational Studies 48(4): 429-445. • Dolphin, W.D. 1997 “Writing Lab Reports and Scientific Papers” [online], available: http://www.mhhe.com/biosci/genbio/maderinquiry/writing.html [accessed 13 Aug, 2008].
Sources • Guidance on the Arrangement of Written Reports (n.d.) (n.p.) • Kirkman, J. 2005 Good Style: Writing for Science and Technology, 2nd ed. Routledge Study Guides, London: Routledge. • McMurray, D. A. (n.d.) Online Technical Writing: Online Textbook—Contents [online], available: http://www.io.com/~hcexres/textbook/ [accessed 15 Aug 2008]. • Rubens, P. 2001 Science and Technical Writing: A Manual of Style, 2nd ed. Routledge: New York. • Seely, J. 2002 Writing Reports. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Sources • Sherry, R. and Hunt, I. 2007 The Teaching, Learning, and Development of Professional Transferable Skills: A Community of Practice (COP) Report, COP 5. Limerick: Programme for University Industry Interface. • UEfAP.com 2008 “Writing Paragraphs” [online], available: http://www.uefap.com/writing/exercise/parag/paragex1.htm [accessed 15 Aug, 2008]. • Young, T. Technical Writing A-Z: A Commonsense Guide to Engineering Reports and Theses, British English Edition. New York: ASME Press.