Leeds University Library

Scientific writing at university level

conservationist examining a manuscript under a microscope

On this page, you will find some useful tips to help you to make your scientific writing more effective. This is intended to be a general guide that will complement advice given by your school. If you have any specific questions about the style in your subject area, then please ask within your school.

There are many similarities between scientific and non-scientific academic writing. For example, both types of writing should show objectivity and be well structured. Our academic writing pages provide general advice and examples about writing at university. In addition, all academic writing at University level should demonstrate critical thinking.

Scientific writing should be:

Clear

  • Avoid unnecessary detail and words
  • Include one idea per sentence (with sentences 10-25 words in length)
  • Include one theme per paragraph

Concise

  • Use as few words as possible, for example "now" instead of "at the present time"
  • Avoid repetition

Simple

  • Use direct language, avoiding vague or complicated sentences
  • Explain any technical terms or jargon, and use only when necessary for context
  • Try to avoid using lots of long words

Here is a good example of clear, concise and simple scientific writing:

"Glass microscope slides were cleaned and etched by immersion in piranha solution (75 vol% H2SO4, 25 vol% H2O2). These were then placed in plastic petri dishes to act as substrates for precipitation. They were then submerged in the respective concentrations of reactant solutions containing calcium chloride (CaCl2) and L-aspartic acid sodium salt monohydrate (C4H6NO4Na.H2O) (Table 1)."

[School of Chemical and Process Engineering dissertation]

Precise

  • Avoid vague and ambiguous language such as "about", "approximately", "almost", "large"
  • For example, write "The researcher tested the concentration every 15 minutes" instead of "the concentration was tested regularly"

Analytical

  • Avoid making assumptions such as "everyone knows that..."
  • Use evidence from the literature to provide reasons and explanations for your results

Here is a good example of analytical scientific writing:

"It may at first seem somewhat surprising that acid-charcoal treatment has so little effect on the structure of serum albumin...A possible explanation may be that at acid pH charcoal particles do in fact become tightly "coated" with albumin which is not substantially released.  Lau et al.37 have shown that albumin treated Norit has different absorptive properties than does untreated charcoal."

[Learn Higher. 2013. Report writing: Identify the sections of a report. [Online]. [Accessed 11 April 2016]. Available from: http://www.learnhigher.ac.uk/writing-for-university/report-writing/]

Objective

  • Provide an impartial and balanced view of the evidence. Don't ignore evidence with different results and conclusions to your own. Instead, include it in your work, and analyse why the findings are different
  • Make sure any claims you make are supported by appropriate evidence that demonstrates how conclusions have been drawn, rather than expressing your unsupported thoughts and beliefs

Structured logically

Cautious

  • Be careful not to overstate what your results can support. Take care when using words such as "proves" or "definitely"
  • Instead, show caution by using hedging words

Here is a good example of hedging within scientific writing:

"It is difficult to speculate exactly what material the darker regions were composed of, and XRD analysis could not be performed on the area as it was too small. However, it could be speculated that the material was crystalline as it originated from a single point (indicating nucleation). The whiskers are thought to be polycrystalline and not monocrystalline as they appear dendritic in form."

[School of Chemical and Process Engineering dissertation]

Appropriate in its use of figures

  • Tables, charts, graphs, etc. can be used throughout but must be discussed in the main text

Appropriate use of tenses

Different tenses are used for writing about different types of information, and you will need to combine different tenses in your writing.

  • What you did = past tense "The aim of this iteration was to create the layout of the website to present the information of each student. To start this iteration, the command python manage.py runserver was entered to run the test server." [School of Computing dissertation]
  • What you conclude/found = present tense "In this case there is not a large difference between the two diameter values (from Feret's diameter and calculated equation), which again is probably due to the fact that the average circularity ratio is on the high end of the scale, 0.88, and therefore infers near circular pores." [School of Chemical and Process Engineering dissertation]