Science:Science Writing Resources/Guidelines for Effective Writing-Writing Process
Creating and Using Writing Outlines
One strategy for writing a paper is to make an outline in which you break down your paper into sections and subsections.
Before writing an outline, it’s important to have an argument, thesis, or hypothesis around which you build your outline. This main idea may change over the course of writing; however, it’s important to have something around which to focus your outline as you go.
- If you are writing a lab report or a scientific journal article, you might start by arranging a skeleton of the outline in IMRAD form (Introduction, Methods, Results and Discussion). You might add subsections in each section to denote specific pieces of content that you will need to write.
- For example, in the Introduction section, you might add in subsections detailing: a) historically important research/experiments in this field, b) current scholarship to date, c) a gap in the current scholarship, d) how your work will add to this conversation…
- After you write your outline, you might need to move things around, do more research, or omit some of the points.
- Remember, an outline is just an organizational tool and not a set in stone plan. Writing is a process, and often our papers change as we write them. If you don’t find outlining helpful, don’t worry! Keep working on developing your own writing practice.
1: Before Creating and Using a Writing Outline
Before it comes to the second stage when you create and use your writing outline, it is important to acknowledge the role played in summarizing material you read that will make it into your piece of writing in the form of cited work (for more information on integrating sources into your work, see the associated page on our site).
Reading lots of relevant material is important to make sure you are able to present an up-to-date picture of the current thinking in the area of research you are writing about, but the more you read, the less you remember, and the less you remember, the more you forget! This is why it is vital that you make short summaries of work that you read, in case you wish to cite this material in your written draft.
Even if you are working with a relatively small number of sources, you’ll be surprised how quickly you forget the content in these, and how often you have to re-read whole articles when it comes to writing your piece to find something to cite. When it comes to writing a detailed report, or a journal article in which you might cite more than 20 other pieces of work, it would be impossible to effectively cite material without making short summaries.
You could choose to either:
- A) Print each article and annotate it with coloured pens (underline interesting points, make brief notes in the margins)
- B) Compile a document that comprises five or six lines of information outlining the major content and/or arguments made by the author(s) of each article
Either way, you should have hard copies of your own summarized material that you can refer to quickly and easily when writing. You will also plug some of this information in to your writing outline before you start writing…
2: Creating a Writing Outline
Depending on the purpose of your written work, and on the audience you are addressing, the approach you must take to logically deal with the question being asked might differ. However, whether you are writing a detailed research-based journal article that will be read by specialists of the discipline, or a journalistic article that will be read by the general public, you should still aim to break down a plan into sections and sub-sections that will each need to be addressed in your final piece of work.
Think of the Contents page of a book: this is what you writing outline should look like, with each chapter building on the one before and ‘signposting’ a change of direction in terms of content.
- 1) If you are writing a lab report or a scientific journal article, you should start by arranging a skeleton of the outline in IMRAD form (Introduction, Methods, Results and Discussion). Then, you should add in ‘sub-chapters’ in each section to denote specific pieces of content that you will need to write.
For example, in the Introduction section, you might add in sub-sections detailing: a) historically important research/experiments in this field, b) current thinking, c) the importance of adding to current thinking…
- 2) If you are writing a journalistic article, you should start by writing the basic structure of your piece (‘Hook’/Opening [Who, What, Where, When, Why], Specific Information about the News, Introduce Expert, Quote Expert, Future Directions, Summary). Then, you should add in ‘sub-chapters’ in each section to denote specific pieces of content that you will need to write.
For example, in the ‘Hook’/Opening [Who, What, Where, When, Why] section, you might add in sub-sections detailing: a) Who – Dr Lily Reilly, and her affiliation, b) What – Wolf Escape in Irish Forest, c) Where – County Wicklow, 5 km from local town, d) When – Two weeks ago, e) Why – Interesting because it could be hunting local pets/farm animals, and people are scared…
Adding to a Writing Outline
Once you have your completed writing outline in ‘Chapters’ form, you can start to plug in information from the material you summarized before writing the outline.
For example, in the case of the lab report/journal article, you can start to plug in all the material that you read about regarding current thinking in the field of research you are working in. You can do this in abbreviated form (or use bullet-points), but make sure you use some sort of coding system so you know which source the information is coming from.
If you are completing a piece of writing that will be graded, pay attention to the breakdown of marks. Although assigning word limits to specific sections of a piece of writing in an outline is not always a good idea, you should pay attention to elements that are worth the bulk of your grade.
For example, if your instructor tells you that 50% of the marks will be awarded for the Introduction section, you should focus your attention on this section. When creating an outline, make sure you give equal – and sufficient – attention to the different content elements that should appear in this Introduction.
An Example Outline
Imagine you are writing a journal article about the effect of an invasive plant species in North American grasslands, having completed an experiment to see whether planting other native species could help reduce the spread of the most invasive species. Your writing outline might look something like this (red numbers indicate summary material that can be plugged in/cited here in your writing):
- a) Background information about the spread of the ‘invasive species’ of interest
- i) Biological information (style of growth, lifespan etc) 1, 5, 7
- ii) Range 2, 5
- iii) How long has it been in these grasslands? 3, 12
- iv) Rate of spread? 4, 6, 8
- b) Negative effects of this invasive species
- i) Out-competes native species (some endangered) 9, 10, 11, 14
- ii) Increases likelihood of wildfires 12, 13
- iii) Inedible to grazing animals (cattle) 6, 11, 15
- iv) Economic cost to conservationists controlling its spread 16
- c) Current management options and hopes for the future
- i)Fertiliser 14, 17
- ii)Plant other species to compete with it 18, 19, 22
- iii) Mowing 20, 21
- iv)Could we use native species to compete with it and prevent its spread?
- i)Study sites
- ii)Experimental set-up
- iii)Statistical analyses used
- i)Tested native species reduces its spread by 60% in dry conditions
- ii)Tested native species reduced its spread by 15% in wet conditions
- iii)Success of native species increases if it is sown earlier in the year
- i)Compare results of this species with other native species tested by others 18, 19, 22
- ii)How might conservation plans be designed to use this native species? 16, 23
- iii) Predictions for economic saving that could be made if invasive spread was reduced by 15-60%
- iv) Suggestions for future research
- v) Limitations of study
Using a Writing Outline
Now that you have your writing outline and your summarized material to plug in to it, you can begin writing. The most important thing at this point is to write a draft; a draft is just that – it doesn’t need to flow perfectly, and the grammar can be imperfect at this point, so don’t spend too long refining the way you are wording each sentence.
The main goal here is to refer to your writing outline and tackle each section and sub-section from a content perspective. If you have put the work into your summaries and writing outline, you will be surprised how quickly you can write a whole piece like this.
Before you move on to stage three (Editing), make sure you wait at least 24 hours before returning with fresh eyes and a fresh perspective.
After Using a Writing Outline (Editing)
To make the editing process as swift and efficient as possible, try to:
- 1) Cut any content that you feel is unnecessary (you should never be adding material at this stage)
- 2) Check the grammar for all of your sentences *
- 3) Edit for clarity and succinctness (try to write simple, short sentences that are easy to interpret) **
- 4) Add in topic sentences to start each paragraph (and try to make sure each paragraph only makes one main point) ***
- 5) Add in smooth transitions to make sure each sentence flows smoothly from the previous one ***
- For more information on grammar and associated tips, see the associated pages on our site. ** For help in editing for clarity and succinctness, see the relevant page here. *** For guidance on writing topic sentences and using smooth transitions, please see these pages on our site.
For a recap and for some extra information about creating and using writing outlines, please watch Grammar Squirrel’s video on the UBC Science Writing YouTube channel.
Researching and Drafting
Researching and Drafting
Devoting sufficient time to researching and drafting is an essential part of an effective writing process. Depending on the assignment, you might need to spend a lot of time searching for relevant literature as part of your research. We have created specific guides on Finding Sources and Literature Searches and Identifying Different Types of Sources that will help you in these instances.
In this resource, we outline a few other tips to help you research and then draft your material most effectively.
1. Set aside plenty of time to research your topic in detail, but split your research into manageable chunks. For example, set yourself a goal of finding four or five useful primary sources each time you perform a literature search and then take a break. You are likely to be more successful this way than trying to find all you need in one mammoth session online.
2. Try to only look for (and use) the most recent sources to answer the assignment question. This is a golden tip in all forms of science writing, and even more so in popular writing such as newspaper articles, blog posts and press releases. Scientific thinking changes over time as knowledge builds and opinions shift, so it is important to be sure you are working with the latest material. When performing literature searches, you should start off by searching only in the last few years, before expanding that time if required.
3. It is often fine to use tertiary sources such as Wikipedia to help give you general background information, just as long as you then find the original sources and check your facts before assuming everything you have read is accurate. Lists of sources appear at the end of Wikipedia articles, and these are often of use when researching topics.
4. Use your writing centre tutors and/or librarians * to help you draw up a research plan and then use the services available to find your information. Bear in mind that if your assignment is going to be completed by a large number of classmates, your graders are likely to read similar answers again and again. By using a wider range of search facilities, you are likely to find extra information from sources that others will miss, and this should help your writing stand out.
- Note that writing tutors are a great first port of call to help you get your ideas in order, and to help you decide what it is you want to research. However, librarians are the masters of research, so booking an appointment with one who has expertise in science-related materials is a great idea. This UBC library resource contains other helpful hints for research.
5. Make short, annotated summaries of all the sources you find, as you find them. This will help you hugely when it comes to the next stages of writing, and will save you re-reading the same sources again and again to remember exactly what information each one contained. It is very difficult to recall which sources contain specific information once you have read a few, but it only takes a few minutes to write a little summary for each useful one you find.
After Researching But Before Drafting
There is a very important intermediate step before you set about drafting your piece of writing; this is to create a writing outline that will help guide your drafting. We have created a specific resource for this (see here), as well as a video that summarises some of the main concepts.
Once you have created your writing outline, you should use it to help you draft your initial piece of writing.
1. Again, set aside sufficient time to complete your first draft, and try to do so in one sitting if possible. By using your writing outline and the summaries you created for each piece of literature you found, you should find this easier than you might fear. Remember that your first draft is about getting all of your ideas onto paper in some logical structure, but it doesn’t need to be perfect at this stage. You will edit at a later stage.
2. Try to make sure that whatever you write is balanced in terms of the content depth and length. For example, if you are asked to assess the strengths and weaknesses of something, try not to draft an answer that focuses on one side considerably more than the other.
3. Don’t worry about your grammar and the little mechanics of your writing at this stage, but do worry about the content and the logic. You will find that editing will be significantly easier if the logical structure of your piece is already well defined after you have completed your first draft. Don’t be afraid to explain what seems to be obvious to make sure a reader will understand why you are introducing certain points when you do.
4. Make sure you use citations when drafting that appropriately represent the sources you have used. Even if you devise some abbreviated style of referencing for this first draft, it is important that you include this information rather than leaving it for later edits. It will take more time in the long-run if you leave it for the edit, and you will also risk misrepresenting sources as you tweak certain phrasing as part of the natural editing process.
5. Take at least 24 hours off after completing your first draft so that you can begin the editing and redrafting process with a fresh mind. Remember that it is common to produce multiple drafts before settling on a version that you will hand in, and that the biggest key to success is allowing enough time to get through each revision.
Paragraph Structure, Topic Sentences and Transitions
Even the most well-researched piece of science writing will fail to make an impact if it is not easy to read and interpret. The trick to organizing your writing is to develop a writing outline before you put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard). More information on outlines can be found on our outlining resource.
There are three key things that you can focus on to make sure that your writing is well organized. Firstly, you can split it into paragraphs based on content. Secondly, you can write effective topic sentences to kick off each paragraph with, and thirdly, you can ensure each sentence flows smoothly into the next by making sure your transitions are well chosen.
Paragraphs are extremely important components of an effectively structured piece of writing because they organize material in a way that makes it easier to follow for your readers. Structuring your writing into clear, effective paragraphs that address individual ideas will help you organize your work, which in turn gives your readers the best possible chance of understanding the points you are trying to make.
Here are some strategies for writing clear paragraphs:
- Have a clear topic sentence. Make sure that the first sentence of your paragraph clearly captures the main point of your paragraph. This establishes the topic of the paragraph and sets up the readers expectations.
- Provide evidence to fully support the main point. Each sentence in the paragraph should expand upon or support the topic sentence.
- The relationship between the topic sentence and the concluding sentence should be clear. If not, it is possible that the purpose of the paragraph may have changed midway through. If this happens, consider rewriting the topic sentence to reflect what the paragraph actually does, or breaking the paragraph into smaller parts.
An effective topic sentence should begin each new paragraph by informing your reader what the upcoming paragraph is about, and it should also link the flow of your argument from the previous paragraph to the current one. The key is to be specific enough so that a reader knows exactly what to expect, and which direction your writing is heading in, without being so specific that it only applies to part of the paragraph.
As a rough indicator of whether you have written clear topic sentences, a reader in a real hurry should be able to read these, and these only (i.e. avoid the detailed information in all the paragraphs), and still be able to understand the backbone of the argument you are making. You can do this yourself, when you have finished writing, as a guide to see whether your writing flows smoothly and follows a logical path.
Some Examples (errors and improvements)
A1 (topic sentence missing): “When cornered by a pack of wolves, even the most terrified hare will run within the closing circle, desperately seeking an escape route. Fish caught in a trawler net will swim round and round, looking for a way out. Even primitive micro-organisms will move as far away as possible from a negative stimulus, somehow conditioned to flee from impending death.”
B1 (with effective topic sentence): “There is a huge diversity of life on earth, but all organisms display a common desire to survive. When cornered by a pack of wolves, even the most terrified hare will run within the closing circle, desperately seeking an escape route. Fish caught in a trawler net will swim round and round, looking for a way out. Even primitive micro-organisms will move as far away as possible from a negative stimulus, somehow conditioned to flee from impending death.”
A2 (topic sentence does not relate closely enough to paragraph): “There is a huge diversity of life on earth, but all organisms display a common desire to survive. When cornered by a pack of wolves, even the most terrified hare will run within the closing circle, desperately seeking an escape route. Wolves co-ordinate their hunting efforts so as to increase their chances of catching prey, but those with higher social ranks earn the right to eat before their inferiors. Hares, on the other hand, typically forage for food on their own. Although they do not benefit from the increased awareness of where food might be, which would come from searching with others, they never have to share their food when they find it.”
B2 (topic sentence relates directly to paragraph): “Wolves and hares use different foraging strategies, and there are positives and negatives associated with each. Wolves co-ordinate their hunting efforts so as to increase their chances of catching prey, but food must be shared and wolves with higher social ranks earn the right to eat before their inferiors. Hares, on the other hand, typically forage for food on their own. Although they do not benefit from the increased awareness of where food might be, which would come from searching with others, they never have to share their food when they find it.”
a) Have a clear topic sentence. Make sure that the first sentence of your paragraph clearly captures the main point of your paragraph. This establishes the topic of the paragraph and sets up the reader's expectations.
- In the example excerpted from Garber (2012) below, the first sentence of the paragraph is the topic sentence. This sentence clearly introduces the topic and establishes what is going to be discussed throughout the paragraph (i.e., how human development impacts various aspects of the environment that “urban vertebrates” use.)
b) Provide evidence to fully support the main point. Each sentence in the paragraph should expand upon or support the topic sentence.
- In the excerpt below, the author uses an example to provide concrete evidence to support the main point of the paragraph.
c) The relationship between the topic sentence and the concluding sentence should be clear. If not, it is possible that the purpose of the paragraph may have changed midway through. If this happens, consider rewriting the topic sentence to reflect what the paragraph actually does, or breaking the paragraph into smaller parts
- In the particular example below, the author concludes the paragraph by clearly connecting back to and emphasizing the initial point in the first sentence.
Figure 1. Adapted from Philipp Garber, Urban Vertebrate Ecology of the Pacific Northwest, with Recommendations for Wildlife Stewardship at UBC Vancouver (Vancouver: University of British Columbia, 2012). http://dx.doi.org/10.14288/1.0108522.
A1 (Poor transitions): “Global warming will have negative consequences for polar bears. As temperatures rise they will have a smaller habitat in which to live. Also, there will be less food available for them because there will be smaller populations of krill. Polar bear populations are thus affected by the amount of ice available.”
B1 (Good transitions): “Global warming will have negative consequences for polar bears for two main reasons. Firstly, because increased temperatures cause increased melting of ice on which the bears live, there will be a reduced area in which they can live. Secondly, many species that polar bears rely on for food will be less numerous than in the past because their main food source, krill, can only breed successfully underneath ice. Therefore, the reduction of ice is the key factor in limiting polar bear populations.”
B1 is better than A1 because:
- Each transition informs the reader that a new idea is about to be elaborated on
- Each sentence begins with a ‘signpost’ that links it to the next one
- Each transition connects the points made in the whole text with one another
Organizing – Paragraph Structure, Topic Sentences and Transitions Quick Quiz
1) Below are 10 sentences that together make up a short piece of science writing. Try to split the writing into three separate paragraphs to organize it more effectively (three marks).
1Thoroughbred racehorses have been bred selectively for over 200 years. 2The breed has become faster with each passing decade. 3These horses have also become more prone to injury over time. 4To prove that they have become faster, it is easy to look in the record books and compare race times of winning horses that ran over the same distances. 5In one-mile races, which are commonly run every day, the best modern-day horses tend to finish almost two seconds faster than those racing 200 years ago. 6Two seconds might not seem that much, but it is enough to mean the best horses of the early 1800’s would struggle to compete with the slowest horses of the 2000’s. 7Horse-racing registries show that around 5 out of every 1,000 modern-day horses suffer impact injuries, such as fractures or limb soreness. 8Going back to the early 1800’s, best estimates place that number at nearer to 1 out of every 1,000. 9This is despite modern veterinary practices being considerably more advanced. 10Horses with fractured legs are routinely saved – and some even race again –10 whereas the same was not true 200 years ago.
2) Add in three topic sentences to your newly arranged three paragraphs, to make sure the reader would be well ‘sign-posted’ as to what to expect from each one (three marks).
3) Add in effective transitions throughout the whole paragraph, to make sure each sentence (and its logic) flows smoothly into the next one. For ‘grading’ purposes, you should add four transitions (four marks) between sentences in one of the paragraphs (the one that now has five sentences in it). Hint: One-word transitions and longer phrases can all be effective; the importance lies in linking the sentences together to build a cohesive story.
Quick Quiz Answer Key
To check your answers and see whether you are now a wizard at organizing your writing, and using topic sentences and transitions effectively, you should access the answer key here.
Editing, Succinctness, and Jargon
Editing, Succinctness, and Dealing with Jargon
It is always important to write things as succinctly as possible when communicating science. You will find that you can eliminate unnecessary words from your sentences when editing initial drafts, and this is one way of making sure you are writing succinctly. On this page, you can find tips for shortening sentences, as well as advice for dealing with the jargon that you will certainly have to deal with in your writing.
When editing your work, you will often find that you can make things more concise just by writing in the active voice (rather than the passive). For more information on this, see the ‘Active vs. Passive’ page on our site. It is also important to use simple words, and to remove ambiguous/confusing words from your writing when editing. For advice on this, see the ‘Clarity – Using Simple Language’ page on our site.
Making Your Sentences Succinct
The simplest way of ensuring your sentences are as succinct as possible is to make sure every single word counts. You can do this by seeing whether each sentence would have the same meaning if certain words were removed. For example, in the first sentence in this paragraph, you could remove ‘single’ and it would mean the same thing. This might not seem that important in this example, but over the course of a long piece of writing, you will be surprised by how many words you can remove.
The second thing you should do when editing your work to make it more succinct is to check the transition words and phrases that link all of the different sentences together. There is an art to this, because these transitions are critical to making sure your writing reads well and follows a logical path. However, if there are simpler, more succinct alternatives to the transitions you have used, it would be a wise idea to change them. For example, why say “Despite the fact that,” when you could simply say “Despite…”
Dealing With Jargon
Science is a subject that requires you to use a certain amount of jargon, but this is potentially very problematic when you are communicating to non-specialist audiences. As a result, it is very important that you: 1) limit its use whenever possible, and 2) explain it using simple analogies (see our ‘Using Comparisons and Descriptions’ page).
Whenever possible, try not to have more than one jargon-heavy term in a single sentence, and use parentheses and abbreviations as a way of splitting up a passage of writing around these important but confusing terms. By placing the initial explanation of a term in parentheses, it forces your reader to pay special attention to it and it also sticks out from a body of text so that it is easy for your reader to skim back to it if they need to remind themselves of the explanation later on.
In the following examples, the second (B) version provides an example of dealing with jargon present in the first (A) version, before being edited for succinctness to give a final version (C).
1A: It is within the thermosphere that ionization occurs.
1B: The thermosphere is the layer of the Earth’s atmosphere that sits just below outer space. This is the part of the atmosphere in which individual atoms and molecules become charged (due to the loss or addition of electrons).
1C: Atoms and molecules become charged (due to losing or gaining electrons) in the thermosphere (the part of the Earth’s atmosphere that sits just below outer space).
2A: Our Linear Regression Model Fitter computer programme has proved to be very effective in highlighting patterns in bacterial populations. The Linear Regression Model Fitter computer programme was used by our researchers to show that antibiotic resistance can develop within 20 generations.
2B: Our Linear Regression Model Fitter computer programme (LRMF), which compares bacterial survival rate as drug dose changes, has proved to be very effective in highlighting patterns in bacterial populations. The LRMF was used by our researchers to show that antibiotic resistance can develop within 20 generations.
2C: Our Linear Regression Model Fitter computer programme (LRMF), which compares bacterial survival rate as drug dose changes, is effective in highlighting bacterial population patterns. The LRMF showed that antibiotic resistance can develop in 20 generations.
We then suggest you complete the quick quiz (below) to see whether you have mastered some of the important skills relating to succinct writing and dealing with jargon.
Editing, Succinctness and Dealing with Jargon Quick Quiz
1) Highlight the two unnecessary words in each of the following two sentences (4 marks):
- A) Many students worry about being accused of plagiarism because writing something totally unique is pretty difficult.
- B) In reality though, they do not need to worry, as long as they do not purposefully mean to copy someone else’s work.
2) The three following sentences begin with overly wordy transitions. Replace these with succinct alternatives without changing the meaning of the sentences (3 marks).
- A) In order to credit someone else’s work properly, you need to learn how to integrate citations in your writing.
- B) In view of this requirement, you should read our guide to help you learn how to do this effectively.
- C) At the present time, students tend to over-cite, rather than under-cite material that has shaped their writing.
3) The sentence below contains some confusing jargon. Split it into two sentences (1 mark), explain one piece of jargon (1 mark), and use parentheses for the other piece (1 mark) to make the sentence less confusing (3 marks total).
The X-Ray Crystallography Callibrator is useful for determining the tertiary molecular structure of proteins, which provides us with crucial biological knowledge that can help us to design drugs that target specific proteins produced by bacteria.
Quick Quiz Answer Key
To check your answers and see whether you are now a wizard at writing succinctly and dealing with jargon, access the answer key here.
What is Plagiarism?
Put simply, using others’ ideas or words, or using their specific findings (such as results from experiments, or images/photos, or even diagrams/figures) without giving them credit in the form of a citation is plagiarism.
However, many students do not realize that they are also committing plagiarism if they copy any of these things from previous assignments (even if they are from their own previous assignments).
Additionally, you are also committing plagiarism if you copy paraphrased material from other sources (even if these are properly cited in their original format).
An Example: If you are reading a journal article written by Deane and Reilly, and in that article these authors paraphrase material from another author like this: “Nolan and O’Sullivan (2003) argued that white mice were more likely to be caught by predators than brown mice,” you must rephrase the paraphrased material from Nolan and O’Sullivan to avoid plagiarising Deane and Reilly (because it was their interpretation that Nolan and O’Sullivan had argued this point).
Finally, it is also possible to commit plagiarism by badly misinterpreting/misquoting someone when providing a citation (even if this is not purposeful). As a result, it is very important that you pay special attention to the work of others when citing it in your own work; it is very important that your paraphrased piece of writing does justice to the original material.
An Example: In this guide, we wrote that sometimes students commit plagiarism unknowingly. If someone was to credit this guide with a proper citation but paraphrased our words inaccurately, they would be plagiarising the material (e.g. “More often than not, students commit plagiarism unknowingly (UBC Science Writing, 2014)” is plagiarism, because this misrepresents what the guide says, and propagates inaccurate information among whomever reads the article).
What is Not Plagiarism?
The most common misconception relating to plagiarism is that you must cite every piece of information in your work, when in fact you only need to cite some of it (the specific, individual thoughts of others). Another common misconception is that you must write every sentence differently to how other people have done so.
The key realization that you must make – particularly with regard to the second misconception – is that you only need to rephrase original ideas or arguments, or published material cited by other people.
An Example: You need to rephrase Deane and Reilly’s paraphrased sentence referring to the work of Nolan and O’Sullivan (2003) because that was original, published material. However, if Deane and Reilly opened their article by saying that: “mice are small mammals,” you do not need to worry about writing something different to get the same point across, because this is a universally acknowledged fact (it is not an original idea of Deane and Reilly’s that you must credit them for).
This links in to the next point: You do not need to cite material that is factual (and well known), or which can be filed in the category of ‘general knowledge.’
What does and does not fall under ‘general knowledge’ can be hard to know, especially when you are starting out as a science writer, but the two key things to keep in mind are 1) the audience you are targeting, and 2) how specific your information is.
1: Your Audience: You should cite material that is unlikely to be familiar to your audience, to make sure that you do not pass off the ideas of others as your own. However, a public talk, or a journalistic article, or a presentation to high-school students will involve audiences with very different background knowledge about your subject than a presentation to specialist researchers working in the same discipline as you.
An Example: You would not need to cite Charles Darwin’s most famous work when talking to a group of evolutionary biologists about evolution (as long as you are not referring to something very specific that Darwin did or said), but if you were presenting work to those high-school students, you probably would (because they might very well not have read Origin of Species and might not realize you were talking about Darwin’s ideas if you didn’t).
2: How Specific is your Information? Even if you are talking to specialists in your field, they might not have all read the latest (or even the more obscure) published material. As such, you should cite anything that you think is very specific, because it is unlikely that it would be generally known.
An Example: You would need to cite Darwin’s most famous work if you mentioned the specific sizes of the finches’ bills in the different populations found on different islands of the Galapagos, as this is very specific information (note: Darwin proposed that birds on different islands had evolved different beak sizes, within a few mm of each other, as they became adapted to the unique food resources on each island). You would need to cite this whether you were talking to evolutionary biologists or to the high-school students because of its highly specific content.
Tips for Avoiding Plagiarism
- 1) If in doubt, cite the material (you won’t be penalized for over-citing material)
- 2) When deciding whether information is very specific, or whether your audience would consider it general knowledge, ask some friends with a variety of backgrounds and see if they already knew about the information; if they hadn’t, you should cite it
- 3) i) Summarize material when you first read it and paraphrase it yourself to avoid copying what others have written (cover up the original work before writing your own paraphrased summary)
- ii) Re-read the original material and then read your paraphrased version to make sure your version is an accurate assessment of the original thought/idea
- 4) Credit any source for images and/or figures as well as ideas (think about media and how you always see images credited)
- 5) Do not copy your own work from previous semesters or classes!
For a recap and for some extra information about avoiding plagiarism, please watch Grammar Squirrel’s video about identifying and integrating sources into your writing on the UBC Science Writing YouTube channel.
Developing Effective Writing Process
The Writing Process
Writing is not a finished product; instead, it is a process that involves several different recurring stages. The path you take through these stages will depend on your project and on your writing style, but you may find it helpful to break down the writing process into the stages of prewriting, drafting, revising, and editing.
The prewriting stage includes everything you do before writing your first draft. You may want to start with a very detailed read-through of your assignment to make sure you have a clear understanding of the purpose and requirements. Other important parts of prewriting are taking notes, brainstorming, outlining, and researching.
An outline will serve you well throughout the writing process. By outlining how you will organize and present your information, you will keep your writing structured and easy to understand for your reader. See our resource on ‘Creating and Using Writing Outlines’ and our Grammar Squirrel video on ‘Creating Writing Outlines’.
Researching is a very important part of prewriting, and you may find that it is also a component in your drafting and revising stages. As you get further into your writing project, you may realize that you need to explore more sources on a particular topic, or include a source from a different perspective. See our resources on ‘Finding Sources and Literature Searches’, ‘Identifying Different Types of Sources’, 'Integrating and Citing Sources’, and ‘Science Essay Writing – Essay Structure’.
- Questions to ask yourself:
- What do I know about this topic?
- What do I need to know or find out?
- What is my argument or thesis?
- How will I organize and structure my assignment?
During the drafting stage, you will actually begin to write! Using the outline you created in your prewriting stage, put your ideas into sentences and paragraphs and begin to explain and support them by logically providing evidence to support different claims that you make along the way. Start to connect your ideas and identify relationships between your points. Make sure you include an introduction with a clear thesis and development statement, as well as body paragraphs that focus on one main point each, and a conclusion that neatly wraps up your work.
Don’t pay attention to spelling or worry about making sure that your punctuation is correct – at this stage, you just want to get your ideas into the document (or “on paper”) in logical order.
Now that you have something to work with, you can begin to revise your assignment. This stage of the writing process is the key to making your writing effective and coherent. Carefully consider the audience and the purpose of what you are writing. Refine your sentences and paragraphs to make sure your ideas are expressed in the most concise, accurate, and organized way possible.
Once you’ve done some revising, ask a peer or a writing tutor to give you some feedback on your writing assignment. Having someone else read your work can give you valuable insight into whether you have structured your writing appropriately and expressed your thoughts clearly. When you have been working on a piece of writing for some time you are likely to think your logical development makes perfect sense, but it is only when you hear feedback from someone else that you might notice certain gaps in your development, or areas that could confuse other readers.
Another strategy to use is the post-draft outline. Go through your paper and identify the main points from each paragraph; once you have this outline of what you have actually written (vs. the plan you made at the beginning), decide whether your points are in the appropriate order and whether your thesis statement is adequately supported.
- Questions to ask yourself:
- What does my reader need to know?
- Which terms need to be defined?
- Is my organization effective?
- Does my thesis statement still reflect the rest of my paper?
Editing and Proofreading
Before you hand in your assignment, make sure you do a thorough edit of your own work as the final step to the writing process. Check your grammar, your writing mechanics, your spelling, and your transition words/phrases that link sentences together. Try reading your paper aloud to find awkward sentences or other issues, or reading your paper backwards sentence by sentence.
- Questions to ask yourself:
- Is the formatting of my paper in line with the assignment guidelines?
- Have I checked the spelling and grammar myself (beyond spell-check!)?
- Have I included my citations in the correct format?
This resource was adapted from: