Department of Chemistry

Writing in Chemistry

Writing in the Chemistry Curriculum


This overview includes a statement of the Chemistry Department's policy on writing in the laboratory courses, followed by descriptions of the writing requirements in each course. These writing requirements are designed to build, over the three or four years of chemistry course work, skill in scientific writing and reporting.

An important goal of the chemistry program is to help you, the chemistry student, develop the skills of writing about chemistry; keeping laboratory records; and reporting the results of laboratory measurements, literature searches, and theoretical analyses. To help you develop these skills, the Chemistry Department requires a graduated series of writing exercises in the laboratory courses, culminating with the requirement of full, publication-like reports of experimental work carried out in the advanced lab courses. While the exact format of the full reports is left to the discretion of individual instructors, all formats will include at least the following parts: a brief abstract of the experimental project and its most important results; description of methods and materials; presentation of results, including tables and graphs of data; discussion and interpretation of results (including analysis of uncertainty), with appropriate conclusions drawn and justified; and list of references cited in the report. The aim of writing exercises in the lower-division courses is to build, step by step, the skills that you will need in order to write each part of a full report.

Work submitted to fulfill writing requirements should conform to the standard of Edited Standard Written English. They should be examples of your best writing, prepared with the same care that you would take in a writing course. Choose words with precision and spell them correctly. Construct sentences that are logical and grammatically correct. Develop only a single topic in each paragraph. Arrange paragraphs in sensible order. Shortcomings in these areas will lower the grade. At least for the first one or two assignments of each type, the instructor will return unsatisfactory work, with suggestions, and the student will revise and resubmit the work until it is satisfactory.

The Goals of Writing

As you undertake the writing exercises in each course, remember these points about the aims and goals of writing:

  1. Writing is important in all areas of scientific work, because your results have no value unless you share them with other workers
  2. Writing is more than a means of displaying what you know. Writing is a means of learning. As you "write up" laboratory work, you fill in gaps in your understanding, draw logical conclusions from results, discover limitations of instruments and data, and formulate explanations for the behavior of the system under study. The resulting increase in your knowledge and understanding is a product of writing about the subject. Writing is part and parcel of the learning that begins, but is not completed, in the lab.
  3. Writing is a means of eliminating distractions. It forces you to push away the irrelevant and to gather the relevant, and then to concentrate on the subject until you understand it in detail.
  4. Writing entails revision. Even the best writers cannot produce a final draft on the first try. You must alternately write, edit, rewrite, edit, rewrite.... The first draft is never the final draft.
  5. Improving your writing is a life-long process that moves forward only if you practice. Short-term improvement in writing is often almost imperceptible. Long- term improvement will never occur unless you write often.

Writing Requirements in Chemistry Courses

The writing exercises that lead up to and foster the skills required for full reports are as follows:

CHY 114 - Laboratory Techniques I
Writing Exercise: Abstracts, Lab notebooks

In addition to the tabulations of data and calculated results on lab-report forms usually required for all experiments in this course, you will write at least three abstracts of experiments, beginning about midway through the semester. Before the first abstract is assigned, instructors will provide two or three examples of abstracts written for previous experiments in the course, thus allowing you to study exemplary abstracts of familiar experiments. Guidelines for abstracts are included in syllabi for CHY 114 and CHY 116.

CHY 116 - Laboratory Techniques II
Writing Exercise: Abstracts, Lab notebooks

In this course, you will write two or three additional abstracts during the first half of the semester, to reinforce the skill developed in CHY 114. When the qualitative analysis project begins, near mid semester, you will obtain from the bookstore a standard lab notebook. For the remainder of the semester (and throughout all subsequent chemistry labs), you will maintain records of your laboratory work. Basic guidelines for lab notebooks are included in syllabi for CHY 116. (More extensive guidelines will be introduced in CHY 252. See below.) When this requirement begins, your instructor will provide examples of proper record keeping. Instructors will examine the notebooks periodically and suggest how they should be improved. Instructors will give a final grade on the lab notebook, based primarily on entries made after the first one or two periodic evaluations./P>

CHY 232 - Analytical Chemistry
Writing Exercise: Analysis of Error

In this course, you will encounter some of the most rigorous quantitative methods of chemical analysis. As part of your reports of results, where appropriate, you will write up analyses of experimental uncertainty as if for inclusion in a published paper in which the tolerances of measurement are an important part of the findings. Guidelines and examples of such analyses are included in the syllabus for CHY 232.

CHY 252 - Organic Chemistry Laboratory
Writing Exercise: Lab notebooks

Throughout this course and all subsequent chemistry lab courses, you will be expected to maintain lab notebooks according to the basic guidelines provided in CHY 116. More extensive guidelines, along with examples, are included in the syllabus for CHY 252. Instructors will examine the notebooks periodically and suggest how they should be improved. Instructors will give a final grade on the lab notebook, based primarily on entries made after the first one or two periodic evaluations.

CHY 254 - Organic Chemistry Laboratory II
Writing Exercise: Procedures

The qualitative organic analysis project, which constitutes most of this course, entails devising strategies for identifying organic compounds. As part of this project, you will write two or three procedures based on the methods you used to identify specific unknowns. These procedures will be similar to the "Experimental" or "Materials and Methods" sections of published research papers, with the intended audience being scientists wishing to use your procedures in their own work. Guidelines and examples are included in the syllabus for CHY 254.

CHY 372 - Physical Chemistry Laboratory Writing Exercise: Results

In the first lab reports of CHY 372, the instructor will emphasize presentation of data and calculated results in writing, as well as in tables, graphs, and illustrations. You will be introduced to computer programs such as Cricket Graph, which assist you in presenting and analyzing data. As part of two or three lab reports, you will present results as if for a published paper. Guidelines and examples are included in the syllabus for CHY 372.

All other upper-division lab courses
Writing Exercise: Discussions, Full publication-like reports

In all advanced laboratory courses not mentioned above, you will write at least two or three discussions of results, in which you present theoretical explanations for the observed behavior of the system under study. In addition, you will write at least one full report containing abstract, procedures, results, discussion, and a list of cited sources. The exact format of the full report, including the discussion section, is up to the instructor, and there will be no effort to standardize the format, except that instructors will try to build upon the experience you have gained in previous writing exercises. (The intentional lack of a standard is realistic in that all journals, and probably all employers, will have their own arbitrary standards, to which all contributors must conform.) The instructor will provide guidelines and examples when the first reports are assigned. Examples will usually be exemplary reports written by students in previous years.

Appendix 1
Edited Standard Written English (ESWE)

(Adapted from material provided by Barbara E. Walvoord, Professor of English, University of Notre Dame)

I. Introduction

Suppose a group of people were living on a small island, all using the same forms of language, until one day the island broke in two, separated by impassable rough water. In 100 years, would the people on both halves still use the same language forms? No. Human language is always changing. Language on the each half of the island would evolve with different forms and rules; neither would be "better" in any absolute sense -- just different.

Similarly, in the U.S., language variations have developed among people separated by culture or geography. However, a common societal pattern is that the ruling class imposes its dialect on everyone else. In the U.S., the "standard" dialect is the dialect of the white middle and upper classes. Dialects developed by people of color and by people who have been poor or geographically isolated (as in Appalachia) are often incorrectly considered "bad" English. But actually such forms are different, not "bad." Each dialect has its own rules and its own uses.

One of the tasks of a good education is to make you aware of these facts about language. Another task of education, however, is to prepare you to function effectively in the world where readers generally expect you to control Edited Standard Written English (ESWE). Thus, in most university courses, you must master and use ESWE in formal writing.

II. ESWE in Chemistry Courses at USM

On finished, final, formal papers, in order to receive a passing grade, you must have no more than an average of 2 departures from ESWE per page, in any combination of the following areas:

  • all quoted material enclosed in quotation marks
  • spelling (a typo is a misspelling)
  • end of sentence punctuation (avoid run-on, comma splice, fragment, or misuse of semicolon). Note: Occasionally, you may use a fragment or comma splice for a special effect. Show that you are conscious of the departure by labeling it "ESWE departure for special effect" in the margin.
  • verb forms (use ESWE forms of lie, lay, etc., and ESWE rules for adding -ed and -s, using helping verbs, etc.)
  • verb tense (avoid confusing shifts in verb tense)
  • agreement of subject and verb
  • pronoun form (use ESWE rules to choose between I and me, she and her, who and whom, etc.)
  • agreement of pronoun with antecedent (the antecedent is the word the pronoun refers to)
  • apostrophe, -s, -es
  • sentence sense (words omitted, scrambled, or incomprehensible)

Different chemistry instructors may have different policies on how ESWE affects your grades. Commonly, for the first one or two writing assignments of a specific type (such as an abstract), if your paper contains excessive departures from ESWE, your instructor will return it ungraded for you to improve and resubmit. After this trial period, papers with excessive departures from ESWE may receive a failing grade.

NOTE that this policy applies only to finished, final, formal writing. In informal writing, such as keeping records in a laboratory notebook, it is perfectly legitimate to pay less attention to ESWE conventions and to focus instead on structure and content. Be sure you know your instructor's policies for each type of writing assignment.

Appendix 2
Writing and Computer Assignments in Chemistry Laboratory Courses.

We are currently developing a computing-across-the-curriculum policy in parallel to the writing policy. This table shows the types of both writing and computing assignments in our courses.

Writing and Computer Assignments in Chemistry Laboratory Courses
Course Writing Component Technology Component
CHY 114
Laboratory Techniques I
  • Abstracts
  • Word Processing
  • Spreadsheet/Graphing Programs
  • Simple Molecular Modeling Programs
CHY 116
Laboratory Techniques II
  • Abstracts
  • Laboratory Notebooks
  • Word Processing
  • Spreadsheet/Graphing Programs
CHY 232
Analytical Laboratory
  • Propagation of Error
  • Laboratory Notebooks
  • Word Processing
  • Advanced Spreadsheet, including Calculations, Statistics, Graphing, and Curve-Fitting Analysis
CHY 252 & 254
Organic Laboratory I & II
  • Laboratory Notebooks
  • Procedures
  • Molecular Modeling Programs
  • Internet Tools
CHY 362 & 364
Biochemistry Laboratory
  • Results
  • Discussion and Interpretation
  • Complete Report in Publication Form
  • Word Processing
  • Advanced Spreadsheet, Including Calculations, Statistics, Graphing, and Curve-Fitting Analysis
  • Advanced Molecular Modeling Programs
  • Computerized Data Collection
  • Internet Tools
CHY 372 & 374
Physical Chemistry Laboratory I & II
  • Peer Review Process
  • Complete Report in Publication Form
  • Poster Presentations
  • Word Processing
  • Presentation Software
  • Advanced Spreadsheet
CHY 378
Instrumental Analysis Laboratory
  • Results
  • Discussion and Interpretation
  • Complete Report in Publication Form
  • Word Processing
  • Advanced Spreadsheet
  • Advanced Molecular Modeling Programs
CHY 401
Senior Seminar
  • Analysis and Summary of Primary Literature
  • On-line Searching

Computer Programs by Category

Word Processing
Microsoft Word
Word Perfect
Microsoft Excel
Cricket Graph
Molecular Modeling
Advanced Molecular Modeling
Internet Molecular Modeling
On-Line Searching
Carl's Uncover
STN Express

Appendix 3
Sections of a Complete Laboratory Report

  • Abstract
  • Introduction
  • Experimental Procedures
  • Results
  • Discussion
  • References

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