Important Writing Tips

Your report will be easier to read and understand if you follow these tips and try to conform to the accepted style of scientific writing that is required for scientific papers. Conformity can be a good thing if it increases communication!
  1. PROOF READ and then have your friends PROOF READ your report before submitting it for assessment.
  2. Be concise! Avoid boring the reader with verbiage (wordiness).
  3. Avoid subjective judgements and argue only on the basis of results of your study or those of others.
  4. When in doubt, find an example in a recent journal.
  5. Keep the paper formal; what may seem amusing to you at the time of writing probably won’t be amusing to the reader.
  6. Make sure that you are using the correct form of words. When in doubt, use a dictionary, thesaurus, or other source. The English language is rich in words. There is likely a single word to describe the idea.
  7. Proper report formatting accounts for a large part of the mark of a paper. Formatting marks are easy to receive; just follow the instructions!
  8. Incorrect spelling results in the loss of marks. Spell check is not enough! PROOF READ! e.g. then ≠ than, preformed ≠ performed
  9. Poor grammar results in the loss of marks. PROOF READ!
  10. Do not assume every unexpected result is a sampling error without considering other possibilities.
  11. Do not ramble on about unrelated or irrelevant topics; stick to the primary aim(s) and objective(s) of the study
  12. Try not to end sentences with prepositions (e.g. instead of “Which department is he in?” use “He is in which department?”, or “In which department is he?”)
  13. Put yourself in the position of the person reading and marking your report!
  14. Many students make the mistake of putting too many ideas and issues in one paragraph; a good rule is “one idea or issue, one paragraph”, with paragraphs structured in a logical sequence
    1. Generally, a paragraph contains more than one sentence!
    2. Restrict sentences to just one idea and keep sentences short.
    3. Logically connect each section, paragraph, phrase, etc., and don’t repeat information.
Grammar, spelling, and Websites
There is still some controversy within particular grammatical areas, and differences between British, Canadian, and American spelling of certain English words. Still, there is a tremendous amount of information on the Internet that is useful and that is generally in agreement. It cannot be stressed enough to have a quick read over some of these Websites to familiarize yourself with some of the common pitfalls in writing so you do not become a victim!
  2. (includes a thesaurus)
Singular and plural words


Singular Plural
datum data
stoma stomata
bacterium bacteria
epididymis epididymides
taxon taxa
testis testes
genus genera
alveolus alveoli


Significant Digits, Measurements and Counts
When using instruments to measure specimens, you cannot be more precise than ½ of the smallest measurement division (e.g. using a rule with 1 mm divisions, you cannot be more precise than ½ mm. If the measurement is more than 3 mm, but less than 4 mm, then 3.5 mm would be the most precise reading). When counting it is sometimes impossible to have a fractional quantity (e.g. when counting breaths during exercise, you cannot take ½ a breath).
Significant digits, or significant figures as they are sometimes referred, can be confusing. If you write 0.1386 it means you are confident that the value is between 0.13855 and 0.13865. Are you? Are you more confident that it is 0.139?   0.14?  0.1? A related issue is what you are comparing this number to, and what you want to communicate. Are you comparing 1000 and 0.1, or 0.14 and 0.13? If you are doing the former, 0.1 suffices no matter how confident you are. The number of significant digits you report will depend on the number of significant digits in the data.
An introductory set of rules for significant digits is presented below (modified from, 2006).
When are Digits Significant?
Non-zero digits are always significant. Thus, 22 has two significant digits, and 22.3 has three significant digits.
With zeroes, the situation is more complicated:
  1. Zeroes placed before other digits are not significant; 0.046 has two significant digits.
  2. Zeroes placed between other digits are always significant; 4009 kg has four significant digits.
  3. Zeroes placed after other digits but behind a decimal point are significant; 7.90 has three significant digits.
  4. Zeroes at the end of a number are significant only if they are behind a decimal point as in (c). Otherwise, it is impossible to tell if they are significant. For example, in the number 8200, it is not clear if the zeroes are significant or not. The number of significant digits in 8200 is at least two, but could be three or four. To avoid uncertainty, use scientific notation to place significant zeroes behind a decimal point: 8.200 x 103 has four significant digits, 8.20 x 103 has three significant digits, and 8.2 x 103 has two significant digits.
Significant Digits in Multiplication, Division, Trig. functions, etc.
In a calculation involving multiplication, division, trigonometric functions, etc., the number of significant digits in an answer should equal the least number of significant digits in any one of the numbers being multiplied, divided etc.
Thus in evaluating condition factor (weight x length) where weight = 0.097 Kg (two significant digits) and length = 4.73 mm (three significant digits), the answer should have two significant digits.
Note that whole numbers have essentially an unlimited number of significant digits. As an example, if a hair dryer uses 1.2 kW of power, then 2 identical hairdryers use 2.4 kW:
1.2 kW {2 sig. dig.} x 2 {unlimited sig. dig.} = 2.4 kW {2 sig. dig.}
Significant Digits in Addition and Subtraction
When quantities are being added or subtracted, the number of decimal places (not significant digits) in the answer should be the same as the least number of decimal places in any of the numbers being added or subtracted.
Common Writing Problems
the - This is the definite article, and implies that you are referring to a single, specific entity. Before inserting “the”, make sure it is the correct article, AND that you even need it. 
pronouns such as "they" or “it” - Often ambiguous; should be used only when it is clear to what they refer.
between vs. among - “between” is used when comparing 2 items, “among” for more than 2
possessives - “Dave’s peeves include improper use of the possessive.”  If there were many Daves that shared this peeve, you would write “Daves’ peeves.”  In NO case, would you write “Daves peeves”; if there was someone named “Daves” you would write “Daves’s peeve was his name”.
colons, semi-colons, and “however” - If two parts of a sentence can stand as full sentences on their own, separate them with a semi-colon instead of a comma.  This occurs most often with the word “however”, which almost always needs commas or semi-colons around it.  Here are two subtle differences in the use of “however” that require different punctuation:Dave was peeved; however, he said nothing. He said nothing.  Dave was, however, peeved.
in order to - replace with “to”.
sight, site, cite - Know the difference among these words.
as - Although the word “as” can legitimately be used in place of “because”, it can be confusing because it can imply the passing of time (e.g., “as the stomach is lined …” vs. “because the stomach is lined …”).
The dash, or em dash, is a literary tool; it generally is inappropriate for scientific writing.
its vs. it’s - “its” is the possessive; “it’s” is a contraction of “it is”
affect vs. effect - The former is always a verb, the latter usually a noun.  Check a dictionary if you’re uncertain.
data - “data” is the plural of “datum”.  “These data reveal that …”
sequence - Define terminology and abbreviations the FIRST time they appear in your assignment.
table alignment - It is more difficult to see patterns in tables if decimal places are not lined up in columns.
“seemed to” or “appeared to” - very unscientific; did your data go one way or the other? 
Editorial Notation

With the advent of ‘track changes’ and ‘insert comment’ in word processors, editorial notation has become less used in some courses. However, when marking printed reports, each faculty member will employ some abbreviations for editorial comments. 

Directional and Positional Terms

When dissecting specimens and making observations on dissected and intact specimens, there are common terms that will help you to describe the various parts in their respective and relational positions. Any reference to the right or left refers to the specimen’s right or left, not your own.


Table 4. Directional and positional terms used in Biology

Position Definition
anterior the forward-moving or head end of a bilaterally symmetrical animal, or toward that end
posterior the tail end or toward the tail end
cranial head or front end
caudal tail or back end
dorsal upper side or back
ventral under side or belly
lateral on or toward one side
medial on, near or toward the midline
proximal nearer to the place of attachment; toward the central part of the body away from the place of attachment; toward the periphery or extremities of the body
superficial region on or near the surface
peripheral toward the outside
longitudinal (anterioposterior) a line extending down the centre of the body from head to tail
superior toward the head end of a bipedal organism (i.e., a human)
inferior toward the end of a bipedal organism (i.e., a human)


transverse section,
cross section,
transverse plane
a plane cutting vertically across the body at right angles to the longitudinal axis
sagittal section,
sagittal plane
a vertical longitudinal plane through the body, this plane runs from the dorsal to the ventral side and extends forward and backward parallel to the long axis
frontal section, horizontal section,
frontal plane
a horizontal longitudinal plane through the body
Course Specific Instructions
BIOL 1110L and 1120L
Materials and Methods
A bulleted list in several columns of materials is acceptable
Results Formatting
Include an appendix of all raw data, formulae and calculations, and entitle the section “Observations”.
BIOL 2013
Materials & Methods Formatting
You will not repeat the materials and methods contained within the lab manual. However, you must ask the reader to refer to the pages in your manual that are relevant to your experiment. Write out any changes or additions made to your materials or methods, and point out unknown used during the experiment. Do not forget to cite the manual.
Only include raw data if requested.
BIOL 2053
Materials & Methods Formatting
You will not repeat the materials and methods contained within the lab manual. However, you will write out the problem-solving experiment. You must ask the reader to refer to the pages in your manual that are relevant to your experiment. If there were any changes or additions made to your materials or methods, you must add these changes. Do not forget to cite the manual.
Reference Formatting
In the microbiology lab, you must use the ASM numbered referencing system as outlined in Appendix A. Alphabetize your list of references and then number the list when you have finished preparing your report and use the number to refer to the source.
Dr. Shutler’s Courses
You will be provided with a handout with specific details that may differ from the instructions provided herein.