Introduction to Writing In Chemistry
Entering a lab-based class for the first time can be intimidating. This intimidation is only incensed by the requirement of a weekly lab report. Most students upon entering college have had little experience in writing formal science documents such as lab reports and are overwhelmed by the specific terminology and structure these reports necessitate and the analysis of results that must also be included. This page can be used as a tool for students unfamiliar with both the structure and materials required in lab reports for chemistry courses. It also will serve as a reference to students who have specific questions about this style of writing.
Unlike other styles, writing in Chemistry does not generally involve brainstorming, outlining, or other organizational processes highlighted in many writing handbooks. Since the lab report is separated into sections and each section requires very specific information, an infusion of creative rhetoric techniques is not necessary. Thus, the techniques required for this style of writing are very directive rather than facilitative, as referenced in Straub's article "Concept of Control in Teacher Response." There is little room for anything outside of what is asked for in each section. Though organization is important, since it is already predetermined for lab reports, less time is spent determining how to structure the work. The section requiring the most amount of planning is the discussion component.
Writing in Chemistry differs greatly from writing in Biology. Do not assume that the structure of a Chemistry lab report follows the structure of writing completed for a Biology course. Instead of creating a long narrative that describes every single aspect of the experimental process, a chemistry lab report is meant to be as concise as possible. Each section should be written in as compact and detailed a manner as possible. As noted by Dr. Michael Leopold, a Chemistry professor at the University of Richmond, it is more about choosing quality details to include within the body of your work than the length of the report overall. He finds from his work in lab-based courses that it is important for students to learn first which details to include within the body of their work and second how to write out these details in a clear, succinct manner (for details on how to read journal articles with an eye for the most important information to facilitate this process, see Dr. Bishop's "Questions About a Journal Article.") It is also important to note that, unlike Biology lab reports, first person is not used. Though this task is at first daunting, when you know the correct information to provide and the general format and structure, the process becomes much easier.
While in the midst of your experiment, remember to record observations of what occurs during the experiment and any values that you will need later. These observations and values should be recorded in your lab notebook; a carbon copy of your notes should be attached to your final lab report. Any calculations you make in regards to your data values should also be written in your lab notebook and attached to your lab report.