Advice to students writing science essays and answering exams

I’ve just come off the back of marking a quite sizeable pile of exams and coursework for my job. While I have done bits in the past (and earlier this year) this was the first time I had to deal with a large and concerted mass of the two and it allowed me to spot a series of things that irked me. While I am easily irked, the issue is not trivial, good clear writing is essential to communicate your ideas and if you are not doing that right, then this is a problem. It matters not that this is zoology or even biology, in any job or field, precise communication is critical. And not just accuracy but ease of reading – the information can be 100% accurate but if it’s buried in waffle or phrased badly it makes it hard to follow.

I know that I have a fair few regular student readers on here and others find me on occasion so I hope this will be useful. I’m only sorry I wasn’t able to think of this before the last round of exams or this might have been posted in a rather more timely occasion. So, here’s a few things I kept seeing that I’d quite happily never see again. They are all stylistic and people would probably not mark you down for using them, but they are at best, clumsy and inelegant and you want your work to appear astute and well produced. Helping someone to follow the thread of your work and ideas when they are reading their 37th five page long essay on the subject will help your cause.

–       Long and flowery introductions. There is noting wrong at all with a bit of craft to your writing (indeed, it is a good thing) and a little (a little) hyperbole can be good. But having to read a whole half a page before we get anywhere with actual detail is pointless and especially so in an exam. I don’t want, nor need to be told about how magnificent birds are and how they being joy to all who behold them. Write about them.

–       Repeating the question. It if helps you to focus, then feel free to write out the question before answering it. But if the question is “Define the 4 features of X and why their function is important”, don’t write “X has 4 main features, and their functions are important. These are…”. I know there are 4 and they are important, it’s the damned question!

–       The I’s have it. Science is really supposed to be about dispassionate reporting. Don’t talk about yourself. “I think”, “I am saying”, “I will show that”. Even when a question says something like “What do you interpret Smith et al.’s 2004 paper to mean….” you can avoid the first person. Say “It can be shown” or “This can be interpreted to mean”. It’s obviously your interpretation, you are writing it.

–       Don’t describe what you are describing. This seems to go hand-in-hand with the point above. I read far too many things that went “I will now describe the following features of X”. This sentence is pretty much absolutely redundant. Just describe X.

–       An alternative version of this is repeating information in reverse. Where it is pertinent, there’s nothing wrong with reminding the reader of a key point later in the answer. But writing “There are four feature of X” describing them and finishing with “…and these are the four features of X” at the end of the same 2 or 3 sentence paragraph is nonsense. I even saw it done in the same sentence a few times.

–       Try to avoid repetition of phrases. I lost count of people who needing to make similar points over a number of paragraphs would start each section with “Another point / idea / function is…”. About the 4th time you read that it gets very, very boring. Just add a smidge of style. “A further function is”, “The next function to be considered is”, “X is another key function, “In addition, function X”, “Furthermore, X” and so on.

–       Avoid ‘believe’ like the plague. Ideas can be supported, though of, understood to be, have a consensus behind, be agreed upon and others, but not believed. Yes, the vernacular use is one of genera “I accept that” but it really should be kept out of science. It’s even worse when you say it about other people “Smith et al. believe that X…”. Not they don’t, on the balance of the evidence, that’s the hypothesis they support.

–       Unsuitable anthropomorphism or odd terms. Something like an ankylosaur was slow, and heavy, and didn’t move very fast. But to call it ‘ponderous’, ‘clumsy’ or ‘lumbering’ is to give it something close to emotive or descriptive characters that just aren’t suitable for animals.

And finally, on a related note, answer the question. That one really seems to have gone past far too many people.

14 Responses to “Advice to students writing science essays and answering exams”

  1. 1 forgottengenius 25/05/2011 at 8:45 am

    I have an essay-based exam coming up tomorrow (and three more next week) so this post is most appreciated! It’s all commonsensical advice, but really, one’s mind often needs refreshing on even the most mundane of topics! For example, as a student, it’s easy to forget the poor people who have to mark a hundred or so exam scripts. (I don’t envy you!) Now, I do have to admit to having committed a few of the above errors in the past, especially the flowery bit. OnO; I shall consider the sanity of my lecturers the next time I sit down to write an introduction, indeed!

    But there is a difference between writing an essay with a fortnightly deadline, and writing four essays in three hours. Usually, I find writing a very creative process — i.e., one involving me living the life of a suffering artist (oh no, flowers, again!) before inspiration strikes. I presume writing up an article is somewhat similar. Under exam conditions, however, essays don’t come easily to me. And that’s when I commit the above-listed errors. But it’s nice of you to point them out; I feel faculty doesn’t communicate enough with students.

    I’m sorry, this comment is almost a blog post of its own. My sincere apologies. But before I bring it to a close, I have to raise an issue that irks me as a student: essays scoring ~70% that receive only positive feedback and an “Excellent”. Obviously it’s not “excellent” as 1/3 of the mark was not awarded~.

    • 2 David Hone 25/05/2011 at 9:57 am

      No that’s all good thanks. And yes, exam essays are very different to ‘normal’ essays. But the smae rules apply and the more of them you can stick to, the better both will look and hopefully the more marks you’ll get (or the less excuses people have to take them off).

  2. 3 Mike Taylor 25/05/2011 at 8:56 am

    Lots of good stuff here, Dave. But:

    “The I’s have it. Science is really supposed to be about dispassionate reporting. Don’t talk about yourself. “I think”, “I am saying”, “I will show that”. Even when a question says something like “What do you interpret Smith et al.’s 2004 paper to mean….” you can avoid the first person. Say “It can be shown” or “This can be interpreted to mean”. It’s obviously your interpretation, you are writing it.”

    Why? Why is “it can be shown that” better than “I will show”? It’s longer, less direct and no more informative — in fact, it’s LESS informative, since it doesn’t say that it WILL be shown, or by whom.

    I know this sort of passive-voice writing has a long tradition in scientific writing, but so far as I can see that’s all it is — tradition, with no actual rationale. It seems particularly stupid that no-one bats an eyelid when it’s plural (“we will show”) but only when it’s singular (“I will show”), and one of the things I like about Matt’s recent papers is his ignoring this convention.

    • 4 David Hone 25/05/2011 at 9:55 am

      Mike, I sort of agree. There is a place for ‘I’s in science writing, but only when it is directly relevant. Writing “Hone (2009) showed that…” is odd, and “in 2009 I showed that…” is better.

      Bust the vast majority of the time it’s just an irrelevance – I know it was you who did it, you are writing this. If noting else, whether you like it or not, it *is* the consensus on how this should be done and if you are the only one bucking the trend it looks odd. If you are going to do that, you should at least know and understand what it is that you are bucking and why, and I think it fair to say that’s not really true of most student work.

      Alos, I suppose it does help lend a note of dispassion about the writing and that is, on average, a good thing in my opinion.

      • 5 Mike Taylor 25/05/2011 at 10:00 am

        OK, I guess you are mostly talking about essays where people write “in my opinion, X” rather than just “X”.

        Which means that this point, like so many of the others you mention, comes from the same place: padding. Your pet hates nearly all seem to be lame tricks that students use to stretch their answers out to an acceptable length when they don’t actually have enough to say.

      • 6 David Hone 25/05/2011 at 12:06 pm

        There is a lot in that Mike, but critically, a lot of the time I don’t think they even know they are doing it, or we would rather they didn’t.

      • 7 Mike Taylor 25/05/2011 at 12:14 pm

        I had a another though on why the use of “I” could be a red flag (as opposed to always an necessarily being wrong, which I now realise is not what you were saying). “I” often heralds the appearance of opinions rather than facts. As in “I believe that birds are descended from dinosaurs” as opposed to “Livezey and Zusi (2006) reaffirmed that birds are descended from dinosaurs”.

      • 8 David Hone 25/05/2011 at 12:23 pm

        Yes and that is annoying and a real issue.

  3. 9 David 25/05/2011 at 11:21 am

    There seems to be a difference between UK and American English style. In the US, passive voice is to be avoided at all costs. My PhD committee continually criticized me for using the passive tense (I moved from the UK to the US to do my PhD). In British English it is less of a problem. I know you are in Ireland so this isn’t all that relevant, but I think there’s nothing wrong with writing “I” in a scientific paper.

    • 10 David Hone 25/05/2011 at 12:05 pm

      Well I don;t think it’s *wrong* as such, but where possible I wouldn’t use it. So If it’s the best thing to do, then use it, but don’t put it in gratuitiously.

    • 11 Kilian Hekhuis 26/05/2011 at 12:26 pm

      Just to nitpick: “passive” is not a tense, it’s a voice.

  4. 12 Lockwood 26/05/2011 at 2:29 am

    One other bit of advice for students: take 15-30 seconds (that is literally all it takes) to scribble an outline in the margin, especially for extended essays. Obviously, questions of the type “name four features of X and their importance” carry an implicit outline of their own. But as a student it frustrated me to find my points and ideas scattered all over the place in an essay, and frankly, as an instructor having to spend hours grading the things, it was even more frustrating. A quick and dirty outline doesn’t need to lock you into a form if you realize something else needs to be added later. But spending just a few seconds to focus on your organization can really help focus and clarify your writing under circumstances that are conducive to neither focus nor clarity.

  5. 13 Maija Karala 26/05/2011 at 9:51 pm

    Ah. All my problems in scientific writing in one, elegant list. Thanks – now I can tell people what’s wrong with me. 🙂

    I study biology, but I’m a journalist at heart. I love unsuitable anthropomorphism, odd terms, flowery introductions and hyperbole. It’s probably be pretty frustrating to read to someone who just wants the facts and not to be entertained. My thesis advisor must have a hard time trying to weed out all the weird wanderings and playing with words… Poor guy.

  6. 14 Barbara Ballentine 21/01/2013 at 11:14 pm

    Thank you for this very nice summary of good writing advice that I intend to pass onto my students. However, I would like to make on important point about using the passive voice versus active voice. Active voice is preferred when writing methods sections of papers because it is more accurate than passive voice. It is more precise to say “I/we performed X method.” than to say “X method was performed.” The passive form of the statement leaves questions in the readers mind, which you have so nicely pointed out is to be avoided.

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